Wednesday, August 10, 2011

600-year-old artifact found in Hells Canyon

A hiker stumbled upon a really old piece of Idaho history in Hells Canyon. Now, archaeologists know just how old it is. It dates back centuries.

"We know that people have lived in Idaho for at least 130 centuries," said State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid.

And those people left evidence of their lives. Their artwork in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs decorates the rocks and cliffs in Hells Canyon. Their house pits sit in neighborhoods along the banks of the Snake River.

Hells Canyon is beautiful. It's also rich in history.

"There's an intact outdoor museum really of Idaho's past that survives," said Dr. Reid.

A hiker found part of that surviving past under a rock pile under a rock ledge made by a huge boulder.

"It was a perfect place to get some shade on a hot hike down the Snake River Trail," Reid said.

In March of 2008, the hiker found a cache of Nez Perce textiles made of cedar bark. Idaho State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid and a team of researchers excavated the site. Reid believes the materials would have been woven into a mat or basket. His theory is that a Nez Perce woman placed the bundle under the stones for safekeeping.

"Presumably the woman who did it expected to come back and retrieve it at some point in the future," Reid said. "And for whatever reason, did not."

The researchers did retrieve it and sent it off to find out how old it is. After a couple more years of fundraising, finding volunteer help and testing, they recently got their answer.

"The basket was left there some time between A.D. 1395 and 1435," said Dr. Reid.

Dr. Reid says two carbon dates put the bundle at nearly 600 years old. In other words, the Nez Perce woman placed it there at least 60 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Dr. Reid calls the discovery unprecedented. He said no textiles of any kind had ever been found in Hells Canyon before this.

"It was exciting," said Dr. Reid. "You don't find things like this often enough."

Researchers at Washington State University are studying the textiles now. Dr. Reid ultimately hopes the materials will be displayed at the Nez Perce Museum in Spalding in Northern Idaho, which he says has facilities to preserve the perishable, fragile fragment of the past. The bundle belongs to the Forest Service, but he believes it belongs in Idaho.

Along with the bundle of textiles, Dr. Reid says they also found what they believe is a wooden weaving tool and a foot long stone pestle that would have been used to crush roots or other food.

Petcash, Doug. 2011. "600-year-old artifact found in Hells Canyon". NWCN. Posted: July 22, 2011. Available online:

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