THE ANCIENT MAYAN CIVILIZATION INCLUDED PARTS OF WHAT IS NOW MEXICO, GUATEMALA, BELIZE, HONDURAS AND EL SALVADOR. AN ARTICLE IN YESTERDAY'S STYLE SECTION DESCRIBED ITS BOUNDARIES INCORRECTLY. (PUBLISHED 09/09/99)
One of the most remarkable Indian museums in the United States opened on June 1 in this tiny, remote reservation village in the northwestern-most corner of the continental United States.
The $2-million Makah Cultural and Research Center houses the most comprehensive collection of artifacts of a pre-European-contact Indian culture ever discovered in the United States. On exhibit are many of 80,000 objects recovered so far from the Indian whaling village known as Ozette that was buried in a massive mud slide 460 years ago 14 miles south of Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula. Archeologists call Ozette the "Pompeii of the West."
"It's a Pompeii in mud instead of volcanic ash," explained archeologist Richard D. Daugherty, 57, director of the Ozette expedition and head of the Washington Archeological Research Center of Washington State University.
"The preservation is better at Ozette than at Pompeii. A coastal cliff collapsed, covering several huge communal cedar houses in a sea of mud sealing off all oxygen, entombing the village for 4 1/2 centuries.
"Here we have everything that was happening and in existence in the early 1500s in the Indian village perfectly preserved, even perishable things just as they were when the mud slide swallowed the village."
Ozette has been heralded as one of the most significant archeological sites ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere. The whale-hunting Makahs who lived at Ozette when the slide occurred had an incredible degree of sophistication. Art permeated every facet of life. Found encased in clay in the buried homes have been thousands of household items, tools, weapons and walls elaborately carved and inlaid with seal and sea otter teeth.
There were also Indian remains found, but the Indians do not want to talk about the subject for religious reasons, and archeologists have agreed not to publish anything about that aspect of the discovery.
It was in February 1970, that Daugherty received an urgent phone call from Ed Clapianhoo, then chairman of the Makah Tribal Council. The 1,000 Makah Indians living on the 45-square-mile reservation fish and cut timber for a livelihood.
"Dr. Daugherty, you must come to Neah Bay and Ozette," Clapianhoo told the archeologist, who was at Washington State University at Pullman, 450 miles southeast of the Indian reservation. "High tides and large waves have undermined the cliff at Ozette, exposing planks and timbers of an ancient home of our ancestors. We believe it is of the utmost urgency that someone like you should be here to make certain none of the artifacts are washed out to sea and lost."
Daugherty went immediately to the old whaling village and began an amazing archeological dig. Work is still going on at Ozette.
"It's slow and tedious. There are years of digging still to be done," Daugherty said. "There were numerous mud flows and slides in the area. Carbon 14 dating shows the coastal village dates back at least 2,000 years.
"We have dug deep below the buried village in exploratory tests and have encountered what appears to be still other dwellings much farther underground: a village covered by an earlier slide occurring 850 years ago, a village beneath the buried village we are now unearthing..."
No roads lead to the old whaling village. Although it is situated 14 miles due south of Neah Bay, the trip to Ozette requires a 35-mile drive around a dense forest. At road's end a 4-mile-long trail made of planks leads through a rain forest to Ozette.
Ozette, part of the Makah Reservation, is a 719-acre enclave wholly embraced by the Olympic National Park Coastal Strip. For the last four months two persons have lived alone at the archeological dig - Gary Wessen, 29, an anthropologist, and his wife, Gloria Wessen, 27, a horticulturist. Wessen has been the Ozette project site director for the last year.
"It's a lonely but a lovely place," Gloria Wessen said as she and her husband took a visitor on a tour of the dig.
Stakes outline the sites of houses from which artifacts are being recovered. Offshore lie five small islands. Flanking the shoreline is the dense, dark rain forest.
The Wessens seldom leave Ozette. "Someone is required to be at the site at all times. One of us walks out alone to spend a day or two outside every other week," Wessen explained.
A Marine helicopter from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station flies in food, fuel for the generator and pumps and supplies, and flies out artifacts to the archeological lab at Neah Bay.
Twenty graduate students are joining the Wessens for the summer to continue the dig. Shovels and trowels are not used here as they are at other archeological digs. Water pumped from the ocean through hoses washes clay from the artifacts in order to avoid damaging or destroying the delicate materials.
As soon as the recovered objects are exposed to the air, deterioration begins. The artifacts are placed immediately into a melted wax-like polyethylene glycol solution, commonly called carbowax, which replaces water in cells, preserving the materials.
"Finding the buried village was like opening a time capsule," Daugherty said. "Everything was intact. More than 400 wooden boxes, carved with figures of whales, seals and otters and filled with tool kits and food, were suspended from walls near sleeping platforms. In most digs basket fragments are found. At Ozette more than 500 complete, perfectly preserved cedar bark baskets from the late 1400s and early 1500s have been recovered."
Unearthed relics include 13-foot-long whaling harpoons, plus lances, bows, arrows, knives and adzes, house plants with carved figures of thunderbird gods, whales and wolves, intricately carved wooden clubs used in killing seals and carved heads of ceremonial clubs made of whale bone.
A carved cedar dorsal whale fin studded with 700 sea otter teeth puzzles scientists, for it is the only effigy of its kind ever found. Daugherty believes it was used in ceremonies connected with whale hunting.
The early-day Makahs fashioned canoes 30 to 40 feet long from cedar trunks for hunting seals, porpoises and whales in the open sea. Two of the canoes are on exhibit in the new museum.
The museum also contains a reproduction of a 70-by-30-foot communal home identical to one of the houses buried at Ozette and filled with artifacts from the whaling village.
Cedar bark dresses, mats, sails and cordage have been dug up from the buried village and are on exhibit along with an incredible wealth of other material in use by the whalers when their village was inundated by the mud slide.
On one of the five small islands lying off the whaling village, these early Americans bred a special woolly dog ("Short critters that looked like the end of a mop," Gary Wessen said) from whose hair blankets were woven. Skeletal remains of the little dogs litter the island. On the mainland, half a mile across the bay, skeletal remains of other dogs have been found, none of them similar to the island dogs. Dog-hair blankets also have been found.
When Daugherty began heading up the remarkable excavation at Ozette, he testified before congressional committees and a number of government agencies to raise funds for the dig and the museum to house the recovered material. The Economic Development Administration provided $1.46 million toward the building of the museum. Other funds for the project have come from the National Endowment of the Arts, the Makah Tribal Council and the Crown Zellerbach Foundation.
From the beginning the Indians have played an important part in excavating, preserving and now displaying the artifacts of the lost civilization of their ancestors. Makahs have worked side by side with scientists at the site. They have been trained in the techniques of handling and processing the artifacts.
Under the leadership of museum director Greig Arnold, 28, a Makah with master's degrees in anthropology and museum work, 15 Makahs have been assembling exhibitsfor the cultural and research center.
"It is an exciting undertaking in so many ways," Arnold said. "Unlike other digs where the artifacts are carted off for study and display in scientific labs and museums, all of the material from Ozette will remain here for all times on this reservation where they were recovered.
"Ozette...gives our people a tremendous sense of feeling for their roots and history unique among the original inhabitants of this nation."