Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Architecture of the Northwest Coast

Ames, M. Kenneth, Doria F. Raetz, Stephen Hamilton, Christine McAfee.
1992 Household Archaeology of a Southern Northwest Coast Plank House. Journal of Field Archaeology 19:275-290.

The authors’ goal of the article was to summarize the excavation of the Meier plank house, discuss the house as the primary structure shaping the site’s deposits, and estimate the labor, material, and time taken to build and maintain a Northwest Coast plank house.The Meier site is located the confluence of the Wilamette and Columbia Rivers in the Wapato Valley. At European contact, the area was occupied by speakers of the Chinookan languages. Construction of Northwest Coast houses varied but many were built by erecting heavy posts and beams which were used as frames and then sheathing them with planking. The frame was the permanent part of the houses and households often had two or three frames. Households would move their planking from house to house, dependent on the seasonal round.
        The Meier house 1B is larger than typical Northwest Coast houses. Northwest Coast frames are made of upright cedar posts or planks that support the central ridge beam as well as shorter posts or planks that support eave poles. Rafter poles connected the eave and central ridge beams. The walls of the house were formed by butting split cedar planks vertically into the ground and lashing them to the eave poles. The roof of the house was made of thin planks laid horizontally or vertically and covered with cedar bark. Meier site’s most common feature is postholes and postmolds and they mark the walls. The floor is marked by thin, parallel laminea and hearths. The walls benches. The bench is an earthen surface below the wooden platforms- platforms were used for storing and sleeping- and at Meier were 2-2.5 meters wide with small postholes and plank molds preserved on top. Meier also contained a corridor, or a space between the bench and central zone that has floor laminae and large pits. The corridor contains most of the artifacts, faunal and floral remains. The corridor is straight walled and flat bottomed, 1 meter in depth, and held hundreds of pieces of fire cracked rocks as a result of heating and food processing. Outside of the house is a midden that is east and north of the structure. These contain many cultural debris.
More than 12,500 shaped tools and over 30,000 pieces of lithic debitage have been recovered at the Meier sites. Tools include wedges, harpoon valves, needles, pestles, stone bowls, net weights, projectile points, copper, and trade beads. Elk, deer, salmon, and sturgeon make up the bulk of the faunal remains. The house was dated to be occupied from 1400 to 1800 AC. The lifespan of the Western redcedar, what made up the frame, is estimated at 20 years. Thus, it was replaced every 20 years or so and replaced 20 times of the 400 year span. Therefore, .48 to 1.1 million board feet of lumber was utilized over 400 years for this one house.
Meier site shows that building and maintaining a plank house took a large amount of resources and time. As the authors point out, the household is the most fundamental unit in a society. It displays the community’s production and consumption as well as social and biological reproduction. Thus, it is important to study the architectural remains such as plank houses in order to have a more complete understanding of the peoples of the Northwest Coast.


Coupland, Gary, Terence Clark, and Amanda Palmer.
2009 Hierarchy, Communalism, and the Spatial Order of Northwest Coast Plank Houses: A Comparative Study. American Antiquity 74: 77-106.

        The authors researched communalism and hierarchy within transegalitarian societies. These societies are found in societies that are not bands but not states either. A transegalitarian society is one that is not completely egalitarian but is not totally stratified. The authors focus on four regions on the Northwest Coast: the north coast, the Wakashan of the central coast, the Coast Salish area of the central coast, and the south coast. They examine plank houses to first see how hierarchy and communalism appear in households and second, to examine how hierarchy and communalism appear in the material culture of households. Communalism is characterized by a society in which the goals of community are more important than the goals of the individual. In a hierarchical society, there are ranks in which each rank is subordinate to the one above it. Although these two approaches to living may seem at odds with another, the authors claim that they are not. They believe that communalism and hierarchy coexist for the purpose of serving the interests for different groups of people within the society. Using ethnographic and archaeological evidence, the researchers investigate the extent to which the four regions were hierarchical and communal.
          Many of the Northwest Coast societies had three social strata: nobles, commoners, and slaves. Nobles inherited the titles and properties that made up the estate. They directed the labor and were considered to be born well with good blood. Next, commoners were those with no inherited status and provided services to their chief such as hunting and crafting. Lastly, the slaves’ worked to increase the prestige of their masters. In a north to south degree of hierarchy, ethnographic evidence shows that there is a decrease of hierarchy. Those of the north coast had well defined strata whereas evidence for hierarchy in societies of the southern Northwest Coast was mostly absent.
         In order to judge the extent to which communalism was practiced in these four regions, the authors looked at the stability of the membership and to what extent the household made up the basic unit of production and consumption. The authors claim that the more stable the membership, the more communalism is strengthened within the household. Like the north-south cline in degree for hierarchy, communalism shows the same trend. On the north coast, societies showed very stable membership due to unilineal descent. Therefore, individuals had membership in only one house. Those of the Wakashan and Coast Salish practiced bilateral descent resulting in possible membership in several different houses. The southern Northwest Coast societies had no evidence for corporate kin groups. Groups further south practices collectivism rather than communalism where people work for themselves rather than the benefit of the community.
       In the Northwest Coast, the primary social unit is the multifamily household. Because of the diversity of hierarchy within Northwest Coast societies, they are ideal for examining communalism and hierarchy. By examining the layout of the houses and daily practices of the household, the authors research to what extent that hierarchy and communalism played a part within the Northwest Coast communities. The authors look at family sleeping spaces which are arranged by rank. Using ethnohistoric evidence combined with archaeological evidence they conclude that there is a north to south gradient in which the materialization of the households displays the hierarchy within the plank houses. Because higher status materials were found in spaces in areas where nobles slept, houses such as House O McNichol Creek display hierarchy. In the far south of the Northwest Coast, archaeological evidence is in the hearths. Whereas a communal society of the north coast might have one central hearth, those further south had several that were evenly spaced. One hearth created cohesiveness within the household and in contrast, multiple hearths fostered independence of families. Thus it is assumed by the authors that these houses further south that contained many hearths were not arranged by rank.
       In conclusion, hierarchy was strongly evidenced in the north. In these areas, communalism was also displayed. The authors believe that communalism strengthened hierarchy. For example, sharing domestic space and activities at the central hearth displayed nobles’ prestige and the lives of lower ranked individuals were improved. Communalism persuaded followers to support the chief of the household. Further south, hierarchy was not common and neither was communalism. Hierarchy and communalism is  not apparent in the spatial layout of the houses. Overall, examining communalism and hierarchy of Northwest Coast societies is important because it contributes to the knowledge of the culture of these peoples.


  1. My comment is in response to the first article, "Architecture of the Northwest Coast." In my own research about milling stones along the northwest coast I noticed many assemblages from the region included more ground stone tools similar to the stone wedges mentioned. What I think is interesting is that there seems to more stone tools for this purpose in northwest coast assemblages than in southern coastal sites. Additionally the lower quantities of typical milling stones used for food processing seems to indicate increased intensification toward fish resources from both rivers and sea sources, moreso than foraging for nuts and other foods.

  2. My comment is also in response to the first article, "Architecture of the Northwest Coast." I assume from the coding of this house that it is among a fair amount of other Plank houses and that while they may not be of the same size, they still require a fair amount of wood to maintain. So from this I ask the question of do you know what sort of impact the replenishing of these houses had on the local cedar population if any? This is mainly because it would be interesting to see if the building and maintaining of plank houses had a negative impact on the local environment during times of rapid population increases, or if the people of the area used cycling patterns. Basically I was wondering if you had come across any research related to those questions.