Labor & Economy at Cathlapotle

Elk Scapula Scraper |  image courtesy Dr. Kenneth Ames

Plankhouses were workplaces, as well as homes. People processed foods, including fish, large elk and deer hides, and made tools, baskets, boxes, cords, mats, and other items in them. Household-based production sustained the local economy for centuries. Professor Ken Ames’s excavations of Cathlapotle in the 1990s uncovered more than 10,000 tools. Analyzing the archaeological material reveals important details about economic and social activities that are not apparent in the written record. The Cathlapotle excavations uncovered more than 1,000 projectile points, many of which were made from obsidian, a material that likely came along north-south trade routes that linked present-day Washington to northern California. Archaeologists found more projectile points near the areas of plankhouses most likely occupied by people of middle or lower status, suggesting that they spent more time hunting than elites did.

Lithic hide scraper | image courtesy Dr. Kenneth Ames

Almost half of all stone (lithic) tools were hide scrapers, indicating the importance of hide production at this village. Archaeologists believe that residents crafted elk hides into an armor called clamons that they traded up and down the Pacific Coast. Evidence in the written record indicates that fauna like elk and deer were populous near Cathlapotle. Importantly, archaeologists uncovered large elk teeth, indicating larger fauna in the past. The archaeological and historical records do not indicate why deer and elk were so big at Cathlapotle. Some scholars surmise that ancient residents used fire to clear the area and encourage the growth of plants the herbivores liked to eat.

While material goods were available to all, their accumulation reflected the status of household members. Elites owned ground stone weights, fishing tools, and expensive imported items, which they stored in pits inside the largest plankhouses. Wealth increased an individual’s or family’s prestige and influence when they redistributed goods in feasts and ceremonies.

VIDEO: Dr. Ames discusses the distinctiveness of very large elk at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse and how archaeologists interpret the findings