Daniel S. Meatte

(Taken from Prehistory of the Western Snake River Basin (1990) pp.21-38)



Up to 1957, archaeological research conducted in the study area represented efforts to survey and assess the characteristics of a region that was, in an archaeological sense, largely unexplored. Most of these efforts brought forth tantalizing evidence of the archaeological potential of the region, but they did not develop a regional, chronological framework.

In 1957, Dr. Earl H. Swanson, Jr. was appointed director of the Idaho State College Museum at Pocatello. There, Swanson began what was to become a life-long commitment to regional archaeology on the Snake River Plain. Swanson initiated an ambitious program aimed at systematically delineating the regional prehistory. This effort began with the creation of two publications, a quarterly entitled Museum Notes and News, which was soon changed to its familiar name, Tebiwa, and a monograph series, the Occasional Papers of the Idaho State College Museum (Butler 1978b:8). Swanson developed and published in 1958 the first Occasional Papers of the Idaho State College Museum, The Archaeological Survey System of the Museum (Swanson 1958b), which served as the organizing system for the recording of archaeological sites within the state of Idaho.

In 1958 and 1959, with support from the National Park Service and a grant from the American Philosophical Society, Swanson undertook regional archaeological surveys of central and southern Idaho (Swanson 1958, 1965; Swanson et al. 1959; Swanson et al. 1964). Included among these surveys were numerous proposed reservoirs scattered in southwestern Idaho. These surveys included the Little Wood River Extension (Bryan 1958a), Spangler Reservoir (Tuohy 1958a), Guffy Reservoir (Tuohy 1958b), Garden Valley Reservoir (Tuohy 1958c), and Long Tom Reservoir (Tuohy 1958d). Also, a small, 22 unnamed rockshelter (1O-AA-15) within the backwater area of the proposed Guffy Reservoir was selected for test excavation (Tuohy and Swanson 1960:20; see also Swanson 1965 for plan map and soil profiles from lO-AA-15).

The cumulative results of these surveys permitted Swanson to "ascertain the archaeological character of southwestern Idaho and attempt a definition of a prehistoric boundary zone between the Plateau and the Great Basin" (Swanson 1965:24). They also afforded Swanson an enormous artifactual data base with which to begin the process of developing a model of the regional culture history.

The efforts to build such a model began in 1958 when Swanson and Alan Bryan assisted Ruth Gruhn, a doctoral candidate from Harvard University, in examining several archaeological sites recorded earlier that summer during the southern Idaho survey (Gruhn 1961a:9; Swanson et al. 1959). Gruhn was looking for a site containing deeply stratified deposits with a long cultural sequence to build a tentative culture history for the region. Gruhn selected Wilson Butte Cave (10-JE-6), a large cave formed in a lava blister perched on a slight basaltic ridge, approximately 13 km south of Dietrich, Idaho (Figure 18). Gruhn directed excavations at Wilson Butte Cave during the summers of 1959 and 1960 as a joint Idaho State College Museum-Peabody Museum of Harvard University project (Gruhn 1959, 1960a, 1961a 1965).

Gruhn's work at Wilson Butte Cave resulted in the delineation of six artifactual assemblages, which initially spanned a human occupational record of nearly 12,000 years (Gruhn 1961a), but was later extended to nearly 15,000 years (1965). Gruhn noted that the content of these six assemblages indicated a number of cultural affiliations with material culture assemblages common to the Great Basin and the Plains region to the east. She also noted that discernible changes in these affiliations were "in conjunction with major changes in environmental conditions in southern Idaho" (Gruhn 1961a:155).

The significance of Gruhn's excavations at Wilson Butte Cave is readily apparent. With this single excavation, Gruhn provided the first working chronology supported by radiocarbon dates for application to a region (Snake River Plain) that was lacking chronological order. This landmark sequence served as the initial anchor point upon which subsequent excavated materials could be compared and chronologically arranged. Gruhn had also extended back, by several thousand years, the known age estimates for man's presence in North America to nearly 15,000 years B.P. Gruhn's recovery of artifactual remains of such great antiquity clearly demonstrated the potential wealth of archaeological information to be found in southern Idaho.

During her brief stay at Idaho State University, Gruhn also undertook two small excavation projects in southwestern Idaho and wrote descriptive reports on excavated materials from this same area. She excavated an isolated burial in the north rim of the Snake River Canyon (Figure 19), overlooking Shoshone Falls, just north of Twin Falls, Idaho (Gruhn 1960b). The burial contained a single individual, probably male, and an assortment of grave goods, both local and exotic (Gruhn 1960b).

In 1961, Ruth Gruhn and B. Robert Butler undertook test excavations of two sites (10-OE-128 and 129) near Squaw Creek, a tributary of the Snake River in southwestern Idaho (Gruhn 1964). They recovered evidence of two single component sites, one dominated by large side-notched points, the other dominated by lanceolate forms with indented bases.

Gruhn also examined two artifact collections in the Idaho State College Museum (now Idaho Museum of Natural History) that were recovered from sites in southwestern Idaho. The first collection consisted of artifacts recovered by Dr. Charleton G. Laird in 1937 from Pence Duerig Cave (10-JE-4) (Gruhn 1961b). A second, smaller collection described by Gruhn consisted of a burial recovered from the base of an exposed rimrock overlooking the Snake River, 5 km southwest of Melba, Idaho (Gruhn 1961 c).

At this same time, other investigators were contributing interesting data from various excavations in the surrounding region. Alfred W. Bowers, from the University of Idaho, began test excavations in 1957 at the Dean site, a stratified campsite at the headwaters of Cedar Creek, just southwest of Rogerson, Idaho (Figure 20). Additional excavations were conducted in the summer of 1958, and culminated in 1959 with a major excavation of the site, jointly financed by the University of Idaho and the National Science Foundation (Bowers and Savage 1962:2; Barnes 1964). Results of these investigations revealed a long, but undated sequence of human occupation, estimated to date from 10,000 years B.P. to historic times (Bowers and Savage 1962).

John E. Wells, then a graduate student of the University of Oregon, undertook excavations in 1958 of a small cave on the north bank of the Malheur River, approximately 5 km downstream from the town of Juntura, in eastern Oregon along the Idaho border. Though lacking radiocarbon dates, Wells did establish a relative chronology for the site, based upon the identification of three stratigraphically distinct occupational levels (J. Wells 1959:9, Profile II).

Robson Bonnichsen excavated a small overhang in Rattlesnake Canyon, overlooking the Snake River, south of Mountain Home, Idaho, (Bonnichsen 1964) in 1960. Bonnichsen recovered evidence of early historic cremation burials. The burials consisted of a large pit containing two separate layers of cremated remains. In the upper layer, the remains of at least five individuals were found. In the lower layer, only one partially burned individual was found (Bonnichsen 1964:28). The site represented the only known historic, cremation burials from the region.

In Nevada, Mary E. and Dr. Richard Shutler, under sponsorship from the Nevada State Museum, excavated a small dry cave located on the north bank of Deer Creek, a tributary to the Jarbidge River in the extreme northeastern corner of Nevada (Shutler and Shutler 1963). The cave contained a deep, stratified sequence of occupational surfaces spanning the past 10,000 years. Like Wilson Butte Cave, the assemblage from Deer Creek Cave provided western archaeologists with an additional linkage of chronologically ordered material culture from a region that was vastly unexplored.

The eastern Snake River Plain region quickly became the focus for archaeological investigations during the 1960s as Earl H. Swanson, Jr. continued to actively build the academic program in anthropology at Idaho State University (Butler 1966, 1968:15; W. Davis 1975:10; Swanson 1972:5-8). The First Conference of Western Archaeologists on Problems of Point Typology was held at the Idaho State College Museum in March of 1962. This conference served as a forum for western archaeologists "to examine concepts of typology and to review existing situations in the typology of points important in Western prehistory" (Swanson and Butler 1962:5). Contracting programs with state and federal agencies, long-term research programs such as the Birch Creek Project, and a developing anthropology curriculum all contributed to this growing research and academic base. The western Snake River Plain region saw increased archaeological activity during the 1960s, but the studies were largely salvage-oriented with limited research constraints. In the fall of 1961, Mr. and Mrs. W.A. Simon of Fairfield, Idaho, discovered a cache of artifacts on their farm while grading a road (Figure 21). The cache consisted of 29 specimens and a single unworked spall (for a total of 30 recovered items); six Clovis lanceolate points, 17 oval points (bifaces), six undescribed implements, and a spall fragment (Butler 1963:44; Butler and Fitzwater 1965). In 1967, 1968 and 1969, Earl H. Swanson Jr. undertook additional reconnaissance and exploratory excavations at the Simon site to establish more accurately the geologic association and age of the Clovis artifacts (Swanson et al. n.d.:3-4). Despite an extensive search of the site locale, only three additional pieces were recovered, two of which were recovered in situ (Swanson et al. n.d.:5 and figure 12).

Also in 1961, an amateur archaeologist, Mr. Lawrence Olsen of Sterling, Idaho, along with several friends, excavated Columbet Creek Rockshelter in the Jarbidge Mountains of southwestern Idaho along the Idaho-Nevada border (Lynch and Olsen 1964). The archaeological value of this site was severely reduced by the lack of stratigraphic controls and proper recording procedures. However, the rich assortment of artifacts and perishable goods recovered from this deeply stratified rockshelter, including an ochre-filled pouch, burned matting, vegetable fiber twine, and human hair, attest to the variety of material goods to be found in the regional archaeological record (Lynch and Olsen 1964:8-9).

In 1962, Claude Warren, acting Highway Archaeologist for the State of Idaho, began salvage excavations at the Midvale locality (Figure 22), where a group of ten sites was to be affected by a proposed realignment of State Highway 95, near Midvale, Idaho (Bucy 1974; Dort 1964; Warren et al. 1971). The salvage excavations focused on a basalt quarry area and led to the definition of an important regional phase, termed the Midvale Complex (Warren et al. 1971:51).

Alfred Bowers of the University of Idaho contracted with the National Park Service to survey the proposed Spangler Reservoir at Mann Creek, near Weiser, Idaho, (Bowers 1967) in 1964. Bowers returned the following year to direct salvage excavations of several sites in the proposed pool area and directed a county-wide survey (Adams County) which ran concurrently with the excavations at Spangler Reservoir (Bowers 1967:15).

Boise State College (now Boise State University), conducted its first archaeological field school program under the direction of anthropology instructor T. Virginia Cox. The field school was conducted at the Braden Site (10-WN-1 17), an early Archaic cemetery situated on a low terrace overlooking the Snake River near Weiser, Idaho (Figure 23). The next year (1968), Idaho State University joined with Boise State College under the supervision of B. Robert Butler to continue the field school and excavations at the Braden site (Butler 1980a).

Also in 1967, Max Pavesic, of Idaho State University (Pavesic 1967), contracted with the Bureau of Reclamation to conduct archaeological surveys of two proposed reservoir development projects in southwestern Idaho. The same year, the Explorers Club of New York City sponsored a project led by Larry Agenbroad to survey and map a purported bison jump complex in the Owyhee Uplands of southwestern Idaho (Agenbroad 1976, 1978). Agenbroad later returned in 1969 to conduct additional mapping of the site complex (Agenbroad 1976, 1978).

By 1969, archaeologists had undertaken numerous regional surveys, conducted major excavations and possessed a firm understanding of the regional culture history in the study area. The excavation of caves and rockshelters containing deeply stratified deposits established a number of temporal anchor points (i.e., Wilson Butte Cave and Deer Creek Cave) which provided a means of building a broader regional chronology (Butler 1968). Research problems generated by these activities provided the impetus to develop and further refine this chronology, as well as seek broader theoretical explanations for the regional archaeological manifestations. These research problems included such questions as: understanding the age and character of early man sites (Butler 1963; Butler and Fitzwater 1965, Gruhn 1961a); establishing geographical limits of major culture areas such as the Great Basin, the Plains, and the Plateau (Swanson 1960, 1965); the documentation of late Pleistocene-Holocene environmental changes and their correlation with culture change (Gruhn 1961a; Swanson 1961), the antecedents of the ethnographic pattern (Swanson 1966b); and the origins of Shoshone pottery (Coale 1963; Tuohy 1956).