1528 The cords that bind

Cordage from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site: A Technological, Functional and Comparative Study
by Dale R. Croes with Darby C. Stapp (editor) and Victoria Boozer (publications assistant)

Richland, WA: Journal of Northwest Anthropology (JONA) Memoir Number 21, May 2021
$24.99 (U.S.) / 9798504397573

Reviewed by Andrea Laforet


Ozette, a village on Cape Alava on the Olympic Peninsula, was destroyed by a mud slide approximately three hundred years ago. During the winter of 1969-70, a storm washed away part of the mud, revealing the remains of several shed-roofed plank houses as well as a large array of furnishings and other items made with wood and plant fibre, materials not normally preserved in other archaeological sites. Cordage from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site A Technological, Functional and Comparative Study presents the cordage and artifacts made with cordage recovered at Ozette in comparison with cordage recovered from other wet sites on the Pacific Coast of Washington and British Columbia. Dale Croes wrote his 1977 doctoral dissertation, republished in updated form in 2019, on the basketry found at Ozette, in particular the house designated as “House 1.” The core of Cordage from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site A Technological, Functional and Comparative Study is a post-doctorate report completed in 1980.

Location of Ozette and other wet sites in Salish Sea region. Map by Stefan Freelan
The Ozette village site at top of photo, at Cape Alava on what is now the Ozette Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy of coastguide.org
Dale Croes cleaning a decorated basket at Ozette, 1972

In developing the 1980 publication Croes had four goals: (i) to define the cordage artifacts recovered from Ozette Village, dated from 300 to 500 years B.P., (ii) to compare them with cordage recovered from ten other wet sites then known on the Northwest Coast, i.e. Musqueam Northeast and Hoko River (2500-3000 B.P.), Biderbost, Lachane, and Little Qualicum River (1500-2500 B.P.), Axeti, Conway, and Fishtown (500-1500 B.P.), and English Camp and Wapato Creek (no date established), (iii) to determine if there was cultural continuity within the three regions represented, i.e. the northern coast (Lachane), the Central Coast (Axeti), and southern British Columbia and Washington State (all other sites, including Ozette) and over time, and (iv) to establish a model for future analysis of cordage recovered from additional sites. The current publication presents the original report, updated with a brief discussion of scholarship specifically on cordage in other areas since 1980, and comparative notes on additional material recovered since 1980 from wet sites in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. As in the Ozette basketry publication, the original report is the main text, with the updates provided through footnote commentary. To further address the degree to which the data indicate patterns of continuity within regions and over time Croes has added Bayesian phylogenetic analysis to the statistical analyses used in the original report. While the original Introduction is amplified through footnotes, broad conclusions from the updated discussion are included in an Epilogue.

Map of basketry in use in House 1, Ozette, at the time of the mudslide, including storage baskets, coiled baskets, whalers’ bags, fishing tackle bags, harpoons, knob-top hat, and cedar bark mats. Cordage was found throughout.
A girdled anchor stone with spruce root cord binding from Ozette

The central focus of the current book remains a highly technical analysis of the cordage recovered at Ozette, particularly from House 1, discussed with reference to cordage recovered from the other wet sites. Although all of these sites share a critical feature in that sustained submersion in water (or, in the case of Ozette, wet clay) preserved cordage, the wet sites cited in comparison with Ozette differ in terms of their history and purpose within their original cultural milieu. Hoko River and Musqueam North-East, for example, were fishing sites, with cordage arrays reflecting both the purpose of the sites and the cultural preferences concerning materials and technique of the people who used them. The circumstances of the Water Hazard site’s excavation did not allow for in situ analysis. The diversity of the non-Ozette wet sites highlights the salient feature of Ozette: a village, and, within it, a family home, caught in a single past moment, with much of the preserved material remaining in or close to its position when the mud came down, providing a rare, though partial, glimpse into the life of an extended family.

A cherry-bark binding holding a pebble to a toy war club from Qwu?gwes wet site
A running noose at the end of a whale harpoon line (also shown on book cover)

To illuminate the character of the cordage at Ozette and other sites, Croes has employed a three – level analytical process, i.e. (i) identifying the attributes that define the character of each artifact, e.g. construction material, construction techniques, the direction of the twist (clockwise or counter clockwise) applied to hold fibres together in a bundle and/or bundles together in a cord, diameter (ranging from 0.1 -.5 cm, something like string, to 2.4 cm, something like heavy-gauge rope), form (e.g net string or wedge collar), and knotting technique, if relevant, (ii) moving forward to establish stylistic/technological classes and subclasses susceptible to comparison through cluster analysis, and, (iii) identifying “functional sets,” or artifacts, including single strips of flexible material, such as cherry bark, likely used for wrapping tools. single strand cedar bough twisted withes used to hold in place the cedar planks that formed the house walls or repair splits within planks, multi-strand, cedar bough twisted cordage (rope) of the kind and weight required for sea mammal hunting gear, two-strand cedar bark strings apparently designed as the warps for woven clothing, braided cedar bark ties for cradles, basket handles, and wedge collars, circlets of multi-strand cedar bough cordage used to support wooden wedges so that they would not split when pounded into timber in order to separate planks from cedar trunks. Unusual artifacts include bundles of cedar twigs that appear to have been brushes, small bun-shaped items made with cedar bark strips, and bound hoops with criss-cross binding that may have been intended as mud-shoes or snowshoes.

Cedar one-strand withes tying split cedar house boards to posts on a plank house. Photo by Ruth Kirk
A hafted microblade bound with cherry bark strips from the wet site at Hoko on the Olympic Peninsula

The materials used include cedar boughs, cedar bark, spruce root, cherry bark, and some willow bark and nettle fibre – all with different properties, requiring different preparation, and, given the inevitable pressures on the supply from wear and tear, accidents, and other contingencies, estimates on someone’s part of how much would be required in any one season.

The sheer volume and diversity of the cordage recovered from House 1 implies the significant degree to which system and training were required in its manufacture. Croes has helpfully included quotations from the rare ethnographies that discuss the construction of cordage in detail, particularly Franz Boas’s The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island (1909),[1] supplemented with excerpts from Hilary Stewart’s Cedar[2] (1984). The issue of volume was not limited to Ozette or to household requirements. Croes and his crew determined that at Hoko River, used for fishing, between seventy-five and ninety feet of spruce root string was required to sew one 4 foot x 8 foot tule mat, with potentially nine hundred feet of spruce root string required for enough mats to cover the walls of a shelter.

This is a scholarly, technical report, laid out with logical and clear progression, and illustrated with clear diagrams of the cordage types, charts presenting the results of statistical analysis, and some photographs. Much of the text is in straightforward English, but in order to obtain full benefit from the book the interested lay reader has to be prepared to absorb a fair amount of technical information. Cordage is culturally sensitive, although, as Croes points out, it is less emblematic of specific cultural preferences than basketry, and although similar approaches to cordage are known throughout the Northwest Coast, the combinations of specific attributes, particularly, but not exclusively, twist, are diagnostic of cultural preference. Consequently, general descriptions of cordage are of little use to scholars comparing cordage within and between cultural groups.

Cordage and basketry are both often found in wet sites, and the footnote commentary in this volume overlaps with the commentary in the earlier publication on Ozette basketry. The footnote commentary is helpful, not only for the specific citations, but also as a compendium of references to work on other wet sites by Croes, Kathryn Bernick, Morley Eldridge and Tal Fisher, and other archaeologists working in this field and in related areas, although the full benefit of these works can only be gained by reading the papers themselves.

Victoria-based archaeologist Daryl Fedje holding oldest wet site cordage from the ethnographic Northwest Coast, 10,700 years old, from Kilgii Gwaii wet site, Haida Gwaii
Close-up of oldest wet site cordage, 10,700 years old, from Kilgii Gwaii wet site
Makah whaler Wilson Parker with a 3-strand cedar bough harpoon line, 1915. Photo by Edward Curtis

As an editorial method, the updating of a previously published or historic text through footnote commentary places demands on both the author and reader. As I have recently co-edited a volume using this approach, I may be particularly sensitive to these demands. In this volume the majority of the comments provide references to results from work on other wet sites that amplify the context of particular points in Croes’ 1980 discussion, but the footnote commentary also carries the introductory discussion of recent work on cordage in other areas, the results of Bayesian phylogenetic analysis, and Croes’ comments on the implications of these results for his hypotheses concerning transmission of cordage styles inside and outside the Salish Sea, as well as cultural continuity within the regions occupied by Coast Salish and Makah/Nuu-chah-nulth societies. It can be difficult to keep all of this in mind while moving back and forth between main text and commentary, and some of these conclusions, particularly, might have found a comfortable home in the Epilogue.

In ethnographic museum collections from the Pacific Coast, cordage is generally incidental to particular artifacts, e.g. whaling or sealing harpoons, fish hooks that may have short lines of cordage attached, tumplines, and the corner finishes of cedar bark mats. Cordage has seldom been collected systematically for its own sake. The cordage recovered in and near House 1 at Ozette testifies to the significance of cordage in this multi-family household, and the substantial commitment of time and expertise required to develop and maintain the supply. Cordage from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site: A Technological, Functional and Comparative Study ensures that the central role of cordage in the historic economy and life of Pacific Coast Indigenous societies cannot be overlooked.


Andrea Laforet

A specialist in the ethnography and material culture of British Columbia First Nations, Andrea Laforet (Ph.D. UBC 1974) retired as Director of Ethnology and Cultural Studies at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 2009 and continues to work independently with First Nations on current issues relating to ethnography and history. With colleagues Angie Bain, John Haugen, Andie Palmer, and Sarah Moritz she has recently edited Franz Boas, James Teit and Early Twentieth Century Salish Ethnography (University of Nebraska Press, in press) (The Franz Boas Papers Documentary Edition, vol. 2). Editor’s note: Andrea Laforet has also reviewed Basketry from the Ozette Village Archaeological Site, by Dale Croes, Alexandra Martin, and Darby Stapp, and Re-awakening Ancient Salish Sea Basketry, by Ed Carriere and Dale Croes, for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster


[1] Franz Boas. The Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island. American Museum of Natural History 8 (2), 1909: 301-522.

[2] Hilary Stewart. Cedar Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.

Ed Carriere, Suquamish elder, coiling cedar roots for later use. Similar coils have been found in several Northwest Coast wet sites. Photo by Dale Croes
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3 comments on “1528 The cords that bind

  1. This is fascinating and I am going to seek out the book. I don’t see a reference point for scale of the girdled stone? I saw a plum-sized stone from an area with remnants of weirs and the stone was incised or scored around the circumference. I wondered if it might be a weight?

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