Monday, November 17, 2014

SALMON PACKER  A.D. 1000 - 1500 -L. 23 1/2"
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Archaeological evidence suggests that Native Peoples have lived continuously along the Columbia River for some ten thousand years.  For much of that time they resided in permanent villages and made use of the tremendous resources that were available to them.  Food sources, such as elk, were plentiful and a variety of wild plants including camas, bitterroot, wild onions and huckleberries were harvested as well.  However, salmon was the primary food source as the Columbia River was one of the great salmon fisheries the world has ever known,  Early American settlers in the 19th century observed that during the height of spawning season it appeared that the salmon were so numerous that it would be possible to walk across their backs from one bank to the other and not get wet.  

The rich environment enabled the development of cultural and artistic traditions that were distinct compared to those of the Northwest Coast to the north, California to the south, the Great Basin to the southeast and the Plains to the east.  Prior to contact (roughly 1800) there was a flourishing sculptural tradition in stone, bone and wood.  In some instances, the objects were purely functional tools that were carefully finished beyond their intended purpose.  Other examples were idiosyncratic and their exact use can only be speculated.  Most of the stone sculpture was made from the basalt that is ubiquitous throughout the region.  The basalt that was used ranges from dense, dark-colored stone that can be ground to a high polish to a gray stone that is far more porous and easily worked. 

The imagery on Columbia River stone sculpture includes geometric motifs, primarily zig-zag lines, animals, such as birds and bighorn sheep, as well as anthropomorphic figures that may represent humans or ancestral figures.  Excellent examples of Columbia River stone sculpture are housed at the Portland Art Museum and includes a four and a half foot tall anthropomorphic figure that weighs nearly 600 pounds.  It is the largest free-standing stone sculpture from the pre-contact period known in Native North America.  A significant portion of Columbia River stone sculptures have traces of paint; usually red, green, yellow, black or white. 

While some stone sculptures exhibit clear evidence of use, others have no visible signs of wear which adds to the idiosyncratic nature of these pieces.  Unfortunately, none were recovered in controlled archaeological excavations so there is no reliable data.  It also makes it impossible to date these items with any certainty.  The generally accepted range of dates for these is 1000-1500 A.D. although some scholars simply refer to them as “Pre-Contact”.

This particular type of object is what it described as a salmon packer.  Relatively rare, there are approximately 25 extant examples.   Roughly akin to a pestle, they range from about 15” to more than 25”.  They are believed to have been used to pound dried salmon into the cylinder baskets that were traditionally used for storage.  Salmon packers are rather long and relatively heavy, therefore it is thought that a woman would simply lift it above the basket containing the dried salmon and then let it fall through her hands in order to pack the pieces tightly.  It is also possible that large salmon packers with figurative elements may not have been used as functional objects.  Instead, they may have been symbolic representations of functional examples and played a role at the annual First Foods ceremonies that are still celebrated by the Columbia River tribes as thanks for the renewed cycle of life and the nourishment that comes from the fish, game and plant foods available in the local environment.   

A few rare examples of salmon packers and other stone objects were carved with images at the end of the handle.  Often the image is that of an animal-like head with ears, a snout with slightly open mouth and sometimes nostrils and eyes.  There is no obvious identification of this creature although it recurs fairly often on both salmon packers as well as on monolithic stone axes commonly referred to as “slave killers”.

This specific salmon packer is an excellent example of its type and exhibits many of the classic characteristics of these unique objects.  The stone is a light gray basalt that has a smooth but  dimpled surface due to the porosity of the stone.  The shaft is wider at the center, with tapering ends and the sides are squared rather than rounded.  The squared edges are not uncommon and is another characteristic of objects made from porous basalt.  Under close examination the salmon packer has no traces of paint on the surface.  It shows no evidence of wear as is the case with some other examples.  It has an overall graceful shape that is well-balanced, nicely proportioned, and fits well in the hand which are all typical characteristics.  The carved figure is also very typical of the “eared creatures” as described above.            

In summary, it is my opinion that this salmon packer is an outstanding example of Columbia River stone sculpture. Bill Mercer November 2014

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