Artifact day a big hit on the Key


Rick Sorrels

An “artifact day,” where archaeologists from the Burke Museum and Statistical Research Inc. (SRI) identified ancient bones, tools and other very old stuff brought in by local residents, was held at the Key Center Library on March 21. It was a big hit. About two dozen individuals brought in hundreds of individual items that were scrutinized.

SRI were the archaeologists under contract with Pierce County for the recent archaeological survey done along Filucy Bay.

The most impressive item was an ankle bone from an extinct horse that archaeologist Stephanie Jolivette described as “looking very similar to today’s horses, but stockier and a bit shorter, similar to a quarter horse or a mustang.” “These horses lived through the last ice age in North America and became extinct between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago for unknown reasons. They may have had difficulty adapting to the new climate, or man may have killed them off for food,” she said.

Horses did not reappear in North America until brought to the Americas by the Spanish explorers after Columbus.

“The horse bone was about 10-inches long and partially fossilized, which is a natural process where minerals gradually replace the calcium and other tissues,” said Jolivette. “It would have taken thousands of years for this bone to have been fossilized to this extent. The horse belonging to this bone would have died between 10,000 and 25,000 years ago.”

The horse bone was found eroding from a hillside near Dungeness by a person who now resides on the Key Peninsula.

KP resident Cindy Taylor brought in a number of Indian artifacts she inherited five years ago from a relative who lived in Kodiak, Alaska, which included what was identified as “an Indian seal oil lamp, approximately 2,000 years old,” and “a predatory whale tooth that could be current, or date back 1,000 years.”

Longbranch resident Don Tjossem brought what was identified as being “a magnetic meteorite,” but needed involvement by different experts.

Will and Dee Hendrix, who live on Mayo Cove, brought a tool used by Indians for grinding grain into salmon cakes, and also brought a display case filled with about 90 of the thousands of arrow and spear tips Will’s family had collected near Benton City on the Columbia River since the 1930s.

Don and Judy Mills brought a wood-working maul that dated “between 100 to thousands of years old,” and a spear head that was found in a shallow well on their Vaughn Bay property that dates “from 4,000 and 9,000 years old.” Burke archaeologist Laura Phillips explained how “local Indians used a different technique to form spear heads during this earlier time period.”

Not all residents received good news. Heather Rogers brought what two small museums had already identified as an Indian artifact, “a tool to smash things.” It fit the hand perfectly and even had indents for thumbs. It turned out to have been made by natural processes, commonly called a “mud baby.”

Archaeologists and geologists are sometimes referred to as “the cowboys of science.” Not because of reckless actions, like Indiana Jones, but because of the large number of hours spent in the field in wilderness and desert conditions, sometimes reachable only by horseback with pack mules carrying their food, sleeping bag, camp stove, et cetera, just like a cowboy used to live.

Archaeologists work more like a police detective, investigating the few clues left to something that happened tens of thousands of years ago. They are meticulous in detail, relying upon undisturbed sites. Persons who remove artifacts without scientific investigation are known as “looters;” much knowledge can be lost.

If an object is found that may be an artifact, Burke’s public outreach coordinator can be reached at (206) 221-6183 to place you in touch with an appropriate expert who can determine what you have found.

The Burke normally has an artifact day to examine items brought in by the public annually in January or February, but it has been postponed to Saturday, May 9, this year, from 1 to 3 p.m. on the UW campus. For information, visit