Elementary Level: Marmes Rockshelter

  • Posted 3/04/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10749
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The Marmes Rockshelter was a very important archaeological find in Washington. Tools, human bones, and a cremation hearth more than 8,000 years old were discovered there. But scientists had a big problem -- the site where the Marmes Rockshelter and other caves were located was going to be flooded as soon as the Lower Monumental Dam was completed. The scientists worked very hard to learn as much as they could in the time that they had. In the end, they built structures around the archaeological sites to try to protect them from the water that would fill the reservoir behind the dam. They hoped that maybe archaeologists in the future could have the opportunity to study the sites and learn more about the people who used them thousands of years ago. (This essay was written for students in third and fourth grade who are studying Washington State History and for all beginning readers who want to learn more about Washington. It is one of a set of essays called HistoryLink Elementary, all based on existing HistoryLink essays.)

The Professor and the Ranchers

The story of the Marmes Rockshelter began in 1952. John McGregor, a rancher from Hooper, Washington, invited an associate professor from Washington State College (now Washington State University) to look at some caves and rockshelters in the cliffs above the Palouse River. The professor, Richard Daugherty, was a type of scientist called an anthropologist. He studied how human behavior in the past affected human behavior in the present. Daugherty knew immediately that the caves and surrounding area could contain some important scientific discoveries. He was interested in exploring the caves further but he needed time and money for the project. It was not until ten years later when he and some of his fellow teachers at WSU received money from the federal government to survey this archaeological site.

It was not a minute too soon. Construction of the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River had begun the year before -- in 1961. The caves and rockshelters would be flooded when the dam was completed. When Daugherty arrived to begin excavation at the caves, he and two students decided to have a look at a nearby rockshelter on a ranch owned by Roland J. Marmes. They knew right away that with their limited time, they should start investigating what they called the "Marmes Rockshelter."

This rockshelter was a small cavelike opening in the side of a rocky cliff. It was protected by a rock ledge that hung over the opening. Daugherty and his fellow researchers agreed that humans probably discovered this shelter while they were out looking for food soon after the Ice Age floods. By what they uncovered in their digs, they concluded that this shelter had been used by many different groups over thousands of years.

Researchers found storage pits that had been lined with mats made from grasses and reeds. The shelter had served as a perfect place to store food because it was cool and damp inside. The scientists found animal bones and traces of plant foods that proved that this site was one where food had been plentiful.

Most importantly, they also found partial skeletons of 11 different people. Three of the skeletons -- two adult and one child -- were found in a layer of earth that had been covered by a layer of volcanic ash. The ash was from the eruption of Mount Mazama in southern Oregon more than 6,500 years ago. The scientists carefully tested the bones and the shells and other materials found near the bones. They discovered that these remains were about 8,000 years old -- some of the oldest found up to that time anywhere in the West.

Race Against Time and Water

Daugherty and his team of scientists knew they had to work fast. They were running out of time. Lower Monumental Dam was just one of four dams that would be placed on the Snake River. In addition to the original caves and rockshelters, 80 other archaeological sites had been identified in the area that would soon be flooded by the Lower Monumental Dam alone.

Even though these were important archaeological finds, the official excavations ended in 1964. But the following year Roald Fryxell, a young geologist and member of Daugherty's original team, returned to the Marmes Rockshelter on his own. He wanted to conduct more tests on the layers of ground and rock in and around the rockshelter. He asked Marmes to use his bulldozer to help dig. Fryxell thought it would be a faster way to dig more deeply into the earth.

When the bulldozer reached ground about 12 feet below the surface, human bones were spotted. Fryxell was not able to prove that these bones had not fallen in from the previous digs. But he did not give up. Two years later, more bones were discovered. These bones were more than 10,000 years old. It was a very exciting time for archaeologists in Washington.

Other artifacts found at the rockshelter included awls, small bone tools, and a tiny bone needle that would have been used for very fine stitching. One of the major discoveries was a cremation hearth. It was determined that -- based on early burial practices -- the hearth was used mostly to burn human bones.

Now it became even more important to save as much of the archaeological record at the Marmes Rockshelter as possible. Again heavy equipment was used to dig. Archaeologists usually use small tools and careful digging methods when they conduct a dig. But since the whole area would soon be underwater, they wanted to move as quickly as possible to locate and preserve any other major finds.

Washington State University officials pleaded for help from Senator Warren G. Magnuson. Magnuson contacted President Lyndon B. Johnson and asked him to provide money to build a cofferdam around the dig site. A cofferdam is a type of enclosure that has pumps to remove any water that seeps in, so the site will remain dry. The Army Corps of Engineers moved the date for filling the Lower Monumental Dam with water back a year so the cofferdam could be built.

When the time came to finally fill the dam, the water poured in. There was just too much water coming in too fast. The cofferdam's pumps could not keep up. At the very last minute, Fryxell and other team members built heavy wooden cribs around some of the caves and dig sites. Then they covered the ground with sheets of plastic and sand. They hoped that this last effort would preserve the sites for the future. If the reservoir is ever drained, it might be possible to find new treasures at the Marmes Rockshelter.


This essay is based on the following HistoryLink essay: "Marmes Rockshelter" (Essay 7970). It is one of a suite of essays (called HistoryLink Elementary) that focus on important people, places, and events in Washington State History, and that align with elementary school textbooks and state academic standards. All the HistoryLink Elementary essays are included in the HistoryLink People's Histories library, and the HistoryLink Elementary suite and related curricular activities can also be found on HistoryLink's Education Page (http://www.historylink.org/Index.cfm?DisplayPage=education/index.cfm). The HistoryLink Elementary project is supported in part by Heritage 4Culture's Special Projects Program.

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