Daniel S. Meatte

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


From 1889 to 1957, archaeological work was largely a patchwork of individual efforts aimed at exploring and describing the archaeological manifestations in the study area. The first archaeological inquiry in the study area began in 1889 in Nampa, Idaho, under controversial conditions when workmen drilling an artesian well discovered a small clay figurine in sediments brought from 76 cm below the surface (Bird 1976:11). The figure, later called the "Nampa Image," measured 48 mm long. It was modeled in the shape of a human with a visible head, arms and legs (F. Wright 1890). The figure soon became the center of considerable academic debate as to its authenticity and antiquity (American Antiquarian 1890; Henshaw 1890; Holmes 1910, 1919; Idaho Historical Society 1966; Larrabee 1890; Popular Science Monthly 1890; Powell 1893; Putnam 1899; Scientific American 1889; F.W. Wright 1890, 1899; G. F. Wright 1889, 1890, 1891). Supporters such as Professor Frederic W. Putnam, President of the Boston Society of Natural History and Curator of the Peabody Museum, and H. W. Haynes were confident in the antiquity of the figurine, with Haynes claiming it to be the "most important evidence of the great antiquity of man in America" (quoted in Bird 1976:25), while skeptics such as Major John W. Powell considered the figurine a hoax (Powell 1893). Interest in the find eventually waned as the figurine and the circumstances of its discovery became a historical curiosity (T. Green 1982b).

Formal archaeological research in the study area began in 1929 when the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, sponsored Louis Schellbach's archaeological reconnaissance of southern Idaho (Schellbach 1930). The purpose of this reconnaissance was to locate dry caves suitable for excavation and recover archaeological materials in the "hope of extending the known non-agricultural and Basketmaker area of Nevada and Utah northward" (Schellbach 1930:122). Schellbach selected a dry cave, Cave #1 (10-OE-240), in the southern rimrock overlooking the Snake River Canyon near Melba, Idaho, for excavation (Figure 16). Though materials from this excavation were never formally analyzed or reported, Earl H. Swanson, Jr. arranged for Schellbach's field notes to be published (Schellbach 1967). It is largely due to Swanson's efforts to edit and publish Schellbach's field notes that the significance of Schellbach's efforts are known.

Schellbach's work at Cave #1 (1O-OE-240) represented the first directed excavation in southern Idaho. His recovery of a well preserved collection of perishable artifacts and faunal remains, including a large cache of fishing equipment and paraphernalia, led Schellbach to conclude that "the cave may have been a seasonal fishing station" (Schellbach 1967 :69). The archaeological evidence recovered from Cave #1 was somewhat disappointing for Schellbach in light of his stated purpose. The fishing gear, together with the presence of numerous fish remains throughout the excavated deposits, clearly attested to a more riverine-oriented subsistence rather than the modest, non-agricultural subsistence equipment typical of Nevada and Utah archaeological sites (for a description of anadromous fish remains from Cave #1 see Pavesic et al. 1987).

Perhaps most important of all was that Scheilbach's work at Cave #1 drew attention to the potential wealth of information that could be derived from archaeological sites in the Snake River Plain region of southern Idaho.

The following year, 1930, the Idaho State Historical Society devoted a major part of its Twelfth Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees to Richard P. Erwin's field notes and interpretations of Indian rock art in Idaho (Erwin 1930). This report remains one of the few descriptive surveys of aboriginal rock art in the study area (see also Boreson 1975, 1976a, 1976b; Loring and Loring 1982, 1984; Rees 1928).

At the same time (1930), Matthew Stirling, then chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology conducted a brief survey of archaeological sites in northern Nevada, and test excavated one site (26-EK-7) (Stirling 1931:173). However, a final report on the results of this survey and excavation was never published.

In 1937, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, sponsored Godfrey J. Olsen to conduct a survey of southwestern Idaho, concentrating on the Bruneau River. Unfortunately, like Schellbach, Olsen never formally analyzed or reported the results of his survey. Thus, the only information available are his miscellaneous notes (Olsen 1940).

The same year, Dr. Charlton G. Laird, then director of the Historical Museum at the Southern Branch of the University of Idaho (now Idaho State University), excavated Pence-Duerig Cave (10-JE-4), a dry cave in the north rim of the Snake River Canyon, north of Twin Falls, Idaho (Figure 17). The excavations were part of a broader program to build the museum's regional archaeological collections (Butler 1978b:6). Although the excavations were never formally reported, Ruth Gruhn published a brief descriptive report of diagnostic artifactual materials (Gruhn 1961b; Butler 1985a).

Also in 1937, Luther S. Cressman published a detailed report documenting his statewide survey of Indian rock art in Oregon (Cressman 1937). Two years later (1939), Douglas Osborne accompanied Anne M. Cooke and Alden Hayes on an ethnographic survey of "Basin Indians" in Nevada and Utah (Osborne 1941:189). During the course of this survey, Osborne had the opportunity to investigate several archaeological sites and test excavate a cave site (26-EK-6) south of the town of Owyhee, Nevada. Like Stirling's work, final descriptive reports on the materials excavated by Osborne have never been published.

In 1945, a national archaeological survey and salvage program called the Inter-Agency Archaeological Salvage Program (River Basin Surveys) was created through a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Corps of Army Engineers (Jennings 1985:282). The purpose of this program was to locate, assess and salvage archaeological materials from proposed reservoir construction sites throughout the United States (Jennings 1985:282-283). From 1945 to 1953, ten proposed reservoirs within the study area were surveyed as part of a larger survey project conducted within the Columbia River watershed.

In southwestern Idaho, eight proposed reservoirs were surveyed: Anderson Ranch Reservoir (Daugherty and Riddell 1947), Cascade Reservoir, Smith's Ferry Reservoir, Scriver Creek Reservoir and Garden Valley Reservoir (Drucker 1948), Lucky Peak Reservoir (Osborne 1948a), Lost Valley Reservoir and Horse Flat Reservoir (Osborne 1948b). In southeastern Oregon, one proposed reservoir was surveyed, Bully Creek Reservoir (Osborne 194&). The final survey was of the proposed Hells Canyon Reservoir (Shiner 1951; see Caldwell and Mallory 1967 for a report on salvage excavations; see also Caywood 1948 for a description of an isolated find from this area) bordering Idaho and Oregon.

The results of these surveys are somewhat mixed. A substantial body of site distribution information was generated by the surveys, providing an important regional data base for local investigators. Unfortunately, use of this information was severely limited by the lack of a local chronological sequence. And, while all the surveys were completed and final reports were issued, the data bases they contained was of limited value and has seen minimal use and citation by archaeologists.

The River Basin Surveys program continued as a joint effort between the National Park Service and various state colleges and universities until 1969 when the program was taken over by the National Park Service (Jennings 1985:284).