Ozette is a unique archaeological site on the southern portion of the Northwest Coast of United States. This Makah fishing village, occupied from the Middle Pacific to the Early Modern time, was buried by a mud slide in the mid-1700s that preserved the site and its materials almost unaltered.
The earliest periods at Ozette are documented by a dry shell midden, which spans over the last 2000 years. The most famous archaeological remains, however, date to the Late Pacific and Modern periods.
History of the Ozette Village
Ozette was a whaling village occupied from about 400 BC until the early 1900s. The site lies on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula (Cape Alva). The site was a typical Northwest Coast village, with plank houses arranged in two rows facing the ocean.
Around AD 1750, a large portion of the village was suddenly buried under a mud slide. The local inhabitants, the Makah people, moved nearby and, by the 1920s, were relocated by the government to another center, Neah Bay, some miles north.
In 1970s a series of storms hit the beach where the site had been buried, and began to expose huge portions of the ancient village. Trying to prevent looting, the Makah people contacted some archaeologists at the Washington State University, who – with the help of local people – started a program of excavations that continued for several years.
Ozette: A North American Pompeii
Archaeologists soon realized that they were dealing with the dream of virtually every archaeologist on earth: discovering an almost intact, buried village: a true Pompeii of the New World. The mud slide had sealed everything and created a low-oxygen, waterlogged environment, which prevented bacteria from attacking the organic remains. Organic objects such as wooden boards from plank houses, nets, basketry, wooden tools, wooden boxes, bone and antler harpoons, and cordage; all were preserved.
Animal bone recovered from Ozette indicated that a large portion of their subsistence was whales, mostly humpback and gray, but also finback, right, killer, and sperm whales. Whaling tools recovered from the site included harpoon shafts, head sheaths, lines and a wood representation of a "saddle", the part of the whale around the dorssal fin.
Archaeology at Ozette
Materials collected from Ozette needed specific excavation techniques where garden hoses substituted for trowel and shovels. Organic artifacts such as baskets, nets and ropes would have been destroyed by the contact with traditional tools, and so instead the mud was carefully washed away, and exposed materials were treated with specific preserving solutions before being collected.
Everyday Life at Ozette
More than 50,000 objects were recovered from beneath the mudslide at Ozette. Most of them come from the three excavated plank houses: Houses 1, 2, and 5. House 1 was the largest of the group and located on the front row, facing the ocean. Houses 2 and 5 were smaller and located in the back row.
A detailed computer-aided map of the houses, along with the unprecedented number of artifacts, allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the history of the village and to open a window into the everyday life of Northwest Coast people before European contact. The excavations at Ozette revealed much about subsistence, art style, social ranking, warfare, and much more.
Because of the quality of preservation at Ozette, an extensive study of the basketry used in the village was possible, described in Croes 1977. Croes admits (2010) that he was able to understand Ozette's basketry only because Makah elders insisted he first learn basketweaving from their elementary and high school students.
Social Status at Ozette
Social ranking is well documented at Ozette. People living in House 1, for example, had access to less available foods, such as salmon and halibut. They possessed a larger house (floor plan of 20.5 by 12 meters or 67 by 39 feet) that was located in the front of the village; the house contained more decorated objects than others. Based on the distribution of sea mammal hunting equipment, members of this family specialized in whale hunting, an activity usually restricted to high-status individuals. House 1 had 11 spatially discrete hearth areas, ten of which were along the sides, and one in the center. From this spatial distribution, some researchers have inferred that the people in House 1 hosted communal feasts. See Coupland et al for a discussion.
Houses 2 and 5 were smaller and less clean, an indication that there was less differentiation among living spaces (that is, processing and consuming food, sleeping, and other activities shared the same space in the house). These houses had fewer hearths (six and eight, respectively), and contained more common fish and shell species, and fewer decorated objects.
Finally, it has been shown that members of these houses exploited different shell beds, suggesting that these could have been owned, as it happened in later time.
Ozette represents one of the most important North American sites, not only for its amazing preservation, but also as an example of the results of combining archaeological research and Native American traditional knowledge. The local Makah people now run The Makah Culture and Research Center, a museum at Neah Bay which tells, from the Makah point of view, the history of their ancestors following the season cycle and describing the artifacts using Makah terms.