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Snoqualmie River site reveals ancient encampments

FALLS CITY, Wash. - Developers working in the Snoqualmie Valley near Seattle know that chances of uncovering Indian artifacts every time they start a project are high.

In areas alongside the Snoqualmie River where the powerful Snoqualmie tribe camped and fished for thousands of years, odds are even higher. People joke that if you stub your toe walking along the river, you can end up talking to the Washington State Historical Preservation Office about an archaeological discovery.

A case in point was the attempted construction of a soccer field at Fall City Community Park in July.

After three long years of negotiation with the Snoqualmie tribe, the King County Parks Service and the Fall City Soccer Association finally got the go ahead on the project in the southwest corner of the park.

Construction of a baseball field in 1983 uncovered artifacts at a depth of 20 inches. The tribe agreed to the soccer project only if the county brought in fill dirt to cover the site rather than bulldozing to create the proposed field. After much consideration, the tribe felt it would be safe bringing in at least an additional foot of fill so any remaining artifacts would be safely buried.

"I would rather have happy children running across the land of my ancestors than a parking lot," says Ray Mullen, tribal council member, drum bearer and cultural director for the tribe. "It was our wish to have a soccer field there. If they had done as they had agreed, there would have been no problem ... and we'd be watching the grass grow on it now."

Although the tribe apparently agreed existing sod needed to be removed before the fill dirt could be brought in, it didn't realize the machinery employed would be so large - or so destructive. On the first day of construction, the top 12 to 14 inches of soil was partially removed. But deeper holes were gouged out in some places.

Supervising field archaeologist Meg Nelson of Northwest Archaeological Associates stopped sod removal when artifacts began to be uncovered. When Mullen arrived at the site the following week, he was shocked at the number of artifacts found.

"It was just ridiculous," he says. "We went out there and started marking things and it was sad because we flagged so many things we ran out of flags two days in a row."

Mullen and the rest of the investigating team found cracked rock, charcoal deposits and tools. The sheer volume of artifacts pointed to a major discovery. Mullen went back to the tribe to discuss what to do next.

In the meantime word of the find got out. The first night, looters disturbed the site and removed artifacts. A security guard and fence supplied by the county helped. But in the days that followed holes were often found, cut in the wire at the back of the field.

Since the site was already disturbed and work halted, the tribe decided a major archaeological effort should be made. Funding, they said, was up to the county parks department.

After weeks of discussions, the county reluctantly agreed. Nelson and other archaeologists were brought back. Exploratory holes up to 5 feet deep revealed stone tools and scrapers, knife blades and fish bones. Some artifacts, including obsidian tools, indicated trade with other tribes in the Cascade region.

But it was the way artifacts were distributed that made the find an exciting one for archaeologists and tribal members.

"The site's kind of unusual, especially for western Washington," Nelson says. "It has very clearly defined stratigraphy ... and that's rare.

"There is an indication of several different cultural occupations, separated by some unknown, as yet, period of time."

Although results of radio-carbon14 tests are not complete, Nelson feels comfortable dating the majority of the find to within the last 1,000 years. But auger holes to a depth of 7 to 8 feet struck what appeared to be even older hearths from what may have been longhouses built along the shores of the river thousands of years ago.

Mullen says several archaeologists told him the site is one of the most significant ever discovered in the Pacific Northwest.

But with winter rains starting and flood potential on the horizon, the site had to be covered before any further investigation could be carried out. Budget constraints by the county, already $105,000 in the hole on the project, also forced a quick completion of the excavation. But Mullen and the tribe, eager to learn more about their people's history, negotiated with the county to keep the door open for future digs.

"We're not against that," says Al Dams, spokesperson for the King County Parks Systems. "Our only question is the funding for it. We can't fund anymore digs. We want to work with the tribe and we have, all the way through."

Although the possibility of a soccer field at this point is dim, both the county and the tribe hope that once further excavations are completed, additional permits surrounding the flood plain site will be granted and construction can begin again.

"We haven't given up on the site yet," says Dams.