Lower Columbia Figurines: Part II

Post by Dianna Woolsey, PSU graduate student

In my previous post, I described the unusual clay figurines that have been found in the Lower Columbia: simple incised anthropomorphic tablets, and finely-sculptured zoomorphic items described as pipe bowls or club heads.  Neither of these artifact types seems to resemble the clay objects reported from other areas of Oregon, Washington, or British Columbia

The zoomorphic sculptures seem to have an analogue to the north, in the ground stone bowls and club heads of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.  Wilson Duff (1956 and 1975) describes a zoomorphic stone bowl tradition, primarily found in the Gulf of Georgia and Lower Fraser River areas, featuring deeply-carved, naturalistic animal faces reminiscent of the Burke collection’s owl bowl.  Hilary Stewart (1996) illustrates a series of carved stone maul heads from the northern Northwest Coast, which also feature the smooth roundness and deep-set eyes of the Lower Columbia club heads.

Duff fig photo

Owl bowl, from Duff 1975:49

The tabular figurines seem to have analogues also, in the form of incised pieces of slate and mudstone (a sedimentary rock made of fine clay or silt particles).  Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology for the Royal BC Museum, has made a study of these mudstone pieces from the southern coast of British Columbia.  A few images that he shared with us showed mudstone fragments decorated with the hair or hat design common on the Lower Columbia figurines.  Douglas Osborne (1951) recovered a number of flat slate pebbles from a burial site in eastern Washington that featured this same design – along with a single piece that was identical except for being made of clay.  Heizer (1952) and Clark and Isaacs (1964) recovered incised slate pebbles from sites on Kodiak Island, Alaska, showing very basic facial features and body portions decorated with repeated motifs resembling necklaces or clothing.  A little more research into these tabular figurines suggests that very similar artifacts turn up occasionally in clay and stone in a variety of areas: for instance, a lone object in Southwest Oregon, one far up the Columbia Gorge, and a large collection from Death Valley, California.

Clark and Issacs

Kodiak incised pebbles, from Clark and Isaacs 1964:127

These comparative examples are intriguing, but we can’t really use them to make hypotheses about migrations, interactions, or the development of artifact forms, because it’s hard to place the Lower Columbia objects in temporal context.  Very few of these artifacts are associated with good radiocarbon dates, and those dates we have are spread widely across the Multnomah I and Multnomah II phases, ranging from about 1700 years ago to as recently as European contact.  The figurines in the Burke’s collection, like most of the examples of this artifact type, were picked up by private collectors.  Many of the sites containing these artifacts are close to the Portland-Vancouver metro area, making them vulnerable to vandalism and other kinds of disturbance.  Several collectors have donated their figurines to area museums, and one local photographer has assembled an impressive collection of photographs and measurements of privately-held Lower Columbia clay objects, but even with these resources we can’t reconstruct the objects’ archaeological context.  If we hope to find out how these items fit into the prehistory of the Lower Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, there’s no substitute for controlled excavation.


Clark, Donald W. and Jane Isaacs. 1964. Incised Figurine Tablets from Kodiak, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 2(1): 118-134.

Duff, Wilson. 1956. Prehistoric Stone Sculpture of the Fraser River and Gulf of Georgia. Anthropology in British Columbia 5: 15-151.

Duff, Wilson. 1975. Images: Stone: BC: Thirty Centuries of Northwest Coast Indian Sculpture. Surrey: Hancock House Publishers.

Heath, David A. 2011. Shoto Clay – Wares from the Lake River Ceramics Horizon of Southwest Washington State. Part 1 – Figurines; Part 2 – Club Heads; Part 3 – Maskette Figurines. http://archive.org/details/Figurines_Part_1

Heizer, Robert F. 1952. Incised Slate Figurines from Kodiak Island, Alaska. American Antiquity 17(3): 266.

Osborne, Douglas. 1951. Excavations Near Umatilla, Oregon: The Archaeology of the Columbia Intermontane Province. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California.

Stewart, Hilary. 1996. Stone, Bone, Antler, and Shell: Artifacts of the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas and MacIntyre.

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