Whenever I peruse the woods and shore at Matthews Beach, just a few yards from the residential creek that so captured my attention several years ago, I hope to find something interesting and significant half-buried in the sand or nestled beneath the frothy fern fronds and ivy roots. Luckily, I have found many interesting items and some of significance to me — my favorite being the perfectly intact, slender white jawbone of a shrew, glistening in a concave of moss atop my favorite “thinking log.” (In case you’re wondering why that would be significant, its presence, along with several tufts of matted hair, meant that an owl had been visiting.)
Some days as I walk along the southern shore of the beach or with the waves lapping my feet at Magnuson Park (just under two miles away), I think about John G. Matthews, Jr. and his beach-combing adventures. What were the circumstances when he discovered a thousands-year-old tip of a stone club — likely Duwamish in origin — in the gravelly sand between Matthews Beach and Pontiac Bay in 1926?
The area was much different, 95 years ago. While the land was mostly platted by then, not many people lived along the shores of Lake Washington that far north, yet. Nowadays, the population of the Matthews Beach neighborhood is about 6,300. In 1926, Matthews, Jr. was either finishing up or just finished with a law degree, and was likely up for a visit from California, where he and his two brothers attended school. The area where he found the club is just south of his father’s property and homestead. After his death, Matthews, Sr’s land was donated to the City of Seattle and turned into his namesake park we enjoy today!
John Jr. probably could have just sauntered down the shoreline from his dad’s place, maybe finding many of the same remnants I have encountered — effusive numbers of quarter-sized white clam shells, driftwood, fishing paraphernalia. These days, however, the journey from Matthews Beach to Pontiac Bay is trickier. Just a few yards from the creek, the park ends, and the long line of vast waterfront houses begins. Most of these forego the beach in favor of decks and docks, even lakeside swimming pools, such that there isn’t a single stretch of natural shoreline left there.
Matthews, Jr. must’ve known his find was significant, as he immediately took it to the archaeologists at University of Washington’s Burke Museum. It was entered into the museum collection along with two other items supposedly found in the area: a stone adze (the ‘e’ is silent), and a wedge, also made of rock.
So it was that, nearly 100 years after its arrival at the Burke Museum, I went in search of the club from Matthews Beach. My journey occurred during a rather short window of opportunity: the Burke had been closed for extensive renovations and all artifacts were moved into storage for a couple of years. I scheduled a visit sometime after it reopened, and, unknown at the time, a mere three weeks before the museum would be closed again because of the first wave of Covid restrictions.
I arrived on the first Thursday of the month, when the doors are open to all patrons for free, and the place was bustling. Track lights and vaulted ceilings cast warm light and shadows over the brightly colored garments and totem poles next to the service entrance where I was to meet with Laura Phillips, the Archaeology Collections Manager. We headed up the stairs by the main entrance, where dozens of folks waited in line for coffee or dotted the foyer in small groups, pointing to details on carved wooden canoes or reading the description on stone tools, replicas of the very items I was there to see.
The staircase was wide and airy, with views of spacious floors housing beautiful displays and picture windows, behind which were crisp white laboratories. Through the glass you could see long tables, carefully laden with artifacts — fossils behind one, tools and baskets behind another. Each floor was like a different world, each with its cast of characters playing their roles behind the display windows. We settled into one such lab, items in a curio cabinet ourselves, to amuse other patrons milling about the other side of the glass. They passed by slowly, much as I had, with the air of someone eavesdropping. They’d saunter up, gaze around until they made eye contact with someone in the lab, then quickly search the ceiling and nod appreciatively at some imagined detail as they moved on to the next scene.
There was a staging area where I left my belongings — rain-soaked jacket and shoes, thermos, purse, even my ball-point pen. I was allowed my notebook and a pencil. In the lab we greeted two other women working on projects, the warm yellow desk lamps of their work stations contrasting with the neutral aura of the rest of the room. Ms. Phillips had laid out the three artifacts on the table, her precision that of a butler at a dinner party. The adze was first, then the stone club. She mentioned that although the stone wedge was included in the collection, there was scant evidence to suggest that it had actually been found near Matthews Beach at all, and had more likely been mislabeled. I felt rather sorry for it: curated before preservative measures had been put in place, it bore a series of identifying numbers which looked to have been painted with white out.
Ms. Phillips said the club had also experienced too much handling. It had previously been included in one of the museum’s “Burke Boxes,” themed kits filled with collection pieces and curricular activities, available to be checked out and taken home in an effort to garner more public interest in archaeology and natural history. Now, however, artifacts are kept in a very sterile environment, with as little handling as possible, and most not ever even on display.
The club was slender and smooth, even though half of it was missing. Years of being washed around in the sandy shores of Lake Washington had made their mark. Illustrations in Hilary Stewart’s book, “Stone, Bone, Antler and Shell” show what the club might have looked like, originally. The tool would have been about eight inches long, straight, and probably had a hole carved at the missing end, for looping a leather cord through. Such clubs were attached to belts for handy access and the leather would have additionally given support and leverage when used.
In the original accession ledger, which included information on each artifact such as date and location found, notes on condition, etc. the tool was listed as a “war club,” but Ms. Phillips thought that assessment a bit of a romanticization of its actual purpose, more likely for clubbing salmon. As they were such a common tool, working clubs would have been passed down through families, and only tossed away if broken (as this one probably had been).
The adze was a flatter, wider stone tool, this one made of jade, used for chopping, carving and shaving wood. When I asked how old the adze was, Ms. Phillips chuckled at her own vague answer: no more than 4,500 years old. Thanks, that narrows it down. The reason for its wide age range? Western Red Cedar. The adze became a common tool with the advent of large cedar trees. A massive glacier carved out all the old growth along the coast about 5,000 years ago. So, maybe 500-ish years later, the arboreal giants would have made a comeback and that’s when the coastal natives would have started constructing such tools for use on cedar.
In her book, “Cedar,” Hilary Stewart narrows down the end date for stone adze tools a bit more, pointing out that steel adze blades have been used instead for several hundred years. That would put the stone adze blade found on Lake Washington at anywhere from 400-4,500 years old. Stewart also mentions that while many examples of steel adze-hewn cedar stumps and trees have been studied, to date no examples of cuts made from stone tools have been available to study, making it difficult to know exactly how they were used. With information gleaned about other adze tools, we can surmise that this sort of adze would’ve been attached to a wooden haft, probably of alder, lashed together with leather bindings, and used for anything from chopping off kindling from large trees, to hollowing out canoes and shaping longhouses.
Cedar trees soon saw themselves made invaluable to native tribes all over the west coast, and their uses extended to every corner of Native American life. The tribes had cedar overhead and under foot; they wore it, they traveled on it, they consumed it. In her book, “Ethnobotany of Western Washington,” Erna Gunther states that there was “no single item so ubiquitous in the Indian household” as cedar. At least there was plenty to go around.
It was the material used exclusively in crafting most components of houses, including planks, posts, and roofs. Canoes were likewise made entirely out of cedar. They were carved out of a single log, roughly hollowed out and then painstakingly shaped and smoothed with different types of adzes. Each end of a canoe was tapered, and depending on the style of canoe, the sides were shaved down to fit the fleetness or sturdiness needed. Seafaring craft, such as for seal- or whale-hunting, needed higher, sturdier bows specifically shaped to rebuff ocean waves, and with round, flared sides for maximum buoyancy. Canoes built for general travel or fishing in lakes and rivers were lighter (for portability) and featured a lower bow and stern to make room for spearing fish or guiding the boat with a pole.
Thomas Talbot Waterman and his colleague, Geraldine Coffin, identified six major types of canoes favored by folk in the Puget Sound area (chiefly Seattle), all of the dugout variety mentioned, and classified by their makers based on hull shape. While the first instinct is to identify them by their size, the fact is that each type of craft can vary widely in that department, with Waterman giving an example of a war canoe being anywhere from 16 to 80 feet long, presumably depending on how many warriors were needed in attendance.
Hunting parties relied on strong rope made by soaking and twisting full cedar limbs. The heftiest of these were used to tow entire whales back to shore by coastal dwellers.
Not everything is invented through necessity. Who knows how they came up with this concoction, but some peoples mixed cedar charcoal dust with salmon roe, slathering it on their canoe paddles (generally made with yew trees). They then heated these paddles over pitch smoke, and rubbed them with grasses until they were shiny as black beetles. Similar practices by other tribes included slathering pitch over paddles while heating and rubbing them, for a protective finish as well as to make them more hydrodynamic, and I gather that was the purpose of the charcoal and roe mixture, as well.
At home, the women of Pacific Northwest tribes had many uses for cedar, as well. The bark of the tree was used in all forms. Full sheaths of bark were used to smoke and serve fish, and strips of it laid to line cooking pits. Lengths of the malleable inner bark were woven into towels and plaited into skirts and capes and ceremonial wear, and used as menstrual pads. Finely shredded bark made for a fluffy lining in cradles and sleeping areas. Using a tool made of deer bone, “the shredding of bark [was] a constant bit of busy work for women” in the villages up and down the coast, Gunther posits in her book. Bark and roots were also necessary for basket-making, with some villagers seeking the roots of rotten trees to get at the most pliable strands with which to weave their coiled receptacles.
The long history of cedar would be bereft without mentioning medicine. The soft, pale pleats of a new branch were gathered with the most fervor, though their uses were as varied as the tribes that swore by them. New limbs were boiled by the Quinault to soothe sores brought on by venereal disease (thanks, white settlers!) and brewed with various seeds to lower fevers or ease tuberculosis symptoms (again, why do all our “gifts” to Natives require medical attention?) The buds of the tree were harvested and chewed in case of sore lungs or toothaches, and the bark and twigs were steeped to help with kidney trouble. The cedar is a remarkably versatile plant, it turns out.
We appreciate cedar as more of a luxury now (think fancy salmon-grilling planks and moth-repellant chests) but if there’s still anything more evocative of the Pacific Northwest than a cedar tree, I can’t think of it. Anyone who has spent much time in the woods here can probably conjure up the shape of their sweeping branches and furry red bark. Cedars make the best nurse logs, at least aesthetically speaking. I mean, any tree can fall in the woods and decay over time, collecting leaf litter and soil upon which grows moss, mushrooms and seedlings and giving shelter to all manner of small animals. But have you ever made your way through a dense northwest forest and had something scarlet catch your eye? Many a time, I’ve mistaken a cedar nurse log for a carcass or discarded rain jacket, so brilliant red can they be against the green and black of the forest.
These nurse logs, however, do not make for great firewood, let me tell you. One of my more cringe-worthy moments in the woods has to be the time I decided to use a hefty chunk of cedar I found splitting off an old stump as campfire fuel. It was dense, far heavier than I’d expected it to be when I reached to haul it up. The wood, even in its prime, would never have been described as “hard,” but now resembled kind of a cross between wet angel food cake and styrofoam. Not sure why I decided it would be a good idea, but chuck it on the fire, I did.
The muted ochre of the rotting wood blotted out the dancing orange flames and soon all I could see were tendrils of smoke curling together into a splotchy grey morass. And that’s not all: after the smoke started to clear, the phrase “came out of the woodwork” began to make so much more sense to me. All manner of little crawlies began to make their way out the cracks and crevices of the log. A couple of shiny black beetles scurried through the haze. A large-bodied spider lumbered across the top, and over the edge, surprisingly calm in the face of such horror. But the worst, to be sure, was the centipede. It came racing out of one of the many small holes visible on the face of the log. It darted around in circles, sticking its head into half a dozen different holes before immediately backing out again. Finally it found one that suited it and disappeared.
All was still on the nurse log for a few minutes, and the light crackling of the fire almost lulled me back into a sense of tranquility, until the centipede came rushing back out. It resumed its frantic search for a safe hiding spot, this time turning around faster and faster, poking its body in and out of the cracks so quick that my eyes could hardly keep up. In an instant, the centipede launched right off the edge into the embers below. I actually cried out, but I couldn’t decide if I was more horrified or fascinated. I wondered if there was some branch of animal behavior research that included “insect duress,” and how I might be able to get that job. As for the nurse log, I’m afraid I forced it to abandon its Hippocratic oath that night – a mistake I am loath to make again.
Cedar, like any wood, of course, doesn’t last forever. Any haft that may have been attached to the adze found at Matthews Beach, along with its leather bindings, would have long rotted away, leaving only the worn stone blade behind. Same with the club: its other half and leather cord are long disappeared. But they both help paint a picture of Matthews Beach in its former life. The longhouse at Tuhubeed may have been built with such an adze — who knows, maybe even with that adze itself. Or it might have carved the canoes that weaved among the cattails along the shore, carrying Duwamish fishermen and their clubs, whacking away at salmon not far from the creek’s mouth. All that’s left, though, are remnants.