Monday, February 25, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Bob Muckle Researching Japanese Logging Camps in British Columbia

Bob likes beer. After a day in the field, 
or the lab, or the classroom, Bob likes
 a beer. His favorite is Dead Guy Ale.
Bob Muckle is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at Capilano University in North Vancouver, British Columbia.  You might recognize the name Robert Muckle from the cover of one of your anthropology textbooks or his regular online column for Anthropology News: Archeology in North America.  But were you aware that for more than a decade he's been running Capilano University's Archaeology Field School in the Seymour Valley, north of Vancouver? Or that through those field schools Bob and his students have uncovered a previously undocumented series of early 20th century Japanese logging camps?

Later this May, Bob will be reporting on this project at the Canadian Archaeological Association's Conference in Whistler, B.C..  Here's a sneak peak...

Plans and Profiles #11. Bob Muckle, Japanese Logging Camps in British Columbia

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Fireplace in the forest. In the 1940s workers were
apparently instructed to destroy all buildings in the valley,
 and almost all were completely demolished and burned.
A worker left this fireplace intact though. It was rather
 strange to walk through the forest and come across this.
 Not quite like Stephens and Catherwood coming across
 Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, exciting nevertheless.
The Seymour Valley Archaeology Project focuses on locating, recording, and excavating historic period sites in the now heavily forested Seymour River Valley, close to Vancouver, BC. For seven weeks each May and June, I direct 15 students enrolled in the Capilano University archaeology field school on the project.

The primary historic period activity in the valley was logging, but there were also permanent homesteads, cabins for recreational use, small stores and cafes, a ranch, mining ventures, a cattle trail, and some work camps. A dam was built across the river in the early 1900s to create one of the three main reservoirs of Greater Vancouver, which also created the need to build access roads and lay pipes through the valley to carry water. It was decided to restrict use of the area and beginning in the 1930s commercial activity was curtailed, residential and recreational properties were bought or expropriated, all buildings were burned, the area was closed to the public, and the forest grew over most evidence of human occupation and activity. The area was re-opened for non-vehicle recreation use in the late 1900s, but except for very large tree stumps from first-growth logging, little evidence of human activity is visible on the surface.

Sawblade in logging camp. Not surprisingly, we sometimes
 find logging related artifacts in the logging camps. The context
 and warping of the blade indicates this one was probably in a
camp workshop that burned.
Over the past 12 field seasons we have located and recorded several homesteads and about a dozen cabin locations. We have excavated at one residential location. We have also discovered and excavated three logging camps, all with a Japanese component. The Japanese presence in the valley was surprising.

The primary research component focuses on the Japanese presence in the valley during the early 1900s. Secondary research components include contributions to local history, Asian-American archaeology, and the archaeology of camps.

Study Area (click to enlarge)

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Visiting a logging camp. 2012 students visiting a previously
 excavated Japanese logging camp last occupied about 80
years ago. The entire camp burned. The wooden planks are
 likely the floorboards of a mess hall. Photo by Mark Galvani.
Rather than being research-driven to start, the project was initiated as an opportunity to conduct field work locally, with students enrolled in a field school. After a number of years of running my own archaeology consulting company, by 1999 I was into several years of teaching full-time year round and a whack of kids on the home front (six kids in a blended family), with little time for field work. I missed it. Then in a span of a couple of months in 1999, three important things happened. I attended a conference in Boston where I learned of an excellent low-cost model for running a community archaeology program based at a small college or university. I clearly remember thinking that would work for me. That was followed almost immediately by my accepting an invitation to bring my so-called expertise on bivalve shell taphonomy to a field project in Alaska, which I enjoyed immensely. It confirmed for me that I really wanted to get back to doing field archaeology. The third thing was, shortly after returning from Alaska, I decided to follow a dirt road leading from the north end of my campus into the forest to judge the potential for conducting archaeological work there. Within an hour I had roughed out a general plan for the project involving a field school, public education, and research. I thought of it as a one field season project. I am now getting ready for the 13th field season in the valley.

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Logging camp garden. This area is presumed to be garden
 for a Japanese camp occupied from about 1918 to perhaps
as recently as 1942.
The project began with primary foci on contributions to local history and education – both in training students in field methods and public education. Most of the initial work concentrated on documenting areas of residential and recreational activities. By the third field season I was more interested in the remnants of a logging camp we found in a fairly remote part of the forest. Once we started excavating it became clear it was a Japanese logging camp, which was quite a surprise since there were no references to any such camp in the area. I have since discovered and excavated two other camps, one which likely included but was not solely Japanese, and the other entirely Japanese. I have found one of the camps particularly intriguing for a few reasons which have directed my research for the past few field seasons. One camp, dating to about 1918-1921, appears to be laid out in a typical Japanese manner. Rather than having a typical bunkhouse, mess hall , and single large midden, it shows evidence of several small cabins where the Japanese loggers probably lived with their wives and children. The site also has evidence of a typical Japanese style bathhouse, a garden, and perhaps a shrine. Interestingly, the other Japanese camp only a few km away, probably dating to about 1921-1924, has a very similar artifact assemblage (eg. Japanese ceramics and bottles), but is set up as a more typical Pacific Northwest logging camp. I think this may reflect an adaptive strategy of the Japanese logging camp operators who may have decided to run their camps the Canadian-way when moving camps about 1921. The other intriguing thing about one of the camps that drives my research interest is the indications that the camp abandoned by loggers about 1921 may have continued to be used as a sort of secret residential camp from the early 1920s until Japanese internment in 1942.

4) If you could ask the people who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be

Work boot. Almost all artifacts at the logging camps are 
subsurface but we occasionally find something above the 
ground surface, including this workboot. Workboots 
often show signs of substantial repair, and preserve well.
I have been fortunate insofar that some of the people who lived in the area in the 1920s and 30s are still alive and I have been able to ask them all sorts of questions about life in the valley at that time. In the early days of the project I had a female student who wanted to know more about the logging camp life in the area so she would spend Saturday afternoons at drinking establishments catering to the older gentlemen – dancing and drinking with them to get the stories.

I have also been fortunate to have several elderly Japanese folks visit the camps we have been excavating. They have provided insight into such things as how the bathhouse would have been constructed and used, and generally are supportive of my interpretations of camp layout. I often ask elderly Japanese what would have been in the aqua-coloured bottles that are ubiquitous in the camps, but they only guess – beer, wine, sake, or soya sauce.

One of the most interesting finds is part of a camera within what would have been the walls of a bathhouse used in the early 1900s. If I had only one question to ask, I would ask “Where are the photos?” 

5) Have you ever found anything in the field or lab that you wish you hadn’t?

At one site logging camp we get quite a few visitors, stopping
 by on their hikes or rides through the forest. Consequently,
we put signs around. We can tell that people often walk
around on weekends, but nothing has ever been disturbed.
Well, after not excavating at one particular camp for about five years, I decided to do some more excavations. The first day back at the site I had some students try to re-locate the site datum (a length of re-bar buried vertically). They initially couldn’t find it where it should have been but eventually they found it slightly subsurface, laying horizontal, a few meters away from its original location. In the original location we found several pieces of flaked obsidian with a few coins from recent decades mixed in. I wish I hadn’t found these because I wish they didn’t exist in this context. I imagine whoever placed the obsidian and coins there thought it was funny. But I don’t. I didn’t like the idea of contaminating the site with flaked obsidian and since I spend so much time on the ethics, I found it disturbing that it was probably one of my former students that did it.

At another site, we found evidence of a very recent outdoor marijuana growing operation. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It makes archaeology storytelling interesting, but I learned that some of my students knew a bit too much about grow ops. I wonder how much the operators disturbed the deposits, and I always had the feeling we were being watched. 

6) You’ve written books, articles and a lot of online material – do you have any advice for archaeologists who may be struggling with their own writing?

Working in the lab. We have cataloged about
2,000 artifacts over the years, including many
 bottles, cans, ceramics, and personal items
such as toothbrushes, costume jewelry, clocks,
and items related to clothing like garters, clasps,
buttons, and boots. I walk around and point
at things while the students do the real work.
Thanks for the plug. I do like to write – mostly books for the textbook and trade markets and I’ve written archaeology and anthropology columns for three on-line periodicals. For those thinking about submitting something to journals or publishers with editors, have faith in the editors. They can make you look to be a much better writer than you really are. For writing on-line, without the benefit of editors, be aware that readers of on-line material tend to be very forgiving. People tend to think the occasional error in spelling, punctuation, and grammar is an acceptable trade-off for immediacy and being free. There are so many errors in some of my on-line writing I have recently suggested to some that they turn reading my columns into a drinking game. 

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I like beer. I like tasting new kinds, especially those from Oregon and California. My favorite is Dead Guy Ale. I am learning to like scotch. I also like camping and hiking. Several years ago one of my kids and I hiked the Chilkoot Trail from Alaska to the Yukon. That was a blast. Generally, I like the outdoors. I live in the suburbs but still like to have outdoor fires in my yard year-round. The fire department has only been called once.

I’m starting to get a bit into organic gardening. I started a few years ago and think I am getting better at it. I got into it because I wanted to eat more things with less chemicals and more taste. I wanted a carrot that tasted like the carrots when I was a kid. And I wanted to be able to pull something out of the ground, brush off the dirt, and just eat it without having to wash it. 

8) What archaeological discovery of project do you wish that you could have been part of?

I would have liked to be part of the discovery of KNM ER 1470 in the Lake Turkana region of Kenya. It is Homo habilis to some and Homo rudolphensis to others. Ever since learning of this particular hominin, it has been my favorite. Some years ago I received a large cheque for archaeological services rendered years before (and which I had already written off). So I decided to go to visit the site of discovery with the money. To get there I had to run past alligators (or was it crocodiles, on the shores of Lake Turkana), sleep in a cage at night while hearing lions roar, trek for hours with a machete for protection, and lost 40 lbs through diarrhea and vomiting, but I have no regrets.

I would also like to have been part of Bill Rathje’s Garbage projects in the 1970s and early 1980sIn which he had students sort contemporary household waste, both from trash cans and landfills. I have always been fascinated by the study of contemporary trash, and have recently incorporated a campus waste audit in my own archaeology classes. 

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

Rock feature at 1920 Japanese camp. This may be a small
shrine. Excavation revealed horizontal planks within the rock
walls, near the top. Besides nails, the only artifacts in and
around the feature were fragments of green curved glass and
 twisted  wire, which I interpret as remnants of a lantern. The
feature is on the edge of the site, beside a creek.
I am starting to work on a book on the Seymour Valley Archaeology Project but it is a few years from publication yet. Two students in recent years have blogged the project for the seven weeks they have been on the field school. Both are quite good, with lots of visuals, and provide a good sense of the day to day activity and finds.

The 2010 blog can be found at Capilano University Archaeology Field School 2010.

The 2012 blog can be found at Capilano University Archaeology Field School 2012 

Folks are also encouraged to follow me on Twitter @bobmuckle (where I provide links and make comments on things related to everything archaeology, contemporary waste, and Indigenous Peoples of North America), and read my monthly ‘Archaeology in North America’ column (

My most recent book, Indigenous Peoples of North America, came out in 2012; and I am currently working on revised editions of both First Nations of British Columbia and Introducing Archaeology.

Excavating in hail. Muckle's crew work in all kinds of weather, including hail. If you aren't willing to work in inclement weather in BC, you probably aren't going to work much. These excavation units are at a cabin where a Japanese logger probably lived with his wife.


Is there an archaeology field school or research project that you are interested in knowing more about?  Perhaps one that you were on or that you run yourself?  Let me know:

Photo Credits:
Bob Muckle, unless otherwise noted in the photo caption.
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

1 comment:

  1. I think historic sites make great field schools. I took a field school at an historic ranch site in southern Alberta that was run out of the University of Calgary. I grew up on a farm not far from the ranch and a lot of the stuff that we found in the ground was the same as the stuff we still had hanging in our barn back home. Historic field schools are good confidence builders for students because they can focus on technique and method, with less self-doubt creeping in every time they find something and have to wonder "is this an artifact?" The function of every historic artifact isn't immediately obvious, so there's still plenty of puzzling out to do, but at least the materials and tools left behind are a little easier to recognize for new archaeologists than flakes and bone fragments.


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