Monday, October 11, 2010

What is a Cache?

The man in orange built this fish cache
Its the Thanksgiving long weekend in Canada; a harvest celebration and a time of plenty.  At this time of the year, there's more fruit and vegetables, meat and fish available than can be immediately used.   At the same time, days are noticeably shorter, and winter is on the horizon.  As long as people have been living in environments with seasons of abundance and seasons of shortage, they've had to deal with food storage.  One way of storing food is to cache it.

The lichen growth shows the age of this cache
Archaeologically, a cache is a storage feature.  They can have lots of different shapes and sizes depending on the contents being cached and the materials available to construct them.  The photos that I have are all stone caches from the Eastern Arctic and were either made by Inuit or the earlier Palaeoeskimo people.  A food or meat cache is designed to help preserve food for later use, often by creating an environment that promotes natural preservation processes like freezing, drying, or fermenting.  A good cache will also need to keep scavenging animals from eating its contents before you have a chance to return to the cache and retrieve it.  At first glance, a cache might just look like a pile of rocks, but there are actually a lot of clues that can help you figure out what it was used for and how old it might be. 

An opened cache can look like a big stone nest
Some caches are hunting caches, built by hunters at the location of a kill where meat can be stockpiled for retrieval at a later time. Marine resources, like fish, seals, walrus, and whales are cached near the coast.  Caribou caches can also be found near the coast, but they can also be found far inland or on high mountain trails.

Clean, pink rocks mean a recent cache
Some caches are associated with living sites, built near the tents or houses that people lived in and used as a kind of outdoor freezer or pantry.  In some cultures, these caches were built right into the walls of the structure and will appear as a concentration of rocks on the edge of a house or tent ring.

A long narrow kayak cache
But food isn't the only thing that people cached for later use.  They also cached equipment. Equipment caches were used to store gear from one season to the next, or to protect it from dogs or wild animals.  One of the coolest kinds of equipment caches in the Arctic are kayak caches.  These are long narrow, boat shaped caches that were used to store the one person skin boats (kayaks) from one season to the next.  The kayaks would be made from sealskin stretched over a wooden frame, so if they were left unprotected they'd be a tasty treat for foxes, wolves, and bears.

Modern camp equipment cache
People still use caches and not all of them are found again.  The photo on the left is a fairly recent Inuit cache of equipment at a campsite.  The half moon shaped object on the rock is a lamp cut and hammered out of a 45 gallon drum lid.  There are also roasting pans, a meat grinder and other domestic equipment in the cache. I've shown pictures of this cache before, and it always makes me wonder whatever happened to the people who left it and if they'll ever be back to use it again.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast

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