Prehistory in the Palouse: Marmes Rockshelter

In 1952, a Palouse farmer named Roland "Squirt" Marmes discovered a strange rock formation on his property near the town of Hooper, Washington. That same year, another Hooper rancher named John McGregor brought Washington State University archaeologist Richard Daugherty to Marmes' property to view the odd-looking cavern. Although interested, Daugherty would not return for ten years. In 1962 the first archaeological excavation was undertaken, followed by subsequent excavations
in 1963, '64, '65, and 1968. The Washington State University Archaeology Department and its students led the excavations, which yielded some of the most interesting finds yet discovered in the Northwest.

The Marmes Rockshelter site was discovered only a few years before the Lower Monumental Dam was slated to be finished, leaving archeologists racing against the clock to figure a way to save the cavern before the area behind the dam was inundated by the Snake River. Imagine the WSU archeologist's surprise when his team began to uncover hundreds and eventually thousands of well-preserved items, including a ceremonial burial pit and even skeletal remains. The Marmes site proved without a doubt the existence of mortuary practices of early plateau inhabitants from at least 12,000 years ago. It also helped to determine and shape the sequence of events that have defined everything archeologists know about the culture and habits of the early Plateau peoples. The remains at the Rockshelter showed that the site was inhabited steadily for nearly 8,000 years. The unearthing of Marmes Man was undoubtedly the most significant of the site's thousands of artifacts. In 1968, when he was uncovered, Marmes Man's were the oldest human skeletal remains yet discovered by archeologists, estimated at around 12,000 years old. He was later placed back into his gravesite where he still resides to this day.

In 1968, the construction of the Lower Monumental Dam 20 miles downriver from the Marmes site was nearly finished and with congressional approval, a small coffer dam was constructed around the Rockshelter to protect it from the rising waters. Unfortunately, it did absolutely no good. The river quickly seeped under the cofferdam's base through the loose rock and gravel beneath, submerging the Marmes Rockshelter under 40-feet of water. All that is visible today is the top few feet of the cofferdam which still surrounds the Marmes site. Ironically enough, the discovery of the site and its eventual inundation precipitated a move for more government involvement within the realm of cultural resource management and the creation of laws to better protect places of historic and cultural significance from irreversible damage. When the dam is someday demolished, archeologists will no doubt return to the site in hopes that Marmes Man and the thousands of other artifacts and human remains survived the flood.

Images

Flooded Marmes, 1970

Flooded Marmes, 1970

A look at the top few feet of the coffer dam built to protect the site. As soon as the backed-up river began to surround the coffer dam, it also began to seep under the hastily built dam. Not taking into account the loose silt and gravel underneath the riverbed, WSU archeologists cringed as they watched the Rockshelter inundate. Image courtesy of Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology. View File Details Page

Looking out of the Rockshelter, 1967

Looking out of the Rockshelter, 1967

This image gives an image of what the view was from inside the cavernous Rockshelter. It was the ancestral burial grounds, as well as the home for an unknown number of North America's first inhabitants. It was used for over 8,000 years, which really puts the Rockshelter's importance into perspective. Image courtesy of Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology. View File Details Page

Marmes Rockshelter Site, 1968

Marmes Rockshelter Site, 1968

This is what the site looked like before the Lower Monumental Dam reservoir was allowed to swallow the archeological site. Although its size is hard to determine through this photo, the Rockshelter's entrance is around 25-feet high. Image courtesy of Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology. View File Details Page

Standing in the Rockshelter, June 3, 1967

Standing in the Rockshelter, June 3, 1967

This group of WSU professors and local residents are discussing how to best preserve the site from inundation. It was decided to build a coffer dam, one which failed to work even in the slightest. This photo gives a good idea of just how immense the cavernous Rockshelter is. Today, there stands about forty-feet of the Snake and Palouse Rivers atop the site. The only thing visible is the top of the coffer dam. Image courtesy of Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology. View File Details Page

Clovis Spearhead

Clovis Spearhead

Of the thousands of artifacts discovered at the Mares site, the most abundant are the many spearheads. This style is known as the Clovis spearhead, named after the so-called "Clovis people," thought to be one of the first inhabitants of North America. This distinctive style of spearhead has been found all over the continent and have been dated as far back as 30,000 years. This particular spearhead however is estimated at around 12,000 years. Image courtesy of Washington State University, Museum of Anthropology. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Robert M. Lambeth, “Prehistory in the Palouse: Marmes Rockshelter,” Spokane Historical, accessed July 28, 2017, http://spokanehistorical.org/items/show/437.
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