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.