New artifact discoveries on coast keep state archaeologist busy

By Lewis Taylor
Salem, Oregon (AP) 3-08

On most days, the job of the state’s archaeologist is anything but riveting.

Dennis Griffin spends the bulk of his daylight hours sorting through permit applications to ensure that developments don’t disturb sensitive historical grounds. He does some research, looks for signs of historic or prehistoric stuff in the vicinity and then signs off.


But a few weeks ago Griffin’s job became just about the most interesting vocation in Oregon, especially if you’ve got any affinity for all things ancient. Phone calls started pouring into the State Historical Preservation office about strange things that were “washing up” on Oregon beaches – things that, as it turned out, had been there for decades, waiting to be rediscovered by harsh winters that munch beaches and anemic summers that fail to replace that sand.

At first, the phone calls were about shipwrecks, old wooden relics buried beneath hundreds of cubic yards of silt, uncovered by the fierce tides and lashing waves brought on by one of the most severe winter storm seasons in a decade.

Taken individually, Griffin might hardly have batted an eyelash at the “discoveries.”

He’d ask whomever found the rotting structures to fill out a site form; he’d work with local historians to identify the wreck and then he’d plug the info into a state-run database that keeps track of the coast’s buried treasures.

But by February’s end there were three wrecks protruding from their former hiding spots, and another surprise that has occupied the bulk of Griffin’s available hours since a couple of tourists stumbled across them while beach combing at Arch Cape: a pair of Civil War-era cannons, the same cannons for which nearby Cannon Beach was named.

All of a sudden, Dennis Griffin was a busy man.

Griffin wasn’t planning on visiting the shipwrecks – all he needed was for someone to fill out a “site form” to plot their locales. There’s no way to preserve or protect an entire shipwreck, so the most that the state office could do would be to document the site.

The cannons, however, were another story.

“We were afraid the cannons would walk off,” Griffin said. “Everyone wants a souvenir.”

Griffin quickly filled out an application to remove the cannons, then drove to the coast, where the permit was faxed to him.

He met with Oregon Parks and Recreation Department officials at the first available low tide and puzzled over how to lug the mangled chunks of metal from their mired position on the beach.

Once safely bound in a freshwater holding tank, Griffin consulted with experts in Texas, who advised that a mix of saltwater and fresh water would preserve the artifacts better at first.

Since then, Griffin’s job description has involved a bit of historical detective work.

Most people have assumed the cannons came from the USS Shark, a survey schooner that wrecked in 1846 while trying to cross the Columbia River bar. Three cannons were retrieved from the ship, but only one ultimately was recovered, because a crew member moved it to a high point at Arch Cape.

As that’s close to the spot where the other two cannons were found last month, the easy guess is that they’re the Shark’s missing weapons.

Griffin isn’t satisfied yet, however.

“Everyone says ‘It’s the Shark, it’s the Shark,”’ Griffin said. “Well, wait a minute now, it could be lots of wrecks.”

There are up to 30 wrecks that may have been equipped with cannons recorded in the state database from Arch Cape to the mouth of the Columbia, in fact. Before knowing which wreck the recently found cannons occupied, Griffin wants to know more about the cannons.

“The best way is to scan the cannons and get an X-ray of them,” Griffin said, “to match them with the types of cannons made through time.”

That can’t happen until the state picks a conservator, an expert who can scrape away at the “concretions” – rocks and other gunk glued to the cannons’ rust obscuring the cannons’ original form – and then scan the old hunks of metal for a better look. Such a scan also will determine if the cannons are still live.

“They treat every cannon as if they’re loaded,” Griffin said.

At the moment, his primary task is to find a few capable conservators and assemble a committee of agency representatives to pick the right one and eventually determine what museum lays claim to the cannons.

“We want to make sure everyone thinks it’s done the right way,” Griffin said.

In his nearly 30-year career as an archaeologist, Griffin has worked for the federal government, Indian tribes and operated his own business.

Griffin studied anthropology in college, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in that subject from Oregon State University. But as he studied, he found himself more drawn to the artifacts of a place than the people.

He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service, working on timber harvest surveys. Then he moved to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was documenting historic sites in Alaska in accordance with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, a law that provided protection for 5 million acres of historic sites.

After that, Griffin worked as an archaeologist for the Yakima Tribe, before starting his own consulting business in Eugene. For the past five years, he’s worked for the state of Oregon.

Of it all, Griffin said his most rewarding work has been with tribal elders. In 1986, Griffin traveled to Nunivak Island in the Bering Sea, where an elder had happened upon a giant round stone head.

“It looked like the man on the moon head,” Griffin said. “Gorgeous.”

After an excavation, crews found 12 whale vertebrae stacked beneath the tundra where the head was discovered, bones thought to be 260 to 280 years old.

Griffin did some research, and found that oral tradition on that island tells of a giant person named Mell’arpag who walked across the island juggling balls in the shape of stone heads.

“One day, the story goes, the balls collided and flew all over the island. You ask the elders, and they say ‘It’s just a story,”’ Griffin said. “I thought ‘Let’s go check this out, see if there’s more of these.”’

Griffin found three more stone heads, identical to the first.

So maybe the cannons aren’t the most exciting thing Griffin’s ever seen. But it’s all interesting, and it’s all an opportunity to get people interested in historic preservation, he said.

“The public likes treasure,” Griffin said. “We want to get people to think about the archaeology first, rather than last.”