Western Snake River Prehistory

Daniel S. Meatte

(taken from the Prehistory of the Western Snake River Basin (1990) pp.63-70)



Interest has been recently renewed in the nature and presence of the Fremont Culture in southern Idaho. This interest has manifested itself as a heated debate over conflicting interpretations of diagnostic artifacts, such as pottery sherds, basketry, and projectile points. The artifacts in question purportedly represent either an influx of Fremont peoples (Butler 1979c), or an influx of goods and technology (Plew 1979d), into southern Idaho. This debate stems from three papers published in 1979, one by Mark Plew (1979d) and two by B. Robert Butler (1979a, 1979c). In the first paper, Plew found the designation Shoshoni Ware far too inclusive of a pottery type for southern Idaho. He proposed a new pottery type, Southern Idaho Plain, "be recognized to distinguish a more finely made pottery than the classic thick-walled, flat-bottomed vessels characteristically referred to as Shoshoni Ware." (Plew 1979d:329). Further, Plew suggested that Southern Idaho Plain may have its origins or at least affinities with the Fremont culture of northern Utah (Plew 1979d:332-334).

Butler similarly concluded that "two distinct wares, each exhibiting considerable variation in form and decoration" could be discerned for this region. He labeled one type Intermountam Ware and a speculated second type was associated with the Fremont pottery traditions of Northern Utah (Butler 1979a:9). In a second paper, Butler elaborated on his thoughts by proposing that "the northern frontier of the Fremont culture extended as far north as the Snake River Plain in the Middle and late Archaic periods and that this culture contributed to the make-up of Northern Shoshoni culture in late prehistoric and early historic times." (Butler 1979c:8).

The importance of these three papers is readily apparent. Both authors agreed that a discernible variation was present within the existing pottery type called Shoshoni ware (or Intermountain Ware, or Southern Idaho Plain). Each author presented laudable means of classifying that variation. Particularly significant is that both authors drew similar conclusions from significantly different sets of data which only partially overlap in the south-central portion of the state. Plew focused on pottery collections recovered from southwestern Idaho while Butler utilized pottery collections from southeastern Idaho. Their agreement that the Fremont Culture of Utah somehow contributed to the variation that they were documenting, either directly, or indirectly, cannot be overlooked.

Regrettably, these two authors spurred a series of comments and rebuttals which questioned the methodology, data, and at times, character of each other (Butler 1980d, 1981b; Plew 1980d, 1980e, 1981d). And, these rebuttals drew additional comments from others as well (Adovasio et al. 1982; Harrison and Hanson 1980).

A related shortcoming of this debate has been the recent reinterpretation of important taxonomic phases in the late archaic sequences of southern Idaho based upon spurious claims (Butler 1980b, 1981a; 1983b). This reinterpretation is based on the direct linkage of scattered finds of pottery sherds recovered from southern Idaho to stylistically similar types from known Fremont sites in Utah. This linkage, once established, is then used to redefine artifact assemblages associated with the newly defined Fremont pottery. An example is Butler's reanalysis of the pottery sherds from Wilson Butte Cave [The first paragraph below is from a memo written by Frank Hull to Jesse Jennings, dated June 13, 1980, and quoted by Butler. The following paragraph is text by B. Robert Butler].

Rex Madsen examined under a microscope nine of the sherds that Dr. (sic) Butler sent down for identification from Wilson Butte Cave. Without question, Rex identified the sherds as Great Salt Lake Gray. Temper is rounded sand with quite a lot of mica. Some of the sherds have the characteristic light orange-brown color. The exterior of some of the sherds has striation but generally the vessels were smoothed and scraped, typical of Great Salt Lake Gray. The incised rim decoration is also typical. Sherds 10382, 10053 and 10003 are "type quality" Great Salt Lake Gray.

Thus,certain crucial material culture items characteristic of the Dietrich phase in southcentral Idaho now have been determined to be, on the basis of independent study and extensive reanalysis, definitely Fremont, rather than Shoshonean [Butler 1981c:2-3].

Ironically, Butler has committed the same mistake that he charges other authors of making in this same article.

Using the mere occurrence of so-called "Shoshonean" pottery at certain southern Idaho sites as an indicator of Shoshonean presence (e.g., Madsen 1975; Wright 1978) is obviously a mistake; we will need to have both pottery and basketry, in combination with a range of other material, well analyzed before a case can be made for either a Shoshonean presence at any particular prehistoric site in southern Idaho or for its purported interaction with Fremont inhabitants of this region [Butler 1981c:3] [Emphasis added].

Of further concern is the unquestioning acceptance, at face value, of these interpretations. Aikens and Wither-spoon have recently incorporated Butler's purported documentation into their hypothesis on Numic prehistory (1986). They extend the territorial range of the Fremont into all of southern Idaho (Aikens and Witherspoon 1986:Figure 3).

Though mildly entertaining, this rather caustic, misguided debate has obscured the original contributions of Butler and Plew with a massive bulk of diatribe. The result, of course, is an important archaeological topic brought to a state of utter confusion. Less now is understood about Fremont relationships, if any exist, on the Snake River Plain, than ever before.

At the heart of this debate are differences of opinion with respect to the interpretation of pottery types, largely recovered as isolated finds and in few archaeological contexts. If these interpretations are to be resolved, they will require a comprehensive analysis of existing pottery collections, a large set of radiocarbon dates clearly associated with the various pottery types from excavated contexts, and finally, a more constructive dialogue geared to a common endeavor (see Pailes 1981:468, for some pertinent observations on the character of recent archaeological debates). Is there a Fremont presence in southern Idaho? At present, no. While Butler has presented a long, tenuous, inventory of "Fremont pottery from southern Idaho, he has not presented any evidence which would support a contention that these sherds and/or basketry fragments show temporal and areal relationships with demonstrable patterning that can be called Fremont. Nevertheless, a recent and extremely insightful, functional analysis of Shoshone pottery by Butler (1987), has demonstrated some of the fruitful avenues of inquiry that can be pursued. Hopefully, future pottery studies in the region will pursue more of this type of work.

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