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Washington State University
Museum of Anthropology The Marmes Rockshelter Site

Excavations 1968

In 1968 Fryxell and a group of students excavated a 2-m-x-2-m test pit at the bottom of the floodplain trench and found bone tools, animal bone, and human bone, including pieces that articulated with bone found in 1965. The second group of elk and human bone fragments was clearly found in good datable context, between layers of Glacier Peak tephra estimated to have been deposited ca. 10,000 B.P. A radiocarbon date of 10,750 ±100 B.P. (WSU 211) from shell in earliest cultural level, plus the association with the 1965 finds, confirmed the antiquity of the human remains.

At that time these were the best documented human remains of late Pleistocene age in the New World (Fryxell et al. 1968:514).

An announcement of this find, named “Marmes Man,” was made to the general public through the office of Senator Warren G. Magnuson (D-Washington) on April 29, 1968. Fryxell, Bennie Keel, Henry Irwin, and Tadeusz Bielicki presented professional papers about the site on May 10, 1968, at a specially scheduled session at the Society for American Archaeology annual meetings (Keel and Fryxell 1969:47).

Once the finds were made public, the antiquity of the remains and the impending flooding at the completion of the Lower Monumental Dam resulted in an incredible number of visitors. By mid-August several thousand people visited the excavations each week. Formal guided tours were conducted, sometimes at hourly intervals (Fryxell and Keel 1969:23). Major television network news crews (like NBC and PBS) visited the site, and articles appeared in local, regional and national newspapers.

An October 1968 federal supplemental appropriations bill would have provided funds for protecting the site. When a House-Senate conference committee failed to pass it, Fryxell and Daugherty traveled to Washington, D.C. They met with Senator Magnuson and enlisted his support in requesting funds from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue the excavations.

At the request of Senator Magnuson, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an Executive Order authorizing the expenditure of $1.5 million by the Corps of Engineers to construct a cofferdam to protect the site from flooding.

Funds transferred from the Corps of Engineers to the National Park Service allowed for excavation in the rockshelter as well as on the floodplain. Daugherty led the rockshelter excavation, while the floodplain work was directed by Henry Irwin and Bennie Keel. Fryxell directed the geological studies in both areas. The field laboratory was supervised by Ann Monseth-Irwin (Keel and Fryxell 1969:7).

Excavations in the rockshelter were concentrated close to the mouth. Sediments above Mazama ash were removed mechanically to allow concentration of efforts on the earliest materials. Material excavated by hand, including materials which had slumped between 1964 and 1968, were removed from the rockshelter and screened through one-quarter-inch mesh, as were materials from all earlier excavations (Keel and Fryxell 1969, Gustafson 1972:45).

Discoveries made in the rockshelter in 1968 included a concentration of broken and burned human bone that was defined as a cremation feature. This feature was found below deposits radiocarbon-dated to 9000 B.P. (Krantz 1979:159).

On the floodplain, about ten feet of deposits overlying the early culture-bearing components were removed with a bulldozer. While these deposits did contain archaeological materials, limited time and financial resources led to the decision to largely sacrifice them (Fryxell and Keel 1969:29).

Two buried soil horizons containing early cultural material were identified beneath the overlying floodplain deposits. The Marmes soil horizon (A1 and A2) was exposed long enough for organic matter to accumulate and soil to develop. It contains human bone, artifacts, and charred faunal material. It was in this stratum that the Marmes Man remains were found. Two additional groups of human bone fragments were found in the Marmes Horizon and dubbed Marmes II and Marmes III.

Roald Fryxell preparing soil monoliths in the wall of a unit at Marmes Rockshelter, October 1968. The monolith has been saturated with epoxy and Fryxell and assistant are placing the backboard against it before removing it from the wall.
Roald Fryxell preparing soil monoliths at Marmes Rockshelter, October 1968.

The Harrison horizon below it (A3, A4, and A5) contains artifacts and charred faunal materials, but no human bone.

Excavations 1969

Roald Fryxell took over as project director in early 1969 after Richard Daugherty left the project in late 1968 to direct excavations at the Ozette Village Site. Fryxell and Henry Irwin extended the 1962 rockshelter grid to the floodplain and supervised excavation of two units in the floodplain as the area inside the coffer dam was filling. The upper deposits, Aeolian sediments considered to be sterile, were bulldozed.

All materials from these two excavation units were water-screened using 1 mm plastic netting. Ten thousand cubic feet of material were excavated. Fifty-two “special features” were identified on the floodplain, but in many cases these were individual artifacts. Only 96 total artifacts were recovered. A shell deposit below Mazama tephra was found to contain Cascade Phase materials. Analysis of the 1969 excavations was limited to sediment studies, 14C dating, and identification of volcanic ash samples.

On February 23, 1969 Lower Monumental Dam was closed and filling of the reservoir began. As the water rose, it became apparent that the coffer dam would not keep the water out of the site. The floodplain was covered with clear plastic and backfilled with thousands of cubic feet of sand and gravel. By February 26, the site was totally underwater (Fryxell and Keel 1969:57-61).

Aerial view of the coffer dam meant to protect the Marmes Rockshelter, which filled with water as the Lower Monumental Reservoir rose in February 1969
Aerial view of the coffer dam meant to protect the Marmes Rockshelter, which filled with water as the Lower Monumental Reservoir rose in February 1969

The total number of features excavated from the rockshelter over the course of four seasons consists of 56 hearths, 38 fire pits, over 20 storage pits, 22 burials, and 1 cremation hearth. Features excavated on the floodplain consist of four concentrations of human remains and one elk-butchering feature.


The untimely deaths of Roald Fryxell and Henry Irwin left much of the synthesis and interpretation of the Marmes material unfinished.

Interim reports include Fryxell and Daugherty (1962), Fryxell and Keel (1969), Keel and Fryxell (1969) and a summary of 1962-1964 and 1968 excavations in the rockshelter prepared by David Rice (1969). Materials included in his report were limited to formed tools (including a projectile point seriation), burials, and archaeological features. The report is framed in the context of Fryxell’s depositional sequence.

Leonhardy and Rice (1970) developed a regional typology based in part on the projectile points from Marmes Rockshelter which is still used today.

Carl Gustafson (1972) analyzed a selection of the rockshelter faunal material for a Doctoral Dissertation in the Zoology department at WSU.

Caulk (1988) analyzed floodplain materials for a Master’s Thesis.

Hicks (2004) examined the collection and all associated records, compiled analyses of stone tools and debitage, fish bone and shellfish, and botanical materials, and interpreted results of these analyses.