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What Lies Beneath? Native American Tribes of the Boise, Idaho Archaeological Record And a Site in the Boise Foothills


Tests have confirmed the dates and the fact that the artifacts, found in the Boise foothills near the Table Rock plateau, came from the same source of obsidian as the Squaw/Timber Butte location, east of Payette and North from Boise. This Squaw/Timber Butte location is known as a major prehistoric source of obsidian glass in eastern Idaho prehistory. ( A re-cap of the original report and research below.)

09-02-09 - Press Release
United States, North America

Area Background

The Native American tribes of Idaho consisted mainly of the Sheepeaters, Bannock, Lemhi's, Shoshone and Nez Perce, occupying hunting grounds in the river valleys. The Boise Valley Shoshone and Bannack tribes lived in southern Idaho and were known as the Snakes or Diggers. Today these ShoBan and their descendants, the first inhabitants mostly reside at Fort Hall, Idaho. Historical records reveal that through broken "legal" agreements by the United States government, the Native Americans have never actually extinguished their title and rights to the foothill lands in some of the Boise areas. In 2006, they again testified, as times before in a public forum to that fact and a repeat of one they had done ten years earlier. The results however, were virtually the same.

The Native American prehistory of the Shoshone Bannock tribe’s culture exists in the Boise foothills today. Mostly migratory, ancient hunters and gatherers did stay for lengths of time in the many rock shelters and caves that dot the basalt rim line of the Boise River, foothill areas, and nearby mountains as evidence from sites will show. Native peoples traveled long distances from other areas across these lands to the Boise valley and riverfront in search of plentiful food, hot springs and their sacred ceremonial grounds. The sacred site known as Table Rock, was a ceremonial plateau with hot springs on all sides, and the Castle Rock formation nearby, holds the resting places of their ancestors, so the Native Americans have told me. At one time, these lands provided the venue for a meeting place of many tribes. Nowadays this prehistory and its culture are continually being revealed in a most untraditional manner – haphazard development of the lands, revealing valuable ancient artifacts, as this article will show.

Table Rock and Castle Rock are but a few locations that hold the past prehistory buried beneath. Others, like Dry Creek Rock shelter, Lydle Gulch, and Barberton, the remains of an historic mill-town, are now mostly buried and unknown. The old Barber Mill, remnants of which still remain in the Harris Ranch area, sits aside housing developments. Warm Springs Mesa, Squaw Creek, and Hammer Flat plateau all provided sustenance and waters tributaries the native peoples depended on. The great Oregon Trail with tracks that can still be seen on the cliffs, divulge a wealth of prehistory information and are notably marked in some places. The archaeology of this valley is diverse. Many opinions exist as to the facts of this prehistory, but most are left unwritten or unknown. The Native Americans left much to be discovered.


An example of a chance discovery in the immediate surrounding area helped document the fact that important cultural artifacts exist underneath land and the research is necessary thereafter. To help shed light on the current and past history of a culture that existed thousands of years ago, survey and documentation are crucial.

Several years ago, construction equipment on a new home site was working very close to historic sacred lands. A large mountain of red-brown dirt fill, which had been moved from a higher elevation about 2,800 feet away stood out in the landscape. Emerging from the sides of this massive mountain heap were many dirt colored rocks and large black obsidian biface knives, some broken off, others almost intact, and all extremely well made.

The first artifact was a 10.5 cm x 5 cm - (4-1/8”) large lanceolate shaped obsidian biface knife. Recognizing it as possibly part of a cache, burial or ceremonial, there would undoubtedly be more artifacts to be found. Later in the year as Winter approached, and as cold weather changed the soil surface, more artifacts did appear on the surface of this mountain of dirt. The second was found only 20’ North of the first, although of different sizes. East of the site 175’ larger obsidian chips appeared, rare to find in any foothills location. Another biface and several unusual stone tools lay undisturbed. The largest obsidian artifact yet to be located, was discovered farther past the mountain of dirt about 55’ measuring at 10.7 cm x 5.5 cm. Further investigation of the site by myself and observations of the excavation process, revealed that the red-brown dirt the artifacts were found in came from the top of a hill where house lots were being excavated and most likely from deep drainage rain collection pits. Had these not been dug, the artifacts would have not otherwise been ever seen. As happens often, the artifacts were transported to the locale below and dumped, being taken out of their natural environs and deposited elsewhere. With that said, it is extremely rare that any of the artifacts were recovered intact and complete. The possibility that these artifacts were transported to this area by an aboriginal tribe, used for ceremonial purposes, (i.e., location of Table Rock/Castle Rock) being within near sight), the items stored, buried, and subsequently dug up during a recent housing development excavation is realistic.

Site Similarities

The artifacts, the locale, characteristics and their assemblage are similar to other sites in Idaho, including one in Weiser, Idaho.

The Early Archaic history of Idaho is basically defined on the basis of material from hunting and rock shelter encampments in the Upper Snake and Salmon River country, dating between 5500 and 2500 BC. Nothing much is known about this life way or seasonal activities other than a hunting habitation. However, a 5,800-year-old cemetery located on a farm near Weiser, Idaho, shows similarities to the Boise foothill artifacts. At the particular site in 1967, 12 burials had been excavated non-systematically and many artifacts located. A number of other sites in western Idaho that bear elements of this characteristic burial assemblage are also seen. The discovery of the large obsidian bifaces could also be a link. Subsequent obsidian hydration testing conducted on the biface artifacts further confirms the material is from the Squaw /Timber Butte area.

The bifaces discovered are Great Basin provenance, dating to Early-Late Archaic (8,000-4,000 BP). They exhibit good parallel flaking in appearance and workmanship, and they are similar to ones found at the Weiser, Id. Site. Similarities to the now known Western Idaho Archaic Burial Cache are possible, not conclusive, but comparable:

* The landform that the artifacts were found at or near is especially significant to sites insofar as the characteristic features, including plateaus, cliff dwelling, rock shelters;
* Burial patterns - burials were normally placed in the “brow” of prominent ridgelines or hills overlooking a major tributary (in this case, the Boise River). The artifacts came directly from such a location, as they were brought to the surface directly beneath the rock outcroppings;
* Materials that would be relevant to such sites are large obsidian bi-face knife caches, side notched and triangular points, olivella shell beads, clay (pipes), awls, human remains and the use of ochre. With the exception of the bifaces, most of the above have not (yet) been found at the biface site, although they are in a perfect location to warrant future discovery. However, an unusual object at the same location has been found that has not been defined.

Curiosity Artifact

Located in the same soil and general land area was an unusual trapezoid shaped object. It has a black shiny, specked rock appearance and is unusual in that the edges are beveled and it lies flat in ones hand. Put under a microscope there appears different color crystals. It has been examined by a gemology expert and the Smithsonian is currently viewing it. So far no guess or conclusion of what the object is has been stated, although we call it the “crystal”. Research and investigation is ongoing on the bifaces and this object.


Tests have confirmed the dates and the fact that the artifacts, found in the Boise foothills near the Table Rock plateau, came from the same source of obsidian as the Squaw/Timber Butte location, east of Payette and North from Boise. This Squaw/Timber Butte location is known as a major prehistoric source of obsidian glass in eastern Idaho prehistory. There has not been conclusive obsidian studies in the region of Timber Butte, but in the future could be used to look at intrusive chronologies. Filed and given a state site number, the bifaces are unusual in size, quantity and quality for the Boise foothills.The location being significant, the possibility of other items lying beneath these lands is realistic.

J. Summers Duffy
Archaeologist, Curator, Research Associate
OJ Smith Museum, The College of Idaho
International Assoc. of Egyptologists
Excavations – Valley of the Kings, Mendes, Egypt,

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J. Summers Duffy
OJ Smith Museum, The College of Idaho

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