UO professor of anthropology Madonna Moss spent time processing herring roe with Sitka Tribe resource managers in Alaska in the spring of 2014.
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Madonna Moss

By UO student Lili Wagner

Madonna Moss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, sometimes spends her days painstakingly sifting through dirt using pans with very fine one millimeter mesh screens. What she is looking for is very small.

Moss, a zooarcheaologist, studies faunal remains, the bones, teeth, and shells left behind after people have processed animals for food or clothing.

One of her recent projects investigates the remains of small fish. In 2011, as the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, its effects were felt on Oregon’s coast, revealing the remnants of a Tcetxo Indian village.

“In Brookings, Oregon there’s a commercial harbor, marked on the map as Harbor, Oregon, and this is a place that we never would have thought there was an archaeological site," said Moss. "It was asphalt and concrete, but because of the tsunami the asphalt cracked and dropped and the concrete fell, and, remarkably, there was intact archaeological material.”

Partially preserved under this pavement were the remains of a village that shows up on some nineteenth century maps. Moss acquired bulk samples from Rick Minor, PhD '83, who led the emergency excavation of the site, as she has been studying small fish such as herring for more than 25 years.

“It looks like there’s quite a lot of surf smelt and northern anchovy at this site," Moss explained. "Consuming these very small fish is an indigenous practice that still occurs among the Tolowa tribe of northern California. They still go out every summer, wade into the surf, scoop up the fish in specialized nets, and dry them on the beach. I think that what we have evidence for at this site is the age of that tradition.

“These small fish tend to be underappreciated in many respects but are very important to ocean food webs. Their remains tend to be underrepresented just because people don’t pay attention to the really tiny stuff.”

Much of Moss’s work concerns the practices of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, and their interactions with food systems in their respective ecoregions. Concurrent research projects include small fish identification at the Nunalleq site in southwest Alaska and analysis of the sea otter's historical significance to the diets of Alaska’s indigenous peoples.

In tandem with this research, Moss has developed a comparative collection of modern faunal remains in the Department of Anthropology that are used for identifying archaeological material. Her collection includes birds, fish, and mammals from the region. The most recent addition to the collection is a cougar, processed in the spring of 2015 by anthropology students.

Moss chronicles her research and teaching efforts on her blog. Her recent posts include “Cougar-gate”, a chronicle of the handling process for the collection’s recent addition.

About her blog, she says, “Originally it was my son’s suggestion that I should do something more dynamic to engage students. I try to make what I do accessible and to share observations that will pique people’s interest.”

Moss also hopes to make her area of study more accessible to undergraduate students with the addition of a new course tentatively titled Archaeology of Food and Cooking, which explores the origins of cooking in human history and several important wild foods of the Pacific Northwest.

“Through zooarchaeology we study animal behavior, fishing, gathering, and hunting, cooking and storage technologies, economics, culture, identity, social relations and indigenous rights," said Moss. "There’s so much to learn and the contemporary issues of resource use, climate change, conservation, and restoration demand archaeological knowledge.”