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Report from Seattle

Sarah Campbell


To present Seattle, my goal was to do a systematic survey. My pedestrian transects would be north and south along First, Second, etc., with perpendicular transects along cross streets. In addition to a typical restaurant list, I envisioned presenting the data as a chloropleth map showing the density of (1) coffee shops suitable for grabbing a continental-style breakfast, (2) establishments with large selections of microbrews on tap, and (3) restaurants that smelled really good at dinner time. Rather than start at the convention center, I set out from Belltown a few blocks south because it offers a greater variety of restaurants than the main business center around the convention center (although not necessarily more coffee). I planned to work my way to the convention center but changed my tactics once I got into the field.

I had already noted Mama's Mexican Cafe, a long-time favorite, next to the Noodle Ranch (no cowboys but good pan-Asian food), when I was sidetracked by an art gallery with colorful pottery and wood carvings that borrowed motifs and shapes from prehistoric art traditions around the world. I chatted with the artist, who gave me tips on eating establishments that were quick, cheap, and tasty and also handed me a map of Belltown with the restaurants already listed. When I said I was an archaeologist, he told me that he had visited the excavation at the Ozette site years ago. He got to watch the removal of the inlaid whale fin (frequently depicted in archaeological texts) from the ground. When I left he was muttering to himself about getting out his slides. I plan to revisit and see where his muse takes him next.

I shouldn't have been surprised by the second coincidence, but I was. Just last week, before a former student passed through on her way to go sports fishing in Alaska, I had been thinking about the long history of Seattle as a provisioning and jumping off point for Alaska. But still I was surprised that my second random conversation in Belltown netted an Alaskan archaeology connection. I was the only customer in The Corner Bar, being ahead of the Saturday night dinner crowd, so there was plenty of time to chat with the bartender. I told him I was doing advance footwork on eating establishments for a convention, and he extolled the virtues of the associate Poor Italian Cafe and gave me a plate of homemade gnocchi, gratis. (It was delicious.) But the real payoff came when I told him that this was an archaeology convention, and he described his brush with archaeology while working as an EMT on the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in Alaska. I had heard stories from friends on the archaeology side, about living on boats, surveying the shoreline, and marking buffer zones around cultural sites so that they would not be subjected to the erosive effect of the hydraulic washing. I was curious to hear how he perceived this effort that was in some ways a subplot to the environmental issues--and heartened to find that far from seeing it as a major impediment, he was very knowledgeable about the process and sympathetic to the cause. He hadn't missed the irony that this major environmental disaster has resulted in the opportunity to systematically survey new areas and record hundreds of new sites.

So what did I learn from this survey? I still have to complete the fieldwork in the other direction, which encompasses the Seattle Art Museum, Pike Place Market, the aquarium, Pioneer Square, and the International District. I can't effectively sample microbrew availability without several companions and a designated driver for the trip back to Bellingham. You'll see the final restaurant guide in your convention packet. But I can unequivocally say that downtown Seattle is exciting and accessible. Here are a few preliminary findings.

Coffee is ubiquitous. Due to the Northwesterner's coffee anxiety, coffee shops are spaced to ensure that no one downtown is more than two minutes from good coffee (may vary depending on elevator speed in some buildings). You can eat nouvelle or ethnic cuisine at any number of places with great atmosphere.

If you are from the Lower 48, you probably won't be working a visit to Alaska into your itinerary. But you can get the feel of jumping off for that far northern state by visiting the headquarters of the Gold Rush National Park (a storefront in Seattle, the remainder of the real estate up yonder). Or even provision yourself for going--there are numerous stores selling outdoor gear, including Seattle's own REI (up the hill) and Eddie Bauer. I especially liked seeing the Patagonia store, with big window-front displays in 1990s style, next to the camouflage drab Army/Navy Surplus store with the big sign out front, "Alaskan Outfitters." Or you could follow an even older tradition and get a colorful woolen blanket at the Pendleton store.

And you are never far from the waterfront. From my spot in the bar, I had a narrow view, framed by buildings, down toward the water. I couldn't see the water itself, but I watched a fully loaded container ship float by, in surrealistic slices that were taller than they were wide. Typical of harbor towns, there is a seamy strip of "bawdy houses" along First Avenue parallel to the water, and at the north end you might spot an adult movie theater in between two trendy restaurants. You can walk a few blocks and take a short ferry ride to Bainbridge Island. A ride across the protected waters of Puget Sound on a huge stable ferry shared with commuters is fairly tame, but it still smells good and is simultaneously relaxing and invigorating to be out on deck. Or if you haven't been around working locks before, it is worth taking the bus to Ballard and visiting the Hiram S. Chittenden Locks, province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District. The highlight for me is watching boats of every description tie up and the locks slowly fill up and empty out, but there is also an arboretum, a fish ladder, and a small visitors center with an exhibit on the history of the locks. Also worth visiting are the Ballard docks, home to a major fishing fleet that participates in various fisheries (salmon, halibut, cod, crab, shrimp, among other varieties) throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

And one other thing I learned--archaeology touches a lot more people than I usually dare to hope.

Sarah Campbell is cochair of the Local Arrangements Committee for the 1998 SAA annual meeting in Seattle.


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