M.A. Theses: John Darwent, 1996

The Prehistoric Use of Nephrite on the British Columbia Plateau

The purpose of this thesis is to determine whether nephrite was primarily used by British Columbia Plateau societies to fulfill utilitarian woodworking requirements or as an item of status, property or wealth. Found as alluvial cobbles and boulders along the Fraser River, nephrite has been used for stone tools for the past 3000 years. Traditional interpretations of its use typically focused on its function for woodworking and nephrite celts are thought to be part of a common tool kit that every family unit would possess. Ethnographic and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that certain nephrite artifacts may have been utilized as markers of wealth or status. In order to examine the values attached to nephrite artifacts, this thesis explores the cost benefits of using nephrite versus other material types available in the interior for celt production. Techniques of nephrite tool manufacture, along with the archaeological context and distribution of nephrite artifacts are analyzed. Evidence from these investigations indicates that large nephrite celts were not necessarily manufactured for a purely functional intent, and were likely traded for non-utilitarian reasons. Furthermore, smaller celts may have also carried some similar values. These conclusions are based on: 1) a distribution of nephrite artifacts wich suggests an active trade of the material from the Fraser Canyon to the Shuswap Lakes and Nicola Vally; 2) contextual information that reveals large celts are found more frequently within burial contexts; and 3) the amount of effort involved in manufacturing exaggerated celt forms far outweighs its functional benefit.