Can massive computing power and artificial intelligence crack the code of deep history of places? This is a fundamental question of a project discussed in an article on nature.com “The ‘time machine’ reconstructing ancient Venice’s social networks”. Frédéric Kaplan plans to “…scan documents including maps, monographs, manuscripts and sheet music. It promises not only to open up reams of hidden history to scholars, but also to enable the researchers to search and cross-reference the information, thanks to advances in machine-learning technologies.”
The goal is to crunch enough data to outline the connections that emerged in historical societies including “social networks, trade, and knowledge”. While of interest to historians, it could also inform economists and epidemiologists, as well as other disciplines. Much like Rome, Venice, mentioned as “The Serene Republic“, is a good for this endeavor due to the wealth of knowledge and its organization, aided by its protected lagoons and it’s desire for documentation.
“As Venice’s empire grew, it developed administrative systems that recorded vast amounts of information: who lived where, the details of every boat that entered or left the harbour, every alteration made to buildings or canals.”
While there was been study over the years, much of the archive “…predominantly written in Latin or the Venetian dialect, has never been read by modern historians. Now it will all be systematically fed into the Venice Time Machine, along with more unconventional sources of data, such as paintings and travellers’ logs.”
Kaplan’s interest has been to employ AI for lingustics, so the concept of using machine learning to study patterns in language is fundamental to the work, along with digitization of many thousands of pages of documents, building on work already done by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage.
There’s a lot more about the linguistic ‘hacking’ of documents, as illustrated below, but the concept also involved diving into the archival cartography. “In 2006, a huge, purpose-built scanner began to digitize the archive’s precious store of more than 3,000 maps of Italian towns, including many commissioned by Napoleon. These ‘cadastral’ maps delineate property boundaries and record the ownership of small parcels of land; some of the documents are as large as 4 metres by 7 metres.”
The result is the ability to create some amazing detail with overlay of multiple sources:
“One cadastral map of Venice that he commissioned in 1808 has provided a backbone of reliable data, allowing historians to add geographical context to a 1740 census that lists citizens who owned and rented property in the city. By combining this with 3D information about buildings from paintings such as those of Canaletto, the time-machine team has produced an animated tour through Venice, showing which businesses were active in each building at the time.”
A video on YouTube outlines the ambitions of the project. From their summary: “The State archives of Venice contain records stretching back over a thousand years. The vast collection of maps, images and other documents provide an incredibly detailed look into Venetian history. This could be used to create a kind of virtual time machine for historians and the public to explore the city.”
What implications does this have for hidden hydrology? To me, the overwhelming task of both digitizing information and determining patterns is something that is daunting for a team of professionals, much less individuals looking to glean discoveries from their local place. The sheer effort and technology in digitization and analysis could be employed to discover key linkages and patterns that may illuminate historical hydrology, topography, and other clues. An example mentioned in the article highlights the concept, using animations to look at spatio-temporal change , in fact “One is a dynamic video of the development of the Rialto from AD 950 onwards, using diverse sources of information at different time points. The simulation shows how the buildings — and the iconic Rialto Bridge — sprung up among the salt marshes, along with the area’s periodic destruction by fires and subsequent reconstructions.”
The possibilities with large data sets is intriguing, and the article mentions cross-disciplinary opportunities, as well as larger connections to other ‘time machines’ in cities, such as a new effort in Amsterdam and possibilities in Paris. It adds a dimension of big data as a potential avenue for exploration, yet is tempered by age-old techniques and cautions of the next shiny object.
“The unbridled ambitions of the time-machine project are a concern for some researchers, not least because many of its core technologies are still being developed. “The vision of extending digital representation into different time slots is absolutely, self-evidently right — but it might be better to develop things more in a lot of different, small projects,” says Jürgen Renn, a digital-humanities pioneer and a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Nevertheless, Daston suspects that the time machine heralds a new era of historical study. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” she says. “The future may be different.”
Week three of the Waterlines class featured Seattle writer and geologist David B. Williams. Perhaps best known as the author of the recent ‘Too High and Too Steep’, a chronicle the large-scale manipulations (topographic and hydrologic, to name a few), Williams shared a more focused talk on his upcoming book Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal, which coincides with the Centennial of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks this year. Following the course theme, and touching on some previous topics, the story encompasses the trials and tribulations to get the locks built, and the large-scale impacts that such endeavors have on the ecological and hydrological systems of Seattle.
David is an engaging storyteller, so he laid out the evolution of this significant part of Seattle’s history, touching on the geology (with the north south orientation how important the waterways were to getting around, especially, east-west movement), and the use for years by native people, who used the portage between Lake Washington to Lake Union, and then a quick connection to gain access to the ocean, and vice-versa, for the past 10,000 to 12,000 years, with stories of Kitsap Suquamish coming to Lake Washington because it was one of the largest freshwater lakes in the region. The idea of a ship canal of some sort is as old as Seattle itself, first pitched by Thomas Mercer in 1854 and finally coming to fruition as a way to move coal, timber, and people, after many attempts 63 years later. In fact there were multiple routes proposed and attempted with big Seattle names like the aforementioned Mercer, along with Burke, Denny, and Gilman, cutting through Smith Cove, routes across what is currently downtown, and one of the most absurd in Seattle’s history – the Semple Canal. This map shows a number of these routes, and also the one natural, yet not very viable connection vai the Black River, which was mentioned in the previous post on Seattle archaeology as outlet from Lake Washington and would eventually fall victim to the draining of Lake Washington.
As mentioned, Semple’s Canal was perhaps the craziest scheme, wanting to slice through one of Seattle’s seven hills, Beacon Hill, which stands almost 350 feet tall. Williams documents it on his blog in this post, with a couple of graphics showing the route and section cut (noting a maximum cut of a mere 284′-6″), highlighting the absurd notion of cutting a canal through a hill, although a good portion of the material removed from the canal before it was shut down was used to fill the Duwamish estuary into what is now industrial lands, and frankly, based on some of the other history, it would not have surprised me if this would have happened.
The eventual route of the Canal was landed on eventually towards the end of the 19th century, connecting to the Puget Sound through the existing Shilshole Bay and the eventual location of the locks, connecting through Salmon Bay, which was a fluctuating saltwater tide zone, connecting through the Fremont Cut to Lake Union, and the Montlake Cut connecting Portage Bay on the west with Union Bay and larger Lake Washington on the east.
The conditions prior to implementation show Salmon Bay connected to salt water, and involved slicing through Ross Creek and wetland zones between Salmon Bay and Lake Union, where a creek was feeding the Bay. To the east the portage had become a narrow log flume at the narrowest point connecting Union Bay and Portage bay, completing the connection from lake to sea.
As mentioned, the eastern Montlake Cut was used as a log flume with a narrow channel (developed by Denny and others) connecting through Portage Bay, and a similar effort was made to connect through Ross Creek via what is now the the Fremont Cut. A photo showing the area looking from Union Bay towards the west from Paul Dorpat’s blog showing the isthmus with Portage Bay in the distance prior to ship canal. This area was sliced through with a log flume (seen on the 1894 map above) in the 1880s and at times through the early 1900s to move timber from inner areas to Seattle and beyond, setting the stage for the eventual connection.
A second image showing the narrow connection of the log sluice from 1886 that is seen on the 1894 map, one of the thin connections which eventually were expanded for free flow of goods and people across Seattle. A dam at the upper end held Lake Washington above the level of Lake Union, and logs were dropped into this chute to float on the next leg of the journey.
While the connections seem logical, the elevations of each water body were different, with the level of Lake Union around +20, the level of Lake Washington at +29, and Salmon Bay elevation lower as it entered the Puget Sound, often not having standing water at times. The process of building the locks set all of these elevations at the same as Lake Union, which raised Salmon Bay and made it a continuous fresh water bay, which is why it works as a place to over-winter fishing fleets as it is today (see Deadliest Catch) to keep boats out of salt water. It also lowered Lake Washington, which as mentioned disconnected the lake from it’s natural outfall at the Black River to the south, replumbing the south area of Seattle while creating a whole lot of new lakefront land. The completion of construction of the locks and the eventually breaching of the Montlake coffer dam (below) and the other coffer dams at the Fremont Cut, (after having to shore them up a few times), filled Salmon Bay with fresh water, and caused Lake Washington to drain down the 9 feet slowly over a few months
The locks, which opened to fanfare and massive 4th of July celebration in 1917, are fun to visit today to watch ships come in, go to the fish ladder, and see the activities. According to Williams, these are the only government locks in the US that are crossable to the public (didn’t know that) and the main traffic, although peppered with an occasional working vessel to Portage bay, consists mostly of pleasure craft. Also, while they did originally build a fish ladder, it didn’t work well (and was improved years later, which make a fun viewing opportunity). Williams mentioned that fish tended to just get into the locks and ride up to travel upstream. It’s an interesting resilience story that fish that were cut off from the Cedar River where they spawned when the Black River was disconnected, and instead of heading up the Duwamish/Black/Cedar to the south, would still be able to figure out how to get upstream via alternative routes via Shilshole miles north from their original spawning route. Talk about a well established navigation system.
The impacts for Seattle, much like the other massive changes, ended up having huge economic implications in positive ways, with the ability to tap into industrial lands for coal, timber, and shipbuilding, and some minor military use, along with what are mostly now marinas for pleasure craft today. The fact that maritime industries are only second to aerospace in the Seattle economy is surprising, which owes much to the ship canal. Seems a common story for Seattle, make massive change and reap the benefits (to some), even if it cuts off a river that happens to be the home place for local Native people. To comprehend the 60+ year journey from idea to fruition, and the hundred years of operation since, another story of changing land and waters influencing our urban lives every day. Excited to see some of the events and read David’s upcoming book for more. On that note…
Addenda: Making the Cut
A great resource on the upcoming centennial festivities is the website Making the Cut: The Locks, The Lakes and a Century of Change, which provides info on events, much of the history mentioned above, and a good section on historic maps which shows a good cross section of hidden hydrology in relationship to the hydrological manipulations to connect the lakes to the ocean. A series of before and after maps documents the changes in the locks, Lake Union and Lake Washington, and other areas. The series below highlights the evolution from the tidal marsh of Salmon Bay prior to the locks being installed in 1916 to the freshwater waterway today.
Last week was Part 2 of the Waterlines class, featuring archaeologist Dennis Lewarch, Suquamish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, with a concept of ‘Before the Cut’. This was an exploration “using archaeological, ethnographic and historical data [to discuss] the effects of shoreline transformations on indigenous populations.” Similar to the first class, the depth and breadth of the cultural history, and his more expansive title ‘Archaeology and Ethnographic Background of Seattle and Prior Massive Anthropogenic Modifications” hints at the depth of this topic.
Lots of details here, but the idea that in the past 14,000 years of occupation by native peoples, after migration from the north via the Bering Land Bridge and along the outside edge of the ice. There are various theories, but that the retreating glaciers opened up a path between that allowed access, and continuous occupation is found throughout the Northwest in archaeological sites 12-13000 years of age. Once here, the land has changed via sea level rise, mudflows, earthquakes, tsunamis, subsidence, alluvial processes, and more. The story is thus the land shaping people, and the people shaping land. The defining characteristics of the different tribal groups are called adaptions, and place origins of geography, such as the Saltwater adaptation, particularly the Suquamish who lived near the sea, versus the Riverine adaptation, the Duwamish people who lived near the river. Other adaptations are tied to lakes and inland/upland areas, all of which collectively shape the speech, family community, and cultures. For Lewarch’s presentation, the focus discussed a larger history of regional indigenous occupation of the Seattle area, with focus on some of the areas near Seattle that had significance.
Black River Origins
One of the main points of origin for Duwamish people, based on the above adaption, is the Black River, where four original villages were located. An excerpt from the 1909 USGS Topographic map of the area shows the former drainage, where the Cedar River flowed in from the east, and the Black River drained the south part of Lake Washington, near Renton. This confluence also was fed from the south by the former route of the White River, as all of it flowed into the Duwamish and out to the Sound. The names of the settlements of the ‘People of the Lake Fork’ and the inhabitants near the Little Cedar River, and their evolution in living off the land and the river ecosystems for many years.
The demise of this home place began with channelization of the Cedar River into Lake Washington, and ended he lowering of the lake when the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were built in 1916. The elevation of Lake Washington was lowered nine feet, to the same as Lake Union, which severed its outflow to the Black River, captured in the photo below shows the river after the lowering of the lake, where it slowly died and has (mostly) been subsequently buried. For more on the Black River history, a short blurb on this from David Williams here.
The map from the Wikipedia page on the Black River also shows the before and after and the erasure of the original location of Duwamish settlements through reconfiguration of the hydrology of the region, another in a long line of massive manipulations in the region. The Duwamish People were living in the area, and continued to do so, even as the Black River was dying. They were relocated to reservations, and as Lewarch mentioned, they were sent to coastal areas near the ocean, and being a river tribe, kept returning to the river to fish for many years after, where they lived on a property owned by Erasmus Smithers, until it was burned in 1896. There’s inevitably a long history of settlement and resettlement and disenfranchisement throughout recent history I’m glossing over, but the idea of a river tribe not having a river seems par for the course of how tribes were treated. Secondary to this, the subtle differences between different tribes were not recognized, with many Suquamish or other tribes in the region being lumped into the Duwamish by colonists.
The Duwamish River obviously had a significant place in the history of this river tribe, and the estuary connected the river people with those of the sea and the density of place names in that zone . A number of archaeological sites amidst the oxbows of this area. The 1899 US Coast Survey shows the bay and larger estuary, with the area of downtown Seattle starting to build out, but prior to the majority of the land filling to come.
A map of these old configuration juxtaposed with the channel that exists today shows the level of land filling and manipulation done to this area to carve out industrial lands. From the fantastic Duwamish Revealed site: “About 100 years ago, the Duwamish was straightened and dredged, reducing 14 miles of winding river to 5 miles of industrial “waterway.” Nearly all of the native habitat – mudflats, marshes, and swamps surrounded by old growth Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Hemlock trees – was replaced by agriculture, then industry. The Duwamish is home to three Native tribes: The Duwamish, the Muckleshoot, and the Suquamish, and has immense cultural importance to them. The word “Duwamish” is an Anglicized version of Dkhw’Duw’Absh, meaning “people of the inside” in Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish people.”
While native peoples were instrumental in building the city and working in it’s saw mills, fisheries and other industry, rapidly changing Seattle began to try to eliminate the native residents of the city, passing laws in 1863 to make it illegal for Indians to live in Seattle unless they worked for whites, villages and settlements were burned. Native peoples moved north as development occurred, and tended to stay near the water, occupying places within the network of piers and wharves. One such place was Ballast Island, formed from ships dumping rocks after their voyages, which slowly accumulated into made land. A photo from the area shows the colonization of this space by Native peoples, who camped out around the wharfs fringes, being ogled by early Seattlites. In 1891 they were forcibly removed, one in a string of forced removals that shaped the early history of the area.
West Point & Shilshole
Moving away from downtown, the occupation and history of West Point, the point that was formerly military outpost and now Discovery Park, along with being the massive sewage-treatment plant. This area was a tidal marsh that was occupied and used, with the formation of sediment along with earthquakes shaping. When the treatment plant was being expanded, a significant archaeological effort was undertaken, beautifully documented in this online resource from the Burke Museum. Shilshole also has a significance to Native Seattle, with the native word meaning ‘threading the needle’ to get into the small mouth that led into Salmon Bay, which was littered with shell middens and other features showing occupation, similar to other areas on the coast. Prior to the creation of the locks, this area . One long-time resident was Salmon Bay Charlie. A great resource for this and other Seattle history is the blog by Paul Dorpat featuring ‘Seattle: Now & Then‘, where you can investigate the area in some more detail. From the post: “Salmon Bay Charlie and his wife lived in their cedar plank home on the south shore of Magnolia’s Salmon Bay. For half a century Charlie, also known as Siwash Charlie, sold salmon, clams and berries to the first settlers and later to the soldiers at Fort Lawton. Today’s historical view shows Charlie’s house at the turn of the century, taken by the photography firm, Webster and Stevens.”
A bit to the east, the connection between the eastern edge of Lake Union and Lake Washington is a good discussion of place names, including the connections between Lushootseed, or Coast Salish names and colonist names. This brought up a discussion of the area below,
I rotated the Waterlines map to match the same orientation, and the references to the area marked B, which was a village site named sɬuwiɬ, “Little Canoe Channel” that marked the mouth of Ravenna Creek, where Lewarch mentions there were stories of salmon runs up Ravenna. There’s also Lake Union, marked as #21, which is called x̌ax̌əču meaning, “Small Lake” and Foster Island, in an area named staɬaɬ or “Baby Fathom” showing that even with a translation there is still a story missing. Perhaps a shallow zones at the mouth of the creek. The cut, marked as #18 which is named sxʷac̓adwiɬ translated as “Carry a Canoe” meaning it probably wasn’t passable as a waterway until later when the Denny’s opened it up as a log-sluice to move timber between the two points.
According to Lewarch, the notes from Waterman were sort of a mess, so the editors compiled it into something readable, including an amazing figure in Seattle history, Vi Hilbert, a Puget Salish and “a conservationist of the Lushootseed language and Culture”. While Waterman interviewed a small group of around 25 native people for his work, it generated over one thousand place names. And as Lewarch mentioned, all of those interviewed said if they had talked to the Elders, they would have ended up with 1000s more, a sad testament to a cultural history lost forever. Another resource for this is Coll Thrush’s book ‘Native Seattle‘ offers a great section with maps of those place names developed along with Anthropologist Nile Thompson, a snapshot of one below with the accompanying Lushootseed language and origins. Many of these as I mentioned ended up on the Waterlines map, with more abbreviated descriptions. The one below shows the NW corner with Green Lake in the center, and West Point, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay, along with areas along the coast marked.
Lots of threads to follow and stories to connect. In general, the talk focused on the Indigenous cultures and their resilience, both pre-European settlement and after colonization, displacement, and more. He ended up with a quote from Chief Seattle, and discussion both of the potential misinterpretation of his words by the translator, and whether it was an environmental, or social statement, but the multiple meanings that resonated strongly in Seattle history. He quoted a passage:
“And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”
It could be both a warning or a statement that shows that resilience of Native people wasn’t just in survival, but left a permanent mark on the landscape and people. The culture and place of what Seattle is and the way we should live is etched in history and resonates in the places dotting the map of Seattle, including waters visible and hidden.
A preliminary presentation featured Amir Sheikh, one of the primary collaborators on the Waterlines Project, and he discussed much of the history and process of the overall project and methodology along with framing the concept of place names using Lushootseed language, as featured on the Waterline maps (see my post on language here). One video he showed was “Djidjila’letch to Pioneer Square: From Native village to Seattle metropolis“, a video which takes the viewer “…from Native village to metropolis, the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle has undergone dramatic transformations. This animation provides a bird’s eye glimpse at some of the social, economic, and landscape histories of the neighborhood through time.”