Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Trade Routes
Transporting Trade Goods
Goods Obtained in Trade
Wealth and Rank
Men's Activities
Women's Activities

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture


Goods obtained in trade

Dot Pre-contact Trade Goods

In pre-contact times, the Tsimshian exchanged their goods for items such as jade, obsidian, amber, pigments, copper, furs, and shells.

Dot European Trade Goods

European trade goods included woollen and cotton cloth, buttons and beads, tobacco, guns, ammunition, iron and steel, metal pots and pans, and sheets of copper.


Adze Blade - CD96-021-076 - S93-14586 Adze Blade
Collected by I.W. Powell, 1900; Nass River

Revered among the high cultures of the Americas (particularly the Maya) as well as in China, jade was an important trade item on the Northwest Coast. Major sources of jade were found on the Fraser River and in the interior of northern British Columbia.

Jade is a hard stone used to make war clubs and adze blades.


Obsidian Trade Item - CD95-762-050 - S93-9098 Obsidian Trade Item
Ca. 2000 B.C.
Dodge Island site, Digby Island, excavated 1967
(GbTo-18-876, core fragment)

Obsidian, a black volcanic glass, was used to make spear-points and knives. Trade in this choice material can be traced by modern scientific "finger printing" techniques to more than 10,000 years ago in British Columbia. Prince Rupert Harbour benefited from obsidian sources in the central and northern interior of British Columbia.


Amber Beads - CD96-007-048 - S93-10718 Amber beads obtained from the interior in trade
Ca. A.D. 1
Boardwalk site, excavated 1969

Amber beads and pendants have been recovered in cemeteries in the Prince Rupert Harbour area dating to the first millennium B.C. The source of amber seems to be the coal deposit in the vicinity of Prince George, about 400 km from the Harbour.


Red and black are the dominant pigments in North Coast art. They are derived from iron oxide and charcoal, then mixed with fish oils to produce a durable paint. The iron oxide for red pigment was imported from the interior. Copper oxide from the Queen Charlotte Islands was used for green pigment.

Mask - CD94-633-023 - S85-3299 The stone mask of The Thief (Raven) was originally painted with iron and copper oxides.

The mask is thought to have been worn by a dancer during performances re-enacting the cultural hero, Raven, who stole Light (the sun, the moon and the stars) from the house of the Chief of Heaven and brought it into this world.


Bracelet - CD96-007-061 - S93-10750 Copper Bracelet
This provides evidence of the early penetration of copper metallurgy from Siberia to the northwest coast.
Ca. A.D. 1
Boardwalk site, excavated 1968

Copper metallurgy, which evolved during the Bronze Age of China, spread to the Northwest Coast about 1000 B.C. (via Siberia and Alaska) through intertribal trade. At first the exclusive prerogative of shamans who traded magical techniques among themselves, metallurgy became important for weapons and markers of chiefly wealth.

In prehistoric times, cold hammering of copper was commonly practised, and smelting and annealing were unknown. The major source of copper was on the Eyak River, just below the Aleutian Peninsula in Alaska.


Chief Minisk - CD94-632-006 - 69694 Chief Minisk of Gitlakdamix Nass River, wearing a garment with a double-headed eagle motif made with dentalia shells.

Dentalium was the prince of shells among coastal peoples, favoured as the basis of wealth in prehistoric times. It was present in the Prince Rupert Harbour sites in the first millennium B.C.

Pecten Shell - CD95-759-052 - S93-8199 Pecten shell from the south coast obtained in trade
late 18th century
Kitandach site, excavated 1972
(GbTo-34-2042 b)

Pecten shells appeared in the Prince Rupert area in the period after contact with Europeans. In other areas, they are associated with Secret Society dances that spread along the coast immediately after contact.

Dentalia and abalone shells were used for clothing and ceremonial objects, as well as for earrings, necklaces and pendants.

Buttons and Beads

Beads; CD96-007-055 - S93-19733 - GbTo-34-724; 
CD96-007-062 - S93-10752 - GcTo-1-277 Glass beads became the currency of trade throughout North America from the time of Columbus. Shell and bone buttons were manufactured in the Philippines and elsewhere for the fur trade. They were used as decorative items in personal adornment, including the elaborate dance blankets of the period of contact. The buttons and beads may have symbolized the souls of individuals who form the lineages represented by the crests on the blankets.

Iron and Steel

Strike-a-light - CD95-762-060 - S93-9117 Strike-a-light
A wrought-iron fire-making tool, procured in trade with the Russians in the early 19th century
Collected by G.T. Emmons for Lord Bossom, before 1900

The strategic advantage of steel created long-distance trade from Siberia to the Northwest Coast, via Alaska, even before contact with Europeans. Throughout the eighteenth century, knives and guns were eagerly sought from European fur traders. The trade in weapons increased warfare on the coast at the end of the century, until British gunboats imposed peace and encouraged trade to prevail. Steel "strike-a-lights" for fire making as well as chisels and adze blades were popular trade items in the 1800s.

Dagger - CD95-762-011 - S93-9021 Steel war dagger with abalone inlay, designed to represent a dogfish
Collected by A. Mackenzie, 1884
Haida, Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands

Iron was probably traded with tribes from Siberia within the past 2,000 years. Double-bladed iron war daggers were identical on both sides of the Bering Strait well before the 1700s. Cast iron was also traded from an early date in the form of kettles and pots.

Since iron and steel corrode quickly in the damp conditions of the area, little trace of them has been found in the archaeological sites.