Throughout this project, we have been looking for personal artifacts that tell us more about the internees and workers that lived at the Kooskia internment camp. We look for these personal items because they help us piece together the bigger picture of what was going on at the camp. Historical records, interviews and books like Imprisoned in Paradise can tell us a great deal about what happened at the internment camp, but they cannot always tell us everything. Can you remember the layout of your residence from ten years ago? Or the nightly chores you had to do twenty years ago? I know that I can’t. This is where archaeology can help.
Last week while excavating a one-meter by one-meter square, we found several pieces of what looked like smooth burnt bone. The way the bone is shaped, with the curved corners and even thickness throughout, tells us that this piece of bone is not natural. At first we thought that it might be part of a dominos set. However, when one of our volunteers, Mary Petrich-Guy, photographed the bone, she noticed that there are Chinese characters known as kanji on it. It is possible that this piece of burnt bone was part of a mahjong tile. During the 1920’s, Mahjong became popular in the United States. Because of this, cattle bones from the US were shipped to China to be made into tiles and then shipped back to the US (http://ymimports.com/bbmj.html).
We also found other game pieces including small white and black pebbles that might possibly be go pieces (Imprisoned in Paradise, pg 108-109). We are not sure exactly what these or the mahjong gaming pieces were used for, but nonetheless, they give us quite a bit of information.
These pieces help us see what the internees were doing in their spare time (sometimes playing games) and how social they were. These gaming pieces and what they were used for are part of the mundane every day things that people may not remember, but a valuable part of the archaeological record. What is challenging about these pieces is that there are a variety of ways to play the various games. A person who lives in rural USA may not play the same way as a person from rural Japan. But what I find most interesting is why these games were played. Are these pieces the internees brought with them to the Kooskia camp? If so, why? What value did they hold to the internees? Maybe these gaming pieces were used to play games that were familiar to the internees, something from their Japanese heritage.
I don’t have any solid answers to these questions yet, but as we analyze more of the personal items found at the site, the possible explanations for these pieces may become clearer.