Grace Islet and the Equifinality of Bad Process

Grace Islet human burial cairn intersected by concrete house foundation. The cairn is under the plywood and concrete square structure. Source: Grace Islet on Facebook.

Grace Islet human burial cairn intersected by concrete house foundation. The cairn is said to be under the plywood and concrete square structure. Could there be a more poignant picture of the present day management of archaeological sites in this province? Source: Grace Islet on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/graceislet

Grace Islet – Shmukw’elu – is a small island (map, pic) in Ganges Harbour, Saltspring Island.  It is a Coast Salish cemetery, and it is a settler construction site.  How do we reconcile these contradictory uses of this island? I’ve been hesitant to post about this case because I know it’s a long and complicated story of how we got to 2014, when we see burial cairns being literally encased into concrete house foundations. I am quite sure that many people of goodwill made many decisions that seemed right to them at the time. I don’t know what all these decisions are, what happened when, exactly, what the consultant said, how the house owner sleeps at night – I just don’t know all these variables and I am schooled in the idea you should know everything before you say anything. It’s clear though that, somehow, the practice of archaeology in this province led to the Grace Islet outcome. Shouldn’t we try to understand the process? That’s fine in principle, but can be silencing in the face of complexity: as Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “the most successful ideological efforts are those which have no need for words, and then ask no more than complicitous silence.” No more silence, then.

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Get to Know your (Aboriginal) Neighbours: three events in Victoria

Detail of the Community Mapping event, November 25th, Victoria.

Detail of the Community Mapping event, November 25th, Victoria.

One of the greatest privileges in NW Coast Archaeology is the opportunity to work with First Nations people of all walks of life and to be afforded the chance to tell a small part of their magnificent histories. How many settlers in this area don’t know a single aboriginal person? More than a few, I reckon. Yet how to get that face to face contact so essential for gaining an understanding of the historical circumstances of First Nations if, unlike me, your day job doesn’t have it somewhat built in? If you live in Victoria, you have three  great options coming up – and all three include some archaeological content.  Perhaps archaeology has the potential, not commonly realized, of forming a space of shared interest where conversations can start. Continue reading

“Prehistoric Cairns of Vancouver Island”: notes for a lecture given in 1901

Frank Sylvester Burial Cairns Manuscript, Page One. Source: UVic Special Collections: http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

Frank Sylvester Burial Cairns Manuscript, Page One. Source: UVic Special Collections: http://goo.gl/mSxBGe

There’s an interesting manuscript digitized in the University of Victoria’s special collections library, entitled “Prehistoric Cairns of Vancouver Island.”  The accession notes read:

“Handwritten manuscript, on ruled paper with red-lined margin. Pages hand-numbered 1-20. Signed and dated: Frank Sylvester, Victoria, B.C., June 10, 1901. Appears to be notes for a talk that Frank Sylvester gave, concerning burial cairns on Vancouver Island, his method of excavation of the cairns, and his theories as to the meaning of the cairns and the ancestry of the people buried there.”

It’s a curious document, a mixture of interesting observation, shameless plunder and racial theorizing.  It’s also one of the more complete descriptions I’ve seen of the burial cairn excavation activities of the Victoria Natural History Society.  I don’t recall seeing it cited in the literature, so it’s possible others haven’t come across it either.  In the interests of broad circulation and easy reading,  I’ve transcribed it (PDF), and I also put a version on google docs if anyone cares to improve that transcription.

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Clam Garden Event in Sidney, Monday Nov 3rd at 6.30

Clam garden event in Sidney. Source: Parks Canada, click for full poster.

Clam garden event in Sidney. Source: Parks Canada, click for full poster.

This looks like it will be a really cool and interesting event out in Sidney and if you, like blog world headquarters, are on the south island you might want to check it out in person. Snacks included! The great news though is you can register for an online webinar if you can’t make it in person. Kudos to Parks (and their new Clam Garden facilitator and friend of this blog, Sarah R.) for setting that up.  The full details are in this poster, but the short version is: the time is 6.30 and the location is the Shaw Centre on the Sidney waterfront. If you want a quick primer/links on clam gardens, then keep reading.

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Herring Spawn and Beyond

Herring "spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska", ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring “spawn drying in the sun near Sitka Alaska”, ca. 1900. Source: Sealaska Heritage Institute, Richard Wood Collection. http://goo.gl/y8NF2h

Herring are taking Northwest Coast archaeology by storm.  A series of key insights and publications has pulled these little fish into the heart of our reconstructions of subsistence – across the entire coast, and into its deepest history.  It’s an interesting development which highlights once again how prone archaeologists can be to a myopic faith in our received models: salmon and cedar speak the loudest and it turns out we needed an aid in hearing herring.

Herring were valued in two very different ways: as delicious food in their own right, and for their eggs, which they would spawn in prodigious numbers in the nearshore, often on kelp or on conifer branches, which could even be placed in the water by people for this purpose. The spawn fishery would leave little or no durable archaeological evidence, and perhaps has been correspondingly underestimated by local researchers. Eating the fish themselves has left a widespread, robust record, yet one which has also been underestimated.  All this by way of introducing the picture above, which I haven’t seen reproduced elsewhere, showing gobs of dried herring spawn near Sitka, Alaska. It’s from the excellent online photo archives of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Each of those clumps is like a rich, nutrient-dense, yet storable, delicious marine omelet.

The emerging archaeology of herring is too big a topic for a mere blog to cover, but click onwards for a couple more comments and links.

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Millennia Research’s miniature engraving tools from Prince Rupert

Miniature stone chisels or engravers from Prince Rupert.  Source: Millennia Research.

Miniature stone chisels or engravers from Prince Rupert. Source: Millennia Research. http://millennia-research.com/stone-miniature-chisels/

Millennia Research is one of the longest established and most respected consulting archaeologist firms in British Columbia, not least because they have an occasional blog.  They’re doing some really cool and advanced work on 3-D imaging using LiDAR and photogrammetry – you can see for yourself some of those posts, e.g. and e.g.’er.  But today’s topic, while cutting edge in its own way, is more at the speed of your humble scribe – some very small engraving tools they’ve uncovered in Prince Rupert Harbour, site GbTo-54.  The reason I’m posting it here is because they’re looking for input on the function of these and for any comparable artifacts people might know of, and I want to cast the net wider through this blog’s readership.  I’ll get the ball rolling.

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Stone Foundations and Tent Platforms in NW Coast Archaeology

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation near Juneau, Alaska.  Source: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation. “Photograph of a Taku village homes, photo likely by Partridge, circa 1887. Village site was located on the mainland across from Douglas Island, south of present-day Juneau”: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

We’re a little obsessed with wooden architecture in the NW Coast archaeology world – with good reason, I guess, since monumental wooden houses are such a prominent feature of the recent past. I suppose we sometimes stereotype these houses a little – a point some commenters made in the Houses on Stilts post here a while back – we think: “large rectangular house squatting in midden supported by giant house posts.” Not always the case, certainly not through time.

In general, we may underestimate large scale constructions in stone.  Burial cairns and mounds (one of Darcy’s consists of 18 dump-trucks worth of soil), rock wall defensive sites, trench embankments, canoe runs, fish traps, and of course, clam gardens, all involved massive deployments of stone, with associated labour investments and creation of a durable built environment. Anyway, we’ve recently been running into enigmatic rock structures on the central coast and Quadra Island, and in particular, the possibility of dwelling structures partially based on stone walls.  So it’s quite cool to run across the picture above from the SHI photo collections, showing a Taku Tlingit house from the historic period, sitting on a platform which has a stone wall as a foundation.

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