A while ago I linked to a beautiful photo-essay from Geist Magazine on decaying towns on the BC coast. I see they have another excellent photo essay, this one on the subject of the superposition of Euro-Canadian towns and spaces onto Aboriginal archaeological sites and significant places. The text by Sandra Shields and David Campion is sensitive and evocative and the photographs are well taken — in some ways they are banal – an overpass, and access road – yet knowing what lies underneath triggers emotional reactions. UVIC’s own Duncan McLaren is featured as well so it must be a good article – Stave Lake (above) has two of the oldest archaeological sites in Canada (each more than 12,000 years old), parts of which miraculously survived the reservoir inundation.
The Geist authors are interviewed here, which is also well worth reading:
Interviewer: it’s not only people that are missing in “Memory and the Valley”; you touch on the disappearing salmon, the white pine, the waters drained away. There’s definitely that tone of loss throughout the whole work.
Campion: That is why we’re having the exhibit here in the old city hall in Chilliwack, with a wall of the original pioneers looking down on the work. It’s because you struggle with these two narratives. One says: When Canada started, we came to a land that had no people in it and we struggled really hard and made a wonderful life for ourselves and a future for our children. Whereas, for aboriginal people, it’s a story of huge pain and suffering, and a huge loss of people to disease, even before contact. Then residential schools, cultural modification, and so on.
So you’ve got this problem at the base of Canadian society. For society as a whole to move forward, we need to find a way to acknowledge that loss, not just to have it mean something in that on/off, negative/positive sense. As non-Natives, we need to find a way to absorb the realities of our coming here into our national narrative.
The notion of a “palimpsest” in archaeology is common, borrowed from manuscript studies: parchments would be scraped clean and re-used, yet, the older writing can still be seen and read, a ghostly precursor image. Writing over writing, material culture over material culture, names over names and the living over the dead. Every time you walk across the concrete apron in front of the MacPherson Library at UVIC you walk across an archaeological site. Every time you leave the Elliot Lecture hall you walk across a site. The Legislature is on a site, the Fraser Arms Hotel, the Willows Beach Tea House, all superimposed, a collective blotting. Our feet tread the scraped parchment of the dead.