“Grave House” is one of those archaeological terms which render slightly creepy a feature that is more or less an everyday experience: the mausoleum, a house for the dead, filled with coffins.
This is a fascinating image I hadn’t come across before: a very early image of a Coast Salish mausoleum. It highlights the artistry and vividness of these features better than the few sketches or early photographs do. The accompanying text at the Canadian Archives is:
Subject depicts grave boxes in a grave house with guardian figures. The grave house is covered with a roof of wooden planks but has no walls. At the front of the house stands six guardian figures. There are flags to the left and right of the house. On the left hand side of the house a tent is set up and clothes are hanging. A shotgun hangs from the front beam of the house. Item was up for auction in the September 28, 1970 Christie’s sale in Calgary. Lot 31.
The image isn’t very high-resolution but there are still some things to talk about – and there is another Richardson painting I’ll link to in a day or two. (edit: here)
The two right-most figures in the painting show a sort of squared off top, suggesting they may have been fitted into a house or other structure at one time. At the far right in the rear (above) you can clearly see some bas-relief carving, probably of “fishers” which are a creature with significant supernatural powers, according to for example, Diamond Jenness’ unpublished ethnography of the “Saanich”. Or they might be river otters, which memory tells me were also supernaturally-charged. You can see a very similar box below from Musqueam, including the curved pedestal, via “Don’s Maps” site, where you can also see several grave figures (scroll down) which it seems “Don” photographed at the MOA.
As the caption for the Richardson painting notes, there is a shotgun hanging from the front lintel, which is quite remarkable really. It also appears two of the guardian figures are carved holding firearms, while two more appear to have their hands in their pockets (though I wouldn’t vouch for that – it promotes a kind of relaxed “this is our place” sense). The large coffin in the centre has a vivid pattern which almost forms an optical illusion of depth.
In front of the house there is an old log and a stake or small post, which suggests there had been a previous house or grave house on the spot. And note the prominent rocks scattered about. It makes me wonder if there had been burial cairns here as well, perhaps dismantled to re-inter the ancestors in boxes. Or, perhaps, the grave houses were placed in and among a burial cairn complex.
To the left of the house is a tent, with clothing hung out to dry. Wherever this mausoleum was, the living people were hanging out right nearby. I’m also really interested in these pennants. At first glance they seem to include the Christian Cross or even the Cross of St. George, and yet the circle seems a little more unusual in this setting. I wonder if they are re-purposed naval flags? Or if they are an early example of a cultural-fusion – it would have been easy to have such pennants made on the coast at the time, what with all the naval and marine activity centred there. A long time ago I linked to a painting of tree burials at Tsaxis, where less well-formed pennants appeared to be attached to the coffins in the trees.
These details matter to fully appreciate the aesthetic and spiritual context of burial practices which don’t have a durable archaeological record. This painting seems to be a highly faithful rendering of an important part of the Coast Salish built environment. We often think that the 19th century happened in black and white, because it is then that photography takes over as our index of realism.
Of course, not all non-photographic images of these capture their vibrantly alive aspects – the image below from around 1850 shows grave houses in Victoria in a much gloomier fashion. (I’ve seen one reference to this image being at Laurel Point but the setting does not look familiar – it might be the small islet near the trestle, known to have been a burial island, or any one of the perhaps dozens of such burial islands known from Greater Victoria.)
In any case, it is worth remembering how much the landscape of the Salish Sea had been modified or imbued with deep spiritual significance – and that the physical evidence of this may not always mark the archaeological record with a very strong signature.