Visit to the UVic Fieldschool on Prevost Island in the Salish Sea

UVic field school students at work on Prevost Island inland midden site.

UVic field school students at work on Prevost Island inland midden site. Trust me, there really are dense midden deposits at this site.

I had a good visit the other day to the UVic archaeological field school, which is on Prevost Island in the Salish Sea.  Prevost is a large island of about 1700 acres, mostly privately owned by an active farming family, but part of lies within Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.  In some ways, it is the hub of the southern Gulf Islands, lying squarely between Salt Spring, Galiano, Pender and Mayne Islands. There’s no ferry to this island, so it’s surprisingly off the beaten track considering how centrally located it is.  I suspect that’s a car-centric view, and taking the perspective of a maritime cultural landscape, this is one of the best-connected islands in the Salish Sea.

Anyway, the UVic fieldschool is being taught by doctoral student Eric McLay, whose research focuses on inland shell middens in the Salish Sea.  These are middens well away from the high tide line — in the case of Prevost, about 800 metres inland.  Several dozen comparable sites are known, such as the ones near the rockshelter burials on Gabriola Island.  Why people brought substantial quantities of shell to these inland locations is something of a mystery, one which Eric, with the help of the fieldschool students and First Nations participants, and the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation, aims to shed light on.

Prevost Island is the small island in the centre of this picture.

Prevost Island is the small island in the centre of this picture, encircled by ferry routes. Well known archaeological sites Montagu Harbour, Helen Point, and Pender Canal are all close at hand.

I don’t want to scoop Eric’s results or anything like that, but early indications are the Prevost Island midden is kind of unusual — lacking many of the species most commonly found in coastal shell middens, and with evidence of considerable burning.  The site is tucked in between steep rock bluffs and a wetland, and holistically it feels like a special sort of place (I can hear my PhD committee member Steve Shennan groaning about “naive empathy” as I write that…. but it’s kind of true).

This picture is a little blurry but you can see some dense midden pretty clearly.

This picture is a little blurry but you can see some dense midden pretty clearly.

This is the second year of the Eric-led fieldschool.  A tent camp on National Park reserve land gives the students a home base, and it’s a beautiful 10 minute walk in to the site. The deposits are mostly less than about 50 cm deep and historic logging has disturbed the site somewhat.  Most of these inland shell middens seem to date to around 2,000 years ago.

Which archaeologist hasn't done this little dance to cast even shade across their unit when taking pictures?

Which archaeologist hasn’t done this little dance to cast even shade across their unit when taking pictures?

Gulf Islands NPR is generously funding the participation of members of local First Nations, and they also facilitate the spiritual well-being of the students through ritual cleansing and instruction on the special nature of shell midden sites and proper behaviour while working on them.  The students gain the ‘RIC’ certification as well as two course credits at UVIC: one in field methods and the other in local culture history.  It’s great to have such an experienced and knowledgeable instructor who will put the results to good use in his dissertation.

One benefit we all hope for is to raise the profile and demonstrate the cultural and scientific importance of these inland sites.  They are not tuned in on every set of archaeological radar, and their discovery can be a nasty surprise for inland property developers, often at the end of a backhoe, after an impact assessment has missed them or the property is otherwise rated as low potential.

Edit: Times-Colonist article on the dig, PDF of that article.

Eric and the course TA, Aurora,at full throttle.

Eric and the course TA, Jackie Onassis Aurora, at full throttle.

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6 responses to “Visit to the UVic Fieldschool on Prevost Island in the Salish Sea

  1. Sounds like a place for special ceremonial events, a kInd of Pugwash Conference site but with likely spiritual significance.

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  2. Sites away from the beach between Genoa Bay and Maple Bay (i.e. Birds Eye Cove) were thought to be there as the local inhabitants were afraid of being raided by northern groups. One “cave” was excavated by the Provincial Museum, but I don’t know if it was ever written up.

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    • Funny you should mention it… have been working in this very area these past few weeks. The ‘cave’ is the Birds Eye Cove rockshelter, and a very detailed almost completed report written by Don Abbott. It is a very remarkable rockshelter, with a huge tab of rock sitting on some other rocks to create a very large interior space – something you would see in a movie. Certainly useful as a refuge in the late Holocene but would have been attractive for the entire 14000 year span of human occupation in the area…

      Some of these inland middens likely hunting camps as pointed out to me by Harold Joe, where one might expect tool (e.g. abraders) and material (e.g. slate blanks) caches in association with the traces of midden.

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  3. Curious in Everett

    Any chance it’s an old shoreline? Maybe a major earthquake caused some uplift. Interesting stuff.

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  4. Hi Dan, greetings from Quadra Island. Yes a refuge spot is possible for these inland middens though harder to explain the apparently selective midden contents. It’s hidden but not particularly defensive at base if bluffs which are easy to access from other side.

    Curious: that’s a good thought and would explain some sites like this on the coast. In this area though sea level history is well understood and if anything was about a half meter lower 2,000 years ago. Sea level on Prevost hasn’t been higher than modern for something like 11 or 12 thousand years.

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  5. I see the Times-Colonist has written up an article, not wholly accurate, on Eric’s project. It odes have some good quotes from the First Nations advisors and from students though.
    http://www.timescolonist.com/2.2339/news/gulf-island-dig-reveals-surprising-insights-into-first-nations-1-000-years-ago-1.1138546

    Archival PDF, since there is no worse offender of link-rot than the Times-Colonist:
    https://qmackie.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/times-colonist-gulf-island-dig-reveals-surprising-insights-into-first-nations-1000-years-ago-news-canadian-press.pdf .

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