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.
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 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.
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.