Tag Archives: Songhees

“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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The Giant of Happy Valley

The giant of Happy Valley Esquivalt(?) [sic].  Sent to Professor Flower at Nat Hist Mus and returned to the owner Left McCallum. Source: British Museum.

“The giant of Happy Valley Esquivalt(?) [sic]. Sent to Professor Flower at Nat Hist Mus and returned to the owner Left McCallum.” Source: British Museum.

When I was looking for more information about the Coast Salish grave houses I pictured a few days ago, I ran into these images from the British Museum.  They show the torso and head of a large human figure, carved out of wood.  The height of the sculpture is 4 foot 9 inches, meaning the whole sculpture, assuming it once had legs, would have stood well over seven feet tall.  So, a giant indeed.  There is very little information about the sculpture, other than it comes from happy Valley, “Esquivalt” – clearly meaning Esquimalt – a neighbouring municipality to the west of Victoria.  The next municipality to the west is Colwood, and indeed it has a prominent “Happy Valley Road” running through it into Metchosin.  While at the first glance the sculpture doesn’t appear to be a typical NW Coast sculpture, I think there’s reason to at least consider that possibility.

[edit: be sure to see the comment from Pete at the bottom]

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Coast Salish Mausolea, Victoria, 1859

 Grave near Victoria on the harbour, 1859, by William Tyrwhitt-Drake.  Source: British Museum. Click for their record and verso.

Grave near Victoria on the harbour, 1859, by William Tyrwhitt-Drake. Source: British Museum. Click for their record and verso.

So, not long ago we had an excellent discussion here centered around Edward Richardson’s 1864 painting of a Coast Salish grave house or mausoleum.  I’ve recently come across another set of images of these places which are so important to First Nations. These images were painted by well-known early Victoria resident (and former mayor and Supreme Court of BC Justice)  Montague Tyrwhitt-Drake.  They’re pretty interesting paintings  from the early colonial period on southern Vancouver Island which I don’t recall seeing before.

The painting above clearly shows a small mausoleum, weighted with rocks on top, in front of which are two carved figures. The one on the right includes fishers or river otters, both of which have important spiritual significance in this area.  Each of these images has notes on the back, which are also reproduced at the British Museum site (click the image to go to the accession record). For this image, the notes aren’t transcribed, though maybe someone with better olde handwritinge fkills would care to have a go  As near as I can make out, the back reads:

This is another eccentric specimen of Indian taste for sculpture, it is equal to the finest specimens of _________  — see the elegant attitude of that man scratching his ?cheek bone, but a _____ ________ _______ would have mastered __________ a flight of ___________ imagination. The other is holding two dogs [sic] of a breed which I am afraid is lost to the present generation. This ______ are carved in wood and _____ ________ near a large grave of the family vault above ground ___________ .

It”s true, both sculptures are lively and naturalistic. In both cases, and the one below, there is apparently a rendering of face paint.  I’m sure those readers more knowledgeable than I will see a lot of interesting detail in these pictures.  Note the open prairie environment – anthropogenic Garry Oak meadow, no doubt.

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A Coast Salish Mausoleum, 1864

A Salish Grave, 1864. Watercolour by Edward M. Richardson. No specific locale given. Source: CollectionsCanada.gc.ca

A Salish Grave, 1864. Watercolour by Edward M. Richardson. No specific locale given. Source: CollectionsCanada.gc.ca  Click to enlarge slightly.

“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) Continue reading

Burnt Embers blog: Oak Bay Cairns Mark Songhees History

Cropped screenshot of detail of cairn marking Sahsima, south Oak Bay. Source: Burnt Embers blog; click to visit.

I recently have started following a wonderful new blog called Burnt Embers.  It’s mostly a photo blog of the author’s surroundings – which appear to be deepest south Oak Bay, which is a municipality adjacent to Victoria, B.C. It’s a wealthy municipality not really known for being sensitive to archaeological concerns or First Nations history: for example, it’s the locale of the rather messy Esplanade controversy I documented last year (1, 2, 3).

Anyway, the blogger at Burnt Embers, one “ehpem”, has recently done a great service by bringing to light a series of attractive cairns, emblazoned with art by Tsartlip artist Charles Elliot (Temoseng), which pay tribute to Songhees and Straits Salish places, history, and names.  As ehpem points out, Oak Bay Council has erected these cairns but provides no other information about them, whether on their website or anywhere else.  They’ve  been sort of bolted onto the Oak Bay landscape.  No matter: ehpem has photographed them beautifully and assembled a great series of pages documenting each one and also created a google map which is really handy for getting around from cairn to cairn. The cairns are, in the order which ehpem documents them:

Sahsima – a transformer stone near the Chinese Cemetery.  Sahsima, meaning “harpoon”, was the original name identified by Songhees elder James Fraser for the point where the Chinese Cemetery is located: Hayls the Transformer, with spirit companions, Raven and Mink, came by in his canoe, frightening away the seal the harpooner had been stalking. The harpooner rebuked them, Hayls turned him to stone as he stood there poised to throw the harpoon, saying “You’ll be the boss for seals … from Sooke to Nanaimo.” Continue reading

Victoria ASBC Public Talk, Tuesday May 17: Locarno Houses?!

UVIC students visiting "Aquattro Site" near Esquimalt Lagoon, 2008.

The next scheduled public talk of the Archaeological Society of BC, Victoria Chapter, will be held next Tuesday evening at 7.30 at the Pacific Forestry Centre, 506 West Burnside Road (map).  The talk is free and open to any member of the public.

The talk is entitled Preliminary Investigation Results from DcRu-1151: A Locarno-Age Living and Processing Site at Esquimalt Lagoon, and will be given by local archaeologists Kristi Bowie and Kira Kristensen.

I had the pleasure of visiting this site while it was being excavated a few years ago.  All signs were that the site included the remains of a house dating to between 2500 and 3500 years ago, the “Locarno Beach” period, though at that time the feature was not directly dated.  Very little is known of domestic structures from this time and so the finds could be quite exciting. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this site, though it is doubtful I will be able to attend this talk due to the ongoing circumstances which also keep this blog running slowly.  I am pasting in the abstract and speaker biographies below, or else click here for the PDF.

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Willows Beach Archaeological Site Landowner to Appeal, Again

These darn, hidden sites that no one expects: archaeology at the Willows Beach Site, ca. 1990. (Not the MacKay Property) Source: Millennia Research 1990.

I apologize to readers from afar who may not be interested in the apparently parochial matter of a local woman’s encounter with archaeology on the Oak Bay waterfront, and the incomplete journalism which accompanied it.

But with the news Saturday (PDF*) that the Willows Beach landowner, Wendi MacKay, intends to appeal the earlier decision of Justice Fitzpatrick to the B.C. Court of Appeal, it becomes possible this case (previously 1, 2) will have repercussions for the practice of archaeology across the entire province.  I hadn’t really thought about the implications of an appeal since, well, Fitzpatrick (section 33-38)] essentially says, “I would find the case in your favour if I could, but you gave up your rights to appeal, so I can’t.”

I might be calling wolf in my fears aired below.

But, bear with me.

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