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Gulf Island dig reveals surprising insights into First Nations 1,000 years ago

Thousands of years of historical mysteries are embedded in our coastal landscape. An archeology class and a team of First Nations cultural advisers are working on a small Gulf Island this month to solve just one.

Thousands of years of historical mysteries are embedded in our coastal landscape. An archeology class and a team of First Nations cultural advisers are working on a small Gulf Island this month to solve just one.

“This is our second season of excavating and it’s turned out to be a considerable site with good shell exposure,” said Eric McLay, as he hiked through the tall dry grass and gnarled fruit trees into the forest of Prevost Island.

The island sits between Galiano and Saltspring. For nearly a century, it has belonged to descendants of Irish nobleman Digby de Burgh and has been used as a farm. In 2012, Parks Canada acquired two small reserves of the land and they are now part of the national park — accessible only by boat.

“Archeologists came around in the 1970s and first reported these sites,” said McLay, a University of Victoria anthropology professor who is completing his doctoral degree on historic inland shell deposits — often called middens.

“I don’t like to use that word. Midden is often interpreted as refuse or garbage, but archeologists understand it very differently,” he said. Before colonization, Prevost Island was known as Hwu’eshwum, a Coast Salish word that means “place of seals” in the Hul’q’umi’num language.

A clearing in the woods revealed what looked like a scene from an Indiana Jones film. A string grid mapped sections of dark brown dirt with visible white specs. A dozen or so budding archeologists sifted small mounds, used fine tools to scrape for delicate treasures and scribbled notes on pads as they separated light-coloured shell fragments.

“I’ve been pushing for students to have more excavation experience,” said McLay. The dig is also a six-week anthropology field-study course through the University of Victoria, and the first excavation of its kind in a national park. When the project is complete, findings will be presented to Parks Canada and local First Nations — as well as any artifacts.

About 1,000 shell sites have been recorded in the coastal area, but only about 30 are inland. Some date back more than 5,000 years. Older sites on Haida Gwaii date back 11,000 or 12,000 years.

“What’s unusual about this site is that it is predominantly shells. There are no animal or fish bones,” McLay said. The site sits about half a kilometre inland at a 25-metre elevation and is likely 1,000 years old. Samples will be carbon-dated to make sure.

These kinds of shell deposits can sometimes be dismissed as kitchen refuse, but McLay said they are important cultural and historic sites that tell us more than what people ate.

“Were people bringing these shells back deliberately, and if so, why? Or were these defensive sites?” McLay asked, noting each new discovery unearths a new mystery. For example, students found purple-hinged rock scallop shells with small, perfect holes that appear to be ornamental.

“These could be natural, but to find three of them like this?” he said. “Rock scallops were used in Coast Salish culture. Are these ceremonial places where ancestors connected with the spirit world?”

Some of these questions were put into perspective by two cultural advisers on the archeological team.

“My elders always talk about these sacred places. I’ve learned about them and I’m fairly proud to be here,” said Phillip Joe Sr. from the Cowichan Tribes.

He comes from a line of gravediggers. In his culture, the role of properly handling remains is passed down through generations. He has also taken a few courses, he said. Most of his work has been at development sites where graves were discovered after construction crews started working.

“This has been very interesting,” Joe said. “We’re a seasonal people. Way I look at it, this [site] is halfway across the island — where they might have sun- or wind-dried clams. Or met to trade.”

Joe and fellow cultural adviser Virgil Bob from the Pauquachin First Nation work alongside the students, fielding cultural questions, documenting the process for their elders and communities and mentoring research practices that are respectful to First Nations.

“We always try to explain to non-natives about how and why things are done in a respectful way. They appreciate this knowledge,” said Joe, who marked students with red “paint” before entering the site as a symbol of protection. He said it‘s important for students to be mindful they are working in a place where graves could be found — that these are ancestors of people here today.

Bob said the experience of working with students was a valuable addition to similar work he does in his own community.

“Like a lot of stuff I did, I took it for granted. But as I started telling the students, more things started coming back to me. It’s so important for people to know how we lived out here, how our ancestors lived,” he said.

After years spent studying archeology in books and the classroom, students said they were eager for this kind of opportunity.

“To get into anthro, you need to have your hands in the dirt,” said Sarah van Asselt, a fourth-year anthropology student at the University of Victoria. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it’s also important work.”

She was crouched over the deepest pit at the site, about 60 centimetres, with fellow student Johnny Huynh.

“I would like to do consulting archeology,” said Huynh, a fourth-year student at the University of British Columbia. “There’s a big industry in B.C. for that.”

The field work also falls under the mandate of Parks Canada, to document any artifacts or archeological sites on newly acquired land. The federal agency provided some of the logistics for the project, including boat transportation by cultural program assistant David Dick, who is a member of the Songhees nation.

On the way back from base camp on Prevost Island, he slowed the boat to stop for a pod of killer whales breaching ahead and said: “It’s not just work, it’s a guardianship role, looking at these areas.”

He said the experience of working in the field changes everyone who does it for the better.

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