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Cordova Bay dig reveals signs of thriving First Nations village

A UVic-led archaeological dig is uncovering remnants of ȾEL¸IȽĆE (pronounced Tel-eech), a once-thriving village of the W̱SÁNEĆ people dating back more than 1,000 years

It’s 8 a.m. and a cool breeze flows through a tiny park in Cordova Bay where Roger Charlie is digging into his ancestors’ past.

He is lying flat on the ground on the edge of a hole. Layers of soil reveal ash and fire-cracked rocks, shells and animal bones — and a large piece of elk antler that Charlie believes might have been used as a tool to move hot rocks in a cooking pit.

Charlie can envision people around a cooking hearth sharing salmon and venison.

Signs of ȾEL¸IȽĆE (pronounced Tel-eech) — a once-thriving village of the W̱SÁNEĆ and Lekwungen-speaking peoples dating back more than 1,000 years — are emerging from deep in the ground at Agate Lane Park as a University of Victoria-led archaeological field school draws to a close.

Charlie is feeling the presence of those who came before him as he gently picks and brushes the soil two feet down.

“I’m feeling very close to my ancestors,” said the 54-year-old father and grandfather.

This week, he said, he had a dream of a woman about his own age who was wandering the site looking for something lost, a sign he believes is encouragement to keep uncovering the past of the Tsawout and other Indigenous people on the south Island.

All two dozen diggers — professors, graduate students and PhD candidates — have ochre smears under their eyes called TEMEL (pronounced Tem-uth) to protect them from bad spirits or feelings as they work, according to Coast Salish tradition. “Only when we are finished do we wash it away,” Charlie said.

The five-week dig was limited to Saanich parks in Cordova Bay and had only so much funding, said team leader Brian Thom, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria.

The findings, which include slate fishing knives, fire pits, shell middens, sophisticated fish hooks, harpoon armaments and food remains such as sea lion, deer and elk bones, are evidence of a long-lasting village site that supported a large population.

A team from Washington State University used ground-­penetrating radar to map the Agate Lane site, determining the areas worth investigating.

The teams also took advantage of early July’s low tides to look at the intertidal zone and found evidence of a large stone-wall fish trap in the area where Galey Brook spills into salt water to the south of the village. It was designed to capture herring and other fish as the tides receded.

The U-shaped fish trap, aligned with currents and tides, is similar to those found in recent Indigenous archeological work in Squamish and the Sunshine Coast.

Agate Lane Park, a sliver of land with housing on either side leading to the beach and the site of part of the village, was dedicated as a park in 1928. Other than an outfall line installed in 1994, it was saved from the Second World War era of development in Cordova Bay, which began with cottages and then permanent modern housing.

Thom said oral and written histories tell the story of a busy village with about 200 people living in two longhouses, the ocean producing plentiful food and the meadows and the hills above thick with camas and “monumental wood” such as tall cedar stands used for building longhouses and the ships from Fort Victoria.

Charlie said family stories passed down from his grandparents say Cordova Bay was often “filled with canoes” as area First Nations came together in daily life and celebrations.

Thom said some of the earliest recorded history indicates that in May 1791, a longboat from a Spanish ship anchored at Esquimalt went exploring into Cordova Bay, but was chased away by canoes. The Spanish headed to the San Juan Islands across the Salish Sea instead.

Victoria Times and Daily Colonist stories from the 1940s through to the 1960s show dozens of remains of First Nations ancestors were discovered during construction of homes and roadways.

A dig in 2008 around a home just steps from Agate Lane Park unearthed the remains of 14 individuals as well as 350 artifacts that were given to the Royal B.C. Museum, said Thom.

Most of the remains and items were discovered up to about 245 centimetres down and showed cooking hearths, cache pits and items from everyday life.

“We haven’t hit a metre yet [in Agate Lane Park] and we know the village gets older and older the further you go,” said Thom. He noted that carbon dating on the artifacts pulled from just under a metre at the neighbouring site were just under 1,000 years old.

“So we’re talking about a very old place, not centuries, but millennia,” said Thom.

He said the primary objective of the dig is to find the footprint of the village site in relation to Agate Lane Park (they don’t have permits for private land) and where it represents in time, based on the depth of the dig and the carbon dating of artifacts.

“We won’t get to the bottom here, unfortunately,” said Thom. “But we may get another budget down the road.”

The dig was financed through government grants based on the UVic field school providing Resources Information Standards Committee (RISC) training, which teaches basic site identification, surveying and recording skills. Students are registered with the province’s archeological branch.

Thom said community donations helped to fill some of the gaps in funding to complete the three-month dig.

What happened to the ancient village and why people left is unclear, said Thom.

James Douglas, the Hudson’s Bay Company chief factor, who became governor of the colony in 1851, negotiated 14 treaties with several ​First Nations on Vancouver Island, including the south Saanich treaty of 1852. It said village sites and enclosed fields were to be kept for First Nations. But a reserve was never set aside at ȾEL¸IȽĆE, as was done at other sites.

“In 1852, when Douglas was here, it was an active village,” said Thom. “By 1870, when settlers are establishing their farms, they’re not reporting people living here full time.

“So what happened here between 1852 and 1870 … we don’t really know. I’m hypothesizing here, but we know in Victoria in 1864 it was a particularly tough year with diseases like smallpox and influenza. First People were [susceptible] and died. It could be this village suffered that year like many other places and the people who survived moved with their families into Tsartlip, Tsawout and Songhees and neighbouring communities.”

Thom added: “We can’t tell archeologically.”

Records indicate no one lived there full time after the 1870s, though elders say house posts could be found there as late as 1913.

For Darian Claxton, an Indigenous Studies student at Camosun College, the dig site has family significance.

“I feel honoured to be invited here and to put timelines on when this village was actually used,” said Claxton.

He said Tsawout First Nation elder Mavis Underwood, a UVic anthropology PhD student and W̱SÁNEĆ grandmother working on the dig, told Claxton he has an intimate connection to the site.

“Mavis was telling me that my Auntie Belinda Claxton’s mom was born here. Her name was Elsie Claxton, so there’s a real family tie,” he said, as he scraped clams from what was once the floor of the longhouse.

“It makes you feel really connected,” said Claxton. “I’ve done shovel tests all around here and you find charcoal and [animal] bones. Yesterday, I found a piece of cut bone way up by the parking lot. It was a piece of sea mammal bone and it really showed the expansiveness of how my people lived.”

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