Bridge repair project uncovers link to ancient Indian village in Seattle

Nearly 300 skeletons found at settlement that dates back 17 centuries

December 26, 2004|By Tomas Alex Tizon | Tomas Alex Tizon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE - If it had been just one skeleton, the project would have continued. Even a few dozen skeletons might not have been enough to persuade Washington state officials to abandon a $283 million bridge-repair project along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about 65 miles northwest of here.

But what construction workers stumbled upon went beyond anything ever found in the Pacific Northwest: an ancient Indian village dating back 17 centuries, with lodges, dance halls and cemeteries containing hundreds of skeletal remains. So far, nearly 300 complete skeletons have been unearthed, many of them buried in clusters, including entire extended families.

Men and women lay in ritual embrace. Infants were buried with mothers, the young and the old lying side by side, as many as 11 in one grouping.

"This is just the tip. There could be thousands of people buried there," said David Rice, a senior archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, who characterized the site as potentially the largest prehistoric village and burial ground ever found in the United States.

Rice said parts of the village, which has been identified as the ancient settlement of Tse-whit-zen, were at least 1,700 years old.

The skeletons are believed to be the ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who still live near the site, just outside Port Angeles. The leaders of the 900-member tribe asked the state to halt the construction project.

In a letter to transportation officials, tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles explained that the daily exhumations were "just overwhelming everybody."

Now, 15 months and $58 million into the project, the state has complied. The heavy machines have rumbled to a halt. Construction workers have begun packing up.

The project, part of a major overhaul of the aging Hood Canal Bridge, which connects the Olympic Peninsula to the rest of the state, is on hold.

"Money is money, and we regret we couldn't have made the decision earlier so we could have saved some," said Doug MacDonald, state secretary of transportation. "But what has been discovered has an importance that money can't value. We started out fixing one kind of bridge, but we ended up finding a bridge into the past."

Tribal members, who have been helping archaeologists and construction workers, now must figure out what to do with the unearthed remains.

Each complete skeleton has been blessed and placed in a cedar coffin. The coffins are being kept in an undisclosed location. In addition, workers have found nearly 800 other bones and bone fragments and more than 5,000 artifacts.

The state has given $3 million to the tribe to acquire land and rebury the remains. Some tribal leaders have said they want to return them all to Tse-whit-zen.

The state and tribe have agreed to stop further scientific excavation. Archaeologists say the actual size and scope of the village and burial grounds might never be known.

"This has been wrenching for us," said Dennis Sullivan, vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam. "Every time we'd find one of our ancestors, we'd wrap them in a blanket and put them in a cedar box, and pack them in, and you could feel the silence among us. We wondered, `Is this my great-grandfather? Is this my great-grandmother?"

Sullivan said his tribal ancestors were part of one of the largest Indian nations in the region, made up of 29 villages on the Olympic Peninsula and another six in what is now the Canadian province of British Columbia. They were a fishing people who traveled the region by canoes carved out of cedar.

The arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s and early 1800s marked the beginning of a devastating decline for the region's Indians. Smallpox and other European diseases wiped out 90 percent of the native population, scientists say. Rice believes the mass graves at Tse-whit-zen resulted from these illnesses.

Excavation has been limited to about 9 1/2 acres of the 22-acre construction site, which the state Department of Transportation chose as a place to build a dry dock and fabrication plant. The plan was to manufacture pontoons and anchors there, and then transport them by boat to the bridge, about 50 miles away.

The state bought the land from the port of Port Angeles in 2003, and while it generally was known that an old Indian village once existed in the area, a preliminary study concluded there was nothing of archaeological significance at the site.

For most of the 20th century, it was occupied by a lumber mill.

Construction began in August 2003. Within weeks, a backhoe hit something hard about 8 feet below the surface. It turned out to be a refuse pile, made up of a huge mound of discarded shellfish. The first human bones were found shortly after.

The rest has been an almost daily - and surreal - uncovering of a long-buried society and way of life.

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