Submitted to the Driftwood, September 16, 2004
'Why is this shell midden here?', exclaimed the handwritten note on the archaeological site form. Discovered by a local resident of Salt Spring Island, this ancient archaeological site was surprisingly found along a hiking trail atop of a mountain nearly one and a half kilometres from the coastline and over 180 m (600 feet) above sea level (ASL). The majority of known archaeological sites recorded on Salt Spring Island are found along the waterfront, where Coast Salish peoples historically settled. The discovery of such rare 'inland' shell middens on the southern Gulf Islands has often raised the curiosity of many local island residents: "Are these really archaeological sites?"; and if so, "What were First Nation people in the past doing here so far from the coastline?".
From a regional perspective, inland shell middens on Salt Spring Island are very rare, unique and poorly understood. Despite the thousand archaeological sites located in the Gulf Islands, there exist less than 30 recorded inland shell midden sites. In 1987, archaeologists first investigated a complex of these rare inland archaeological sites threatened by new subdivision development at False Narrows Bluff on Gabriola Island. Located up to a kilometre distant from False Narrows, a total of 16 previously unrecorded sites were discovered in association with the forested escarpment of stepped, sandstone bluffs, including inland shell midden features, petroglyph rock art, burial crevices, and rockshelter habitations. Few archaeological sites had been previously identified so far inland from the shoreline in the southern Gulf Islands, and never before had such rare sites been observed in such density or diversity of past settlement activity. At first believed to be recent sites dating within the last thousand years or so, archaeologists did not expect to learn that carbon-14 dating evidence later revealed the use of this archaeological landscape dated over a period of a millennia from two to three thousand years ago.
A similar complex of inland archaeological site locations exist on several mountains of Salt Spring Island. In 1988, an archaeological investigation of one of these inland shell middens on Salt Spring Island took place on the slopes of Mount Tuam. This archaeological excavation was conducted as a salvage project before gravel mining operations had completely destroyed the site in advance of a proposed subdivision. Positioned on a high, flat terrace overlooking Fulford Harbour, local residents had been recovering artifacts from the quarry site for years, including a rare human-seated figure bowl and other possibly ceremonial-related objects. The remnant portions of the site were revealed by archaeologists in 1988 to represent a formerly large and variably deep, stratified shell deposit reaching up to 0.80m in depth. The structure and depth of the site indicated that the site had been used over a period of time on a repetitive basis. The diversity of shellfish, fish and other faunal remains and the different types of artifacts and their manufactured stages suggested that a range of settlement activities had occurred at this location. Two carbon-14 dates estimated the inland shell midden site at Mount Tuam to date around two millennia ago and occupied over a four hundred year period. Except for its perplexing location, the Mount Tuam site may be considered typical of many coastal shell midden sites found in the southern Gulf Islands.
The existence of such inland shell middens atop mountains on Salt Spring Island and other southern Gulf Islands challenges our common understanding of ancient Coast Salish culture. While there has been much public speculation to explain the location of these inland shell middens over the years (including everything from ancient sea level fluctuations to recently imported shells used for garden fertilizer, even road bed fill), academic debate as to why past cultures chose to locate settlements so far inland at such high elevations remains a largely unexplored archaeological problem.
It is clear that for the last five thousand years or more, sea levels have been depressed below present levels. While there is potential for high-elevation archaeological sites dating to the early post-glaciation era, the few inland shell midden sites that have been carbon-dated derive from more recently times between two to three thousand years ago. Therefore, other explanations than changes in sea levels over time must be explored to explain the location of many of these inland shell midden sites. Increasingly, there is archaeological and ethnographic evidence that presents the answers are likely much more dynamic, offering to lend a new appreciation of the complexity of ancient history in the southern Gulf Islands and how pre-contact and contemporary Coast Salish people perceive their cultural landscape.
Of the several hypotheses that have speculated upon by archaeologists, the commonest idea is that these inland shell midden sites represent defensive sites - sentinel look-outs or places of refuge for coastal villagers during times of conflict. The site on Mount Tuam certainly indicates a duration and diversity of settlement activity occurred over time by past populations. It is known the contemporary period of culture, known as the Marpole Phase (2500-1000 RYBP) (Radiocarbon Years Before Present, A.D.1950), is a period of increasing regional interaction in the Strait of Georgia region, with the expansion of social and economic relations across southeastern Vancouver Island and the Lower Fraser River. With this understanding, perhaps these inland shell midden sites on mountains of Salt Spring demonstrate evidence of increasing regional interaction during the Marpole Phase not based on solely trade and exchange, but increasing social conflict and warfare.
An alternate hypothesis is that these inland shell midden sites are evidence
of interior resource use by past populations in upland mountain environments.
The Garry Oak meadow ecosystems of the Gulf Islands are well-known to have been
intensively exploited by historic Coast Salish peoples for their camas lily
and other carbohydrate-rich root plants. Under this scenario, inland shell middens
may have acted as seasonal field camps for small family groups to collect, prepare
and store resources gathered on the mountains during the early spring and summer.
Small quantities of shellfish and other marine resources would have been transported
as food supplies from the coast during travels up the mountain, which over time
accumulated into large, stratified shell deposits. However, this 'traditional
use' hypothesis does not adequately explain why the chronology of the few excavated
inland shell middens appear to narrowly date to the Marpole Phase. If these
inland shell middens were associated with Coast Salish peoples gathering important
food resources on upland environments over time, the chronology of these sites
would be expected to demonstrate a longer-term use of the landscape over thousands
of years continuing up to historical times. Admittedly, carbon-14 dating evidence
is presently limited and further exploration of this hypothesis would be valuable.
In contrast to these perspectives, however, a recently published report speculates that the discovery of a zoomorphic stone bowl at an inland shell midden in Sechelt indicates that the site may not have been used for domestic purposes but 'shamanic' religious use during the Marpole Phase. While not a well-supported argument, the idea that there may be ceremonial or ritual purposes for the placement of these sites deserves more rigorous academic attention. An valuable direction to consider is the idea that the landscape where these inland shell midden sites have been placed held 'symbolic' meaning for ancient Coast Salish people.
For most residents of British Columbia, the land lacks any deep, historical presence. In First Nation culture, however, the lands are rich, storied landscapes embedded by ancient family connections, cultural history, and mythic events. Today, many Coast Salish peoples perceive the mountains on southeastern Vancouver Island and southern Gulf Island as 'heritage sites' which hold intangible, sacred significance to their cultures. Oral histories relate mountains as ancient places where the First Ancestors descended from the Sky World, and mythic places during creation times where the Transformer changed humans and non-human beings into figures of the natural landscape. The ethnographer Charles Hill-Tout at the turn of the century recorded a version of a well-known Coast Salish myth, which specifically explains the mythic existence of 'shells' seen atop of the mountains of Salt Spring Island. According to this narrative, Sqaleken 'The Boy with Lightning Eyes' acquired non-human spirit powers so potent that he was forced to remove himself from society and reside on the mountains of Salt Spring Island. Sqaleken asked his uncle to collect a canoe-full of broken-clam shells from a nearby beach and brought up the mountain to line a fresh-water well. Hill-Tout's Coast Salish informant explained, the shells " may be seen there to this day on top of the mountain". Thus, Coast Salish people in historical times certainly knew about the existence of ancient shell middens on the mountains of Salt Spring Island and attributed a mythic origin to them.
Did ancient Coast Salish people during the Marpole-era similarly perceive mountains
as powerful, mythic places which embedded symbolic meaning for their cultures?
Did this cultural perception of these mountain landscapes shape their ideas
about how to use the land? Were the use of inland shell midden sites less important
than the symbolic act of placing these shell deposits on the broader cultural
landscape of the mountain itself?
I believe that the key to understanding these sites lie embedded in the landscape where they are situated. These inland shell middens are not isolated sites, but associated with a network of interior archaeological sites. Across the entire Strait of Georgia region, these inland sites appear to concentrate in relation to specific landscapes. It is the archaeological context of these sites, their relationship to each other, and their relation to the broader regional landscape that will ultimately provide some understanding of these places. At present, the nature of these inland shell middens remains to be unanswered.
The southern Gulf Islands are nationally treasured for their unique natural heritage, their endangered ecosystems and their rare species at risk. The rich, threatened cultural heritage of the southern Gulf Islands has unfortunately received much less public recognition. Increasing subdivision and land developments threaten our public appreciation of this ancient landscape. While this ancient heritage places are recognized to embody great scientific and cultural values; some among the public continue to actively dismiss these sites as "imported road fill". There is a long colonial history of ignoring, negating and purposefully destroying First Nations' cultural connections to their land in British Columbia. In our modern era of reconciliation, I believe Salt Spring Island must be understood as an ancient place, the place shaped by generations of human experience, once a major centre of Coast Salish life. With this cultural perspective, Salt Spring Island will begin to recognize these lands are not just a place of historical significance for Coast Salish people, but as a living cultural landscape, a place embedded with contemporary symbolic meaning for modern Coast Salish cultural identity.
ERIC MCLAY, M.A. (UBC 1999) is an archaeologist who specializes in the archaeology of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Eric has worked on many archaeological research projects in the southern Gulf Islands over the past decade, and has a strong professional interest in integrating First Nations in heritage resource management. He presently lives in Ladysmith and works as an independent archaeological consultant working on behalf of local First Nations, including the Hul'qumi'num Treaty Group.