Douglas Fir Archaeological Sites on Xwe'etay

By Dana Lepofksy

Many people first think of artifacts (belongings) when they think of archaeology. For me, I am way more excited about the more subtle evidence of past lives lived on the land. So, give me a fire pit with carefully chosen heating rocks, any day!

One of my favourite kinds of archaeological sites are what archaeologists call “Culturally Modified Trees” (CMTs). This not very imaginative name refers to trees that have in some way been altered by human use of the tree. This includes test-holes to assess internal soundness of the wood, plank extraction, the harvesting of cambium which is processed into an important food, and the removal of slabs of bark for fuel or temporary structures. A wide variety of trees were traditionally modified in this way, but only pines, redcedar, yellow cedars, and Douglasfirs preserve in the archaeological record. To date, the oldest CMT recorded is a western redcedar that had its bark removed in AD 1415.

Until relatively recently, Douglas-fir CMTs were not known to archaeologists. In part, this is because old Douglas-fir trees are relatively rare on the coast. But it also because, as so often is the case, archaeologists didn’t see what they didn’t already know to be there. That is, we weren’t looking for CMT Douglas-firs, and we didn’t listen carefully to Indigenous knowledge holders telling us about the use of Douglas-fir bark; thus we didn’t find them in the archaeological record. While still not common, more and more such sites are now being discovered. There are some gorgeous old growth Douglas-firs around Metchosin that have even had their bark removed on upper limbs. When you’re next over in Qualicum, check out the stunning Douglas-fir CMTs in the Heritage Forest. Those are quite old, we think.

First Nations, like many people today, valued Douglas-fir bark for its hot, hot fuel. (I remember reading somewhere that Allen Farrell only burned small pieces of beachcombed Douglas-fir bark on his boat and couldn’t figure out why not everyone did the same.) In the case of Douglas-fir CMTs, the bark was removed in large and small slabs with wedges and chisels (wooden and stone in ancient times, metal more recently). Only the bark was removed and normally the cambium layer was not cut into. Thus, this was a sustainable way get fuel wood. Commonly, trees have multiple scars, reflecting that they were a source of fuel over long periods of time. I love these archaeological features because they provide glimpses into some of the less tangible activities of people over the generations – in this case fuel collecting.

I have been looking for Douglas-fir CMTs on Lasqueti for many years and assumed that they were all removed during logging. However, Izzy and Gordon recently showed me a lovely grove of Douglas-fir CMTs on the island. The owners did not know about them and are very excited to be their stewards. Several of the trees seem to have multiple scars, suggesting that this site was visited repeatedly over the years as a source of fuel. Most of the bark seems to have been removed with a metal chisel and thus the harvesting dates to after European contact. Since settlers apparently started using and then moved into that location in the 1870s, we can assume that the Indigenous harvesting of the trees happened before that time. That likely places the bark harvesting sometime between the early 1800’s, when metal was increasingly common, and before the late 1800’s.

As with all archaeological sites, CMTs dating older than 1846 (when BC was annexed) are protected by Provincial law. However, those younger than this arbitrary date are obviously still very important for what they tell us about people’s past use of the island. I expect there to be more of these archaeological sites on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti. Since seeing the grove of CMTs, I heard about two other isolated Douglas-fir CMTs on the island. So, go check out your old growth Douglas-firs for evidence of bark removal.

As always, please contact me with comments or questions about the archaeological history of our island.