Dr. Alan McMillan: Tseshaht Archaeological Project

Fax: 778.782.5666 • Email: mcmillan@sfu.ca

Tseshaht Archaeological Project

This archaeological research project in the Broken Group Islands of Barkley Sound, western Vancouver Island, is jointly sponsored by the Tseshaht First Nation and Parks Canada. These islands, now within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, are the traditional homeland of the Tseshaht, a Nuu-chah-nulth group now resident at Port Alberni, B.C. Fieldwork in 1999, 2000 and 2001 focused on Benson Island, one of the outer Broken Group, where the ancient village of Ts'ishaa once stood. Tseshaht oral histories identify this as their origin place, where First Man and First Woman were created. Later accounts, told by Tseshaht elders to the anthropologist Edward Sapir early in this century, identify the social groups that once lived at this site and tell of large plank houses with painted images on the fronts that once stood there.

The archaeological research team, led by Alan McMillan and Denis St. Claire, has excavated several deep trenches across the remains of the village. Deposits up to four metres deep consist largely of clam and mussel shells, revealing a way of life heavily reliant upon the resources of the sea. The people who dwelt at this open-ocean location also relied on taking a wide variety of fish and hunting sea lions and whales. Accounts by Tseshaht elders of the great whalers who once lived at this village were supported by several discoveries of large stacks of whale bones, including one where the mussel shell blade of an ancient harpoon head was still deeply embedded in the back of the skull. In addition, over 700 artifacts were recovered. Most are sharpened splinters of bone that once served as parts of fishing gear, although a decorated bone comb and a highly polished jet pendant provide evidence of other aspects of life. Archaeological remains from the main village area cover the last two millennia in age.

On an elevated ridge behind the main village, even earlier evidence was discovered. This land surface was occupied when sea levels were about three metres higher than they are today. Waves once broke at the base of this ridge, prior to the gradual lifting of the land and the build-up of the later village below. Radiocarbon dates show that this portion of the site was first occupied over 5000 years ago, providing the oldest archaeological evidence now known from the west coast of Vancouver Island. Artifacts recovered from this area, consisting mainly of crudely chipped stone objects, are markedly different than those from the later village.

Public education plays an important role in this project. Over the last three summers of fieldwork, more than 2200 visitors to this island portion of Pacific Rim National Park have viewed the excavation in progress. Tseshaht guides explained the history of the site and of the Tseshaht people, providing visitors with a greater understanding of this beautiful archipelago. Another major focus was to provide training for Tseshaht youth, who made up a significant portion of the excavation crew, in research into their own history and culture. Tseshaht elders and other community members took an active interest, making the lengthy journey from Port Alberni to see the excavation in progress on several occasions. The Tseshaht are actively working with Pacific Rim Park to protect their heritage resources in the park and to make visitors aware of their lengthy history in this area.

Beginning trench excavation across the village site of Ts'ishaa (2000).
Tseshaht trainees Ken Watts and Colin Charleson, screen at Ts'ishaa.
Excavation in the shell midden of Ts'ishaa. A large pile of whalebone is in the right foreground. A whaling harpoon head of mussel shell was found embedded in the skull.