Sunday, October 12, 2008

Burial Cairns in Metchosin

Coast Salish Burial Sites in Metchosin
Moralea Milne
February 2, 2004

A modern day detective explores ancient mysteries. That is how I would describe the fascinating glimpse into First Nations burial sites that Darcy Mathews, UVic Anthropology Masters student presented to an enthusiastic group of history buffs on Saturday January 24th, 2004 at Devonian Regional Park. The morning began with rain, sun, hail, wind, rain…. over and over again, in other words, typical winter weather. As we all arrived at the Devonian parking lot, the weather stabilized, the sun made a weak but welcome appearance and a intrepid group of about 15 were soon paying close attention as Darcy sketched in what little is known about the earliest inhabitants of Metchosin. During the walk, one of the group remarked that the original colonizers of this area were not thought to have worn any clothes. As the bitter wind blew around us, it was hard to imagine myself surviving in their time and place…
Darcy described Metchosin and parts of the Western Communities as “fossilized landscapes” and he wasn’t referring to all the retirees here! Many areas in our community still retain a great deal of their pre-European contact characteristics and the cairns and shell middens remain much as they did when first constructed. Darcy explained that the rock mounds or cairns are the burial sites and the shell middens are the refuse sites, filled with the remains of harvested shellfish and other domestic garbage. Archaeologists love garbage dumps!
The oldest record of First Nations use in this area is 3000-3500 years ago and it is possible that further study could move this date back.
Apparently there have been at least three different periods in which First Nations in this area changed their burial practices before European contact. Before 500 AD, people were buried in the shell middens, within their village sites. There seems to have been a relatively abrupt change in burial customs and grave sites were removed to outside the villages and the dead were now covered in rocks. This phase lasted approximately 500 years and then around 1000 years before present time cultural practices again changed and bodies were placed in scaffolds in trees-sometimes within canoes or in rock shelters, where they would remain for several years before they were removed and taken to outlying islands for final burial. There is supposition that an alteration in traditional practices can occur as a consequence of disease outbreaks or from a rash of deaths which occur in unusual ways, such as from warfare.
Early colonizers were not especially sensitive to other cultures and many cairns were disturbed by grave robbers and “gentlemen archaeologists”, especially in Victoria and vicinity. While most of these searches resulted in the loss of archaeological data as well as desecration of grave sites, a few of these “gentlemen archaeologists” did keep relatively complete notes on their findings, which have been of value to current studies. Darcy prefers to learn the mysteries of the ancient sites from the clues hidden in the rocks and their particular placement, without disturbing the cairns, and he partners with local First Nations people in his research.
The irony is that the Coast Salish of this area did not bury their dead with any goods or artifacts. All that was found were bones, most of which quickly disintegrated. Some did remain intact and have since been carbon dated, although most vanished into dust long ago.
It is fascinating that what appears to uneducated eyes to be nothing more than a mound of moss covered rocks, sometimes with trees or shrubs growing through and around them, has yielded as much information as is currently known.
In their burial customs the Coast Salish of this area were a democratic nation. All graves are for a single body and there appears to be no discrimination between sex or age and status. The cairns are oriented towards the water, often along ridge tops. Perhaps they were put in those locations as a sign of sovereignty or a declaration of territory.
Although the burial cairns show individual styles, just as our own are apt to do, they often used similar construction methods. If possible, they were situated near water, in upland, well drained locations with ample supplies of rocks. If rocks weren’t present they would be hauled from the beach. A shallow depression would be scooped out and lined with white ash or sand. The body would be tightly bound into an almost fetal position. One large rock would be placed at the head of the cairn, oriented towards the water and a central cyst of flat rocks would be placed over the body, to protect it from crushing. Cobbles from the beach would be placed inside the mound with larger rocks around the perimeter.
Coast Salish of this region did not follow the same burial customs as Coast Salish in some other areas. Whereas Southern Vancouver Island has many rock cairns and a few earth mounds, the Coast Salish on the Fraser and further up-island used mostly earth mounds and have only a few rock cairns. Not all burial sites are found along the coast, some can be found inland, although these are less well studied.
Another sign of previous aboriginal habitation are several fortification sites throughout the area, at first considered built by the early Spanish but now confirmed as Coast Salish. These trench embankments were constructed in easily defensible locations, often on a peninsula of land, around which a trench was dug and palisades erected. Spotters would be on the lookout for enemy attacks and if attack was inevitable, everyone would gather inside the fortified site.
Further evidence of relatively recent First Nations customs were several culturally modified trees. These old Douglas-fir trunks still show the scars received when bark was peeled for use as fuel. The thick ridged bark can throw a wonderful blistering heat for a stormy winter evening.
Darcy has mapped over 340 burial cairns at Rocky Point, the largest congregation in British Columbia. Mary Hill has many scattered sites, while Albert Head has fewer but larger ones and Devonian Park has small clusters of cairns. It would seem like Metchosin has been a popular place to live for thousands of years!
Many of these sites are difficult to recognize, even for an archaeologist. If you suspect you have any burial cairns on your property, please give them the respect they are due and leave them untouched. An important point as well, is that these sites, whether they are recorded or not, are protected by the Heritage Conservation Act; provincial law protecting archaeological sites. It is illegal to knowingly or willfully disturb or destroy any archaeological site in B.C., whether on private or crown land. You may contact Darcy at: dmathews at

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