Digging into Life on My Summer Vocation
(Part 4 of 4)

by FishKitten


Previous articles
in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The four-part adventure concludes. Relying on her ability to tune into the people who came before her on the land, the archaeologist author helps uncover an original First Place settlement of the first people to arrive in the Americas from Siberia many thousands of years ago, on First Island in the North Pacific.

We continued to dig and to lay out new units throughout the day. Something seemed off to me.

I called to Al.

“I don’t think this is right,” I told him. “We have this house facing the wrong direction.”

“It can’t face any other way,” he said with a shrug. “We know how houses were oriented to the beach and we know the beach is that way. The house had to face this direction. Which way do you think it faced?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. He seemed right. It was obvious that a beach had once existed off what should be the front side. But it felt wrong.

That night, I went to the campfire with the rest of the crew. It’s all fine and dandy to be some spooky old lady that eats wild food and strolls around communing with ancient dead folks as long as you also do some communing with the live folks. It was much like any beach campfire, except it was the only one for many a foamy mile. We laughed and told stories. Al was full of fun. An impromptu badminton game was formed, as Two Eyes had wisely thought to buy equipment while he was on shore over the weekend. The young chiefs battled ferociously, yet good-naturedly. It was fun and silly and scientific. I find archaeologists, as a group, talk about dirt a lot more than your average crowd of beachgoers. We all have some fascination for it. I know, I know, in the immortal words of Al … “Geeks unite.”

As the week progressed, I didn’t feel any more close contact with the white-haired woman, the “old one” who had seen me from across her ancient campfire. I dug along and found some cool artifacts, but nothing outstanding. Mind you, I couldn’t spend my whole time digging around the old fire pit where the porpoise was laid to rest. I had an area close to 7-foot square to dig up with an instrument slightly larger than a sharpened tablespoon. The dirt goes into metal buckets. When a couple of buckets are full, you carry them over to the screens a few yards away and screen all the dirt for anything you missed. I hate screening. Some people love it because they find excavation physically difficult, but I don’t care about the difficulty. I want to dig up stuff. That is why I am there … to find my Easter eggs. And you can bet your Aunt Fanny that nothing important makes it past me into the screens. Has to be done, though. So I woke every morning to stand by the sea and talk to the young eagle and the ravens. I dug all day and lugged buckets of dirt through the forest. I did the interminable paperwork that is involved in anything scientific. Things still didn’t feel right to me and we hadn’t found any of the articles that would have indicated we located the area that the chief lived around.

The weekend came. It was a payday for most of the ones who had been there for a while already. Most people were catching the boat into Bamfield on Saturday morning with plans to return on Sunday. That was perfect as far as I was concerned. Saturday would be the New Moon and I would be almost alone on the island. The only other person staying was a girl who was working on her master’s thesis, and she lived way down the beach and on the other side of camp from me. I got ready.

I fasted from sundown on Friday night. To be perfectly fair, it wasn’t a complete fast because I always drink lots of water. I suppose a true fast would exclude water as well as food. I thought a lot about the old ones and about the village we had found. Would it lead us even further back in time? Why did it seem wrong to me? I stood on the shore and looked out to sea. What was I missing?

The White-Haired Woman

As sundown on the New Moon turned the rain forest around me to ink, I made my way from the beach to my excavation pit. It was late, almost 11 pm. I sat next to the place where a fire had burned many generations ago … where I looked for a white-haired woman who looked for me.

The night was so black, there was no reason to close my eyes as I tried to let my mind wander. I guess it was around midnight when time started to seem to warp. I can’t be sure, since I don’t own a watch, but I usually have a pretty good idea what part of the day or night I am in. That all changed as I moved through the centuries.

I saw the people again … the happy women and children gathering clams. Then the woman. She knelt by the fire that now became so corporeal, I could almost feel its heat. A shiny dark porpoise lay dead on her side of the blaze … two porpoises, actually … a fetal porpoise lay beside her, belly to belly, still attached by the umbilical cord, though also quite dead. It made me a little queasy. It looked a little too much like the Pisces fish for my comfort.

“I hope that isn’t on my account.” I said to the woman as I pointed to the mother and child who had obviously been the objects of the chase I kept tuning in to.

“It was done for us,” she replied quietly, “for our connection.”

I guess I should explain here that I don’t think I actually physically went back in time here. I mean, clearly if I had done so, I wouldn’t have been able to understand any word in her language other than “thank you,” which one of the young men taught me. Even though it seemed like I was sitting in the dark reaches of an ancient longhouse, I was indeed cross-legged in the corner of an excavation pit in the middle of a forest. You know how it is when you are reading and suddenly the words on the paper disappear and a sort of movie starts to play out in front of your eyes? Or when you are a passenger in a car on a long trip, how you can be looking out the window when everything just kind of goes away and some other scene begins to play out in front of your eyes? This was kind of like that, except extra vivid … very intense … yet still obviously a product of connections in my mind. I suppose you could call it a vision, but that sounds a little grand for something that happens to people all the time. Somewhere between vision and imagination, I suppose, where the psyche connects to the unseen like a scratchy old black and white TV with rabbit ears for an antenna reaches for a signal across the years. Occasionally, my reception comes in really good. You’d think I had a satellite dish hidden out behind the garage.

“Sky Woman said you wanted me to find you, and I have had clues and dreams for many days’ travel,” I said, looking deep into her ebony eyes. “Why am I called here?”

“I have dreamed of you,” she replied. “I keep asking what must be done for the gods to return the waters to the people. Have we offended the giver of all life?

“We are the descendants of the old ones,” she explained. “This is the First Place of our people. I am a keeper of the stories. They tell us of the time before the great waters … the time before the trees. This island became a place of passing peoples. They stopped here always to eat from the rich shores and drink of the fresh water.”

Aha! A connection went off in my mind. We had a little fresh water on the island, especially on the far side, but not nearly enough water close to this spot to support a group of 400 or more people. I did not interrupt her speech.

“It pleased the creators of all that the people ate the gifts of the sea. The bones and shells of the sea peoples touched the land and brought forth for us the tall trees. By then our people had passed here for many generations. Finally, the first chiefs of our people said that here we would stay and here we would build our lodges from the gifts of the cedars.”

Images rushed through my mind … this island covered with rocks and birds and shellfish, but with a fresh water outlet that ran from a deep cavern across a semi-circular area another 50 yards behind us away from the beach. It rushed out into the ocean down the island just past where my tent was set up. For generations, travelers camped beside the rushing stream, taking a break from the rigours of the sea and eating heartily from the surrounding plenty. The fish and shellfish bones and other compost started building up atop the stones. Birds dropped the beginnings of berries, and, eventually, the trees came. The enriched soil encouraged extremely fast growth on this island as compared to some of those around it where no fresh water and no anthropogenic fertilization occurred. In fact, there are many today that still exist as stone monuments upon which seals and sea lions raise their pups.

Some long-ago chiefs of a First Nation of the Northwest decided this was the spot for their people, and there they stayed. They brought with them their knowledge of tool-making, hunting, house-building, and many other gifts. They built first back by the watercourse. That was the real first village after the trees came. As the population grew, the village moved naturally along the stream on the side by the beach. It was a beautiful, spiritual place. Most groups travelled on seasonal hunting rounds, packing up even the walls of their houses as they moved from location to location with the turn of the yearly cycle. But this was the place given to the people by the creators. It never ran short of food or water. The rains were tough in the winter, but the sheltering trees allowed the people to pursue art and fine crafts during those months.

Then the first big quake hit. It sounded like a loud snap … that first big one … then the ground began to twist. By the time the earth was done shaking and shaking again in a series of devastating aftershocks, beaches were displaced, trees were thrown down, houses had fallen or tilted dangerously on their mighty carved posts. But it was the water … the precious water … that was the problem.

I’m not sure if people will ever know exactly how underground streams, especially those that seem to peek up from nowhere on certain islands, change their paths. We know it happens. There are plenty of dry ancient watercourses in the world. And that is exactly what happened here, on the First Island.

To the shock and horror of the people, the earthquakes all but stopped the fresh water. Only a trickle remained. Now they were terrified that they were cursed for some reason. Their gods, whomever they perceived them to be, had clearly abandoned them if not sought to outright punish them. The old white-haired woman who told the stories reminded the tribe of the ancient tale of the dolphin woman who helped open the waters for salmon when the ice blocked the river. Perhaps the dolphin woman could open the waters of their stream. The white-haired one made a plan.

After many days, the hunters finally killed a porpoise such as the white-haired one had described. All the preparations were made. She fasted and purified herself. In the last standing ruins of the longhouse, she crept to the shaman’s corner. She cast her spells or said her prayers or however you want to phrase it, but she made one mistake. She forgot, or didn’t know, about the underlying sense of humour in the universe. She conjured up a dolphin woman alright … one who could bring her people back from the abyss they had fallen into … one who could insure that they would live on … but not in the way she had expected. She only found me … one who could only bring them back as tales and memories in the hearts of their descendants.

“Will you bring back the water?” she asked, as she peered into my eyes.

“I can’t do that,” I said. “It is not within my power.” (Although actually, a load or two of dynamite might do the trick.)

“Are the descendants of the First Chiefs to pass away, then?”

“Its not so bad as all that,” I told her. “You already know how to travel the sea. Your ancestors gave you that gift. Now you have a reason to use it, beyond the hunting of food. Fill your canoes and move on now. There is nothing else to keep you here. Will you sit and cry of curses while your children go thirsty? Just leave.”

“Where shall we go?” she asked.

I looked around me at the leaning mess that once was the First Place. “Go to the Second Place,” I told her. “Find a new stream. This one will not return for many generations to come. But I promise this – one day, young chiefs of your people will come back to this place to find the ones who came before. I have seen them.”

She smiled then. “You bring us hope. We will go.”

I walked out with her beneath the leaning, cracked faces of the carved doorpost. It has a very unusual spiral pattern on it. The last thing left was the porpoises beside the fire.

The Chief’s Place Revealed

When Al and Denis returned, I went to talk to them. I wasn’t about to tell them the whole thing with the white-haired woman. No sense putting the word around that I’m a complete nut, which is no doubt what they would have thought if I had laid that whole story on them. Instead, I told them that I had been exploring over the weekend and thought I had solved a bit of the mystery of this place. They were naturally intrigued.

I took them for a walk and showed them where the ancient stream once ran, barely traceable now with all the seismic twists and rumbles over the years. I put a marker in the place I figured the first permanent people on the island lived. I explained that the houses we were excavating now were oriented to both the beach and the watercourse, thus shifting the main house where I found the porpoise from a solid east-facing aspect to something at more of an angle. They talked it over and decided it couldn’t hurt to drop in a few test pits.

We found the chief’s area inside the newly laid-out form of the longhouse. The pits behind the ridge at the old watercourse turned out to be very interesting indeed. It looks like old stuff … really old. I left before they got to the oldest layers, but I know they were on the right track.

Before I left, Denis took us on a day trip to the Second Place. They know for sure where that was, as it turned out. The people lived there, near a bubbling stream in the shadow of protective towering rock cliffs, until long after Europeans came. We walked through the site. It is so sensitive, only archaeologists accompanied by chiefs are allowed to be there these days. I took several pictures there. It was pretty dark and overgrown, even in the middle of the day. I hope the details show up. Especially the last picture I took there. It was of Denis, with his bright white stripe of hair standing out boldly against the black. He was leaning under what he considered the strangest house post he had ever seen. It had adzed spirals running all around the top and, beneath that, what looks for all the world like a carving of a porpoise.