For one month of his summer, Morgan Ritchie was bent over the dirt beside the Nancy and William Phillips Slough.
The UBC PhD student and heritage research archaeologist at Sts’ailes spent his days carefully digging through layers of sediment and charcoal with eight other UBC students. Their goal: to learn as much as possible about an ancient Sts’ailes village situated on the banks of the slough, traditionally named after Qwetosiya and Ōltu:s Phillips.
“It’s kind of a prime location, that’s where all the salmon spawn and rear,” Ritchie explained about the village. “This pattern repeats itself on the Harrison River; it’s just this incredibly densely occupied area, or was.”
The UBC summer field school, organized by Ritchie and UBC professor Chris Springer, took place from July 2 to Aug. 2 of this year. Over the course of the month, students delved into the history of two different houses on the site: a plank house and a pit house.
Trowelling layer by layer, they were able find more than a metre of human-influenced deposits at the plank house, including fire-cracked rock, burnt sediments and artifacts — “all these things left behind from probably 1,500 years of occupation,” Ritchie said.
|Field school director Chris Springer and some of the UBC students doing archaeology at the Sts’ailes village during the summer excavation this July. (Contributed)|
Although the field school finished in early August, there’s still more to uncover about the village. Ritchie will be sending carbon samples to a lab in Ottawa for more precise dates on how long it was occupied, as well as sending sediment samples from the cooking pits to see what the Sts’ailes diet was 1,000 years ago.
“We know that salmon was immediately available, obviously,” Ritchie said. “But even the plants, we’re finding that people were cultivating fairly significant forest gardens all around their villages. So we’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to recover some of the culturally significant edible plants in the hearths.”
According to Ritchie’s analysis so far, the reason the village was able to remain in place for nearly 1,400 years was because of the abundance of salmon in the slough. Today, as the slough has suffered from 100 years of silt build-up after the demise of the village, that is no longer the case.
Later this summer, the Sts’ailes band will be undertaking slough restoration to help bring back the salmon.
“This is my grandparent’s slough, and all us children have fond memories of it as we were growing up,” Sts’ailes council member and director of aboriginal rights and title Boyd Peters said.
“It was a natural playground for us with beautiful trails. The slough was bustling with fish,” he continued. “Now that it’s being restored, it’s like a dream come true.”
The slough restoration project provided the impetus for this year’s field school, to allow the Sts’ailes to learn as much as possible about the ancient site before the dredging impacted it.
“It’s brilliant for the salmon, but it’s somewhat invasive for archaeological heritage,” Ritchie explained.
“We targeted this (site) because of the slough restoration, it was a good chance to learn about this area that we needed to. But there was also this underlying, ongoing drive for the Sts’ailes to learn more about their history and heritage in general.”
Since 2007, Ritchie has been working with the Sts’ailes doing archaeology. His first excavation, a village at the Sts’ailes cemetery, brought him into the community to begin looking at its heritage. Last year, UBC held another field school at the First Nation, this time looking at flat surfaces that were carved into the hillside around 1,600 years ago.
“It was unlike any settlement that we’re aware of, not just in Harrison, but really anywhere in the Fraser Valley,” Ritchie said. “It really just went to show just how occupied this area was.
“There wasn’t enough flat surfaces around, presumably, that people were kind of obliged to create their own level surfaces going up the hillside.”
This discovery, which showed the hillside village was contemporaneous with other villages along the Harrison River, helped solidify the understanding of just how populated the Harrison valley and surrounding mountainside was, up until a few hundred years ago.
|Chief Ralph Leon addresses students at the UBC Field School this July. (Contributed)|
“There’s still an expectation that First Nations communities demonstrate their own connection with the land, showing how their ancestors used it and where they lived,” Ritchie said. Having this kind of information “facilitates just an entirely different dialogue with people who might be interested in developing those places, or restoring salmon habitat.”
Ritchie expects that more excavations will be undertaken on traditional Sts’ailes territory in the future, but said that the way the management of those areas look could be quite different.
“The future is definitely the Sts’ailes managing their own heritage,” he said. “So much of it is managed by the province right now, but things are shifting so much that Sts’ailes has more and more influence over how heritage is protected and managed.”
Those changes have already started, in a small way.
During this year’s UBC field school, 30 kids from the Sts’ailes Read and Rec program came out to help the UBC team do a little bit of excavation at the village. Over two days, the kids worked on their own excavation site — under supervision from the archaeologists — and learned how to look for artifacts and landscape features.
“To have the kids involved in that, to have them work alongside, in some cases their moms who were out excavating with us, it was just a really need way to get the kids … aware of the heritage in a much more intimate way,” Ritchie said.
“Our community, especially the children, are fascinated by history,” he said. “We need the scientific evidence to further prove what the elders and ancestors have told us for generations.”