Bridge construction project unearths Tse-whit-zen, a largely intact Klallam Indian village, in a major archaeological discovery on August 16, 2003.

  • By Kit Oldham and David Wilma
  • Posted 7/28/2005
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7343
On August 16, 2003, workers building a graving dock for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) near Ediz Hook in Port Angeles uncover a shell midden. Discovery of the refuse pile, and shortly thereafter, many human remains and artifacts, reveals the largely intact Klallam village of Tse-whit-zen under layers of industrial rubble and fill. Tse-whit-zen, which occupied the Port Angeles site for at least 2,700 years until supplanted by industrial development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, turns out to be one of the largest and most significant archaeological sites in Washington. In response to the rediscovery of the village, WSDOT relocates its graving dock project, intended to build replacement sections for the Hood Canal Bridge. The Tse-whit-zen site provides important insights into Klallam life before and at the time of first contact with Europeans.

Tse-whit-zen's Prime Location

The Klallam or S'Klallam, who called themselves "The Strong People," lived on the northern Olympic Peninsula in more than 30 villages along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Hoko River to Puget Sound. Additional villages were located up Olympic Mountain rivers and across the strait. Like their neighbors, with whom they both traded and warred, the Klallam enjoyed a relative abundance of natural resources and a rich and complex culture.

Tse-whit-zen, sheltered behind the long sand spit of Ediz Hook at the west end of what is now downtown Port Angeles, occupied a particularly favorable location. There were salmon, herring, and halibut in the bay protected by the spit, clams, oysters, and mussels on the beach, and rich forests and freshwater springs on shore. Archaeological finds demonstrate that the site was occupied at least seasonally for more than 2,700 years. Some four centuries or more ago it grew into a substantial permanent village.

The Klallam at Tse-whit-zen first encountered European explorers in the 1780s and 1790s. With the Europeans came smallpox, measles, influenza, and other diseases to which the indigenous inhabitants had no immunity, resulting in devastating epidemics. Entire villages disappeared, and much of the region was depopulated before the first American settlers arrived in Washington in the mid-1800s.

As Port Angeles was settled, surviving Klallam families were pushed off their land. Some took up residence out on the Ediz Hook sand spit. In the early 1900s, a lumber mill was built over the historic site of Tse-whit-zen. The builders apparently used human remains and village artifacts as part of backfill for excavations and pipe trenches. When a Coast Guard station was established at Ediz Hook in the 1930s, the federal government purchased 372 acres on the lower Elwha River west of Port Angeles and moved 14 Klallam families there from Ediz Hook. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was recognized and their reservation officially established in 1968. Two other groups, the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, also obtained federal recognition and reservations.

Rare and Important Finds

When, on August 16, 2003, workers at the graving dock construction site uncovered the midden, a concentration of broken shells and other refuse that represents an unmistakable sign of former habitation, WSDOT contacted the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. A few days later, scattered human remains were discovered and WSDOT temporarily halted construction work. For much of 2004, the tribe, WSDOT, and consulting archaeologists attempted to investigate and recover human remains and artifacts from Tse-whit-zen so the graving dock construction could proceed.

But by the end of the year more than 350 intact burials and thousands of significant artifacts had been uncovered -- from only 4 percent of the site. WSDOT agreed to the tribe's request to find another location for the graving dock and ceased construction at the site. Archaeological digging also ended, but tribal members and archaeologists continued to sort and analyze the 40,000 plastic bags of material removed from the site.

Artifacts discovered at Tse-whit-zen include rare and important finds, such as an intact spindle whorl for spinning wool that was carved from the disk of a whale vertebra, and an elaborate bone comb or hair pick with a handle carved in the shape of two birds. There are hundreds of etched stones, each with a unique pattern, that were used in storytelling and sacred teaching. More commonly found stone, antler, and bone implements -- adzes, mauls, chisels, and wedges for woodworking, harpoon and spear points, and fishing weights -- provide important glimpses into the skills and technologies that sustained life at Tse-whit-zen.

Getting the Whole Thing

But Tse-whit-zen is much more than a collection of individual artifacts. Remarkably, the entire village complex was largely intact. One of the archaeologists said:
"We usually get just a piece of a site. Here we get the whole thing: where the houses were, the cooking areas, the ceremonial areas, the drying racks -- we have all of it" (Mapes, "From Tools...").
Post molds (marks made by posts set in the ground) and the remains of cedar planks in the sand indicated the location of six longhouses facing the beach, racks for drying fish and clams in front of them, and cooking areas, marked by rock ovens, hearths, and tools in back. Other finds include what appears to be a stockade for protection against raiders, and pits for manufacturing the red ochre used in ceremonies.

Besides illustrating pre-contact Klallam life, Tse-whit-zen appears to reveal impacts of contact -- the devastating epidemics. Trade items and radiocarbon testing date some of the burials to the early contact period -- 1780-1800. Some of these graves contain multiple skeletons and show special ritual treatment, such as dusting skeletons and coffins with red ochre. Also suggesting epidemic victims are the high number of children's skeletons and other burials made quickly without the usual preparations.

Members of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, many of whom worked side-by-side with non-native archaeologists at Tse-whit-zen, saw the site's discovery as "both a blessing and a curse" (Mapes, "Site Teaching..."). On an economic level, the fairly well-paid jobs at the archaeological dig temporarily helped reduce the community's high level of unemployment. The disturbance of ancestral remains was extremely painful, but the physical artifacts and the cultural information that they carried inspired not only tribal members but also some neighbors to take a greater interest in the region's traditional culture. Enrollment doubled at the Klallam language class taught by tribal elders and the Lower Elwha began sharing what they learned at Tse-whit-zen in schools and community presentations.


Sources: Lynda V. Mapes, "State Ends Transportation Project on Ancient Tribal Site," The Seattle Times, December 22, 2004 (http://archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Mapes, "Buried Past Comes Alive" and "From Tools, Shells and Bones, A Culture Emerges," May 22, 2005, Ibid.; Mapes, "‘How Could So Many Die?' Graves May Tell Story of Terrible Epidemic," May 23, 2005, Ibid.; Mapes, "Site Teaching Klallam Tribe ‘Who We Were, Who We Are'" May 25, 2005 Ibid.; "Culture & History," Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe website accessed May 27, 2005 (http://www.elwha.org/Culture1.htm); Frances Charles, "One Tribe's Story of Discovery, Conflict and Heartache," Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe Tse-Whit-Zen Village News website accessed May 27, 2005 (http://tse-whit-zen.elwha.nsn.us); John Loftus, "At Tse-whit-zen with the Lower Elwha Klallam People," Ibid.; "SR 104, Hood Canal Bridge -- Frequently Asked Questions," Washington State Department of Transportation website accessed June 1, 2005 (http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/ SR104HoodCanalBridgeEast/faq.htm); Robert H. Ruby and John Arthur Brown, A Guide to the Indian Tribes of the Pacific Northwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), 26-28, 106-07; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History , "Department of Transportation Abandons Hood Canal Bridge Graving Dock Project Located on Site of Klallam Indian Village and Cemetery on December 21, 2004" (by David Wilma and Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org (accessed June 13, 2005).

Related Topics:   Bridges | Northwest Indians | Roads & Rails

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