At a remote site overlooking the Salish Sea in British Columbia, archaeologists made the discovery of a lifetime in 2010. While digging an ancient shell midden, researchers from the University of Toronto and the local shíshálh Nation were astonished to find the grave of an ancient chief laid to rest nearly 3,700 years ago in a ceremonial bead garment weighing more than 70 pounds. Nearby lay several members of his wealthy family.
“These are some of the most elaborate burials in North America before European contact,” notes Terence Clark, an archaeologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon who directed the project.
On July 1st, the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, two Canadian museums are giving the public a first glimpse of this ancient family. In major new exhibitions, the Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, and the tems swiya Museum in British Columbia, are unveiling digital facial reconstructions of this indigenous leader and his kin.
Created by a team of biological anthropologists and computer-generated imagery (CGI) experts in consultation with shíshálh elders, the reconstructions are animated and eerily lifelike. “When my people come up and look at these, they say things like, that looks like my uncle and that looks like his wife,” says Keith Julius, a councillor at shíshálh Nation in Sechelt, B.C.
The grave sites first came to light after shíshálh researchers noticed shells and artifacts eroding from a bank in their lands northwest of Vancouver. A subsequent visit revealed several stone beads, so they asked archaeologists to investigate. In a saucer-shaped grave flecked with red ochre, the archaeologists discovered skeletal remains of a man about 50 years old, who lay curled on his side and facing an ocean inlet. Parallel rows of nearly 350,000 small stone beads—a quantity sufficient to fill a bathtub today—completely covered his body.
Producing so many beads by hand would have taken a vast amount of time, says Clark. Made from small pieces of shale or mudstone, each bead had to be ground into a disc roughly half the size of an aspirin, then drilled with a hole. When archaeologist Brian Thom of the University of Victoria tried to replicate this process several years ago with pieces of slate and traditional stone tools, it took him 13 minutes on average to make just one stone bead. An experienced bead-maker could have sped things up considerably, doubling the rate of production, suggests Clark. But even in that best-case scenario, more than 35,000 hours would have been needed to make the chief’s ceremonial bead garment.
In a cashless society, where hours of labor equate to value, the beads represent “a fantastic concentration of wealth,” says Alan McMillan, an archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby who was not part of the team.
As Clark and his colleagues expanded the excavations, they discovered more burials from the same period, and more ancient riches. Just a few yards from the chief, the team uncovered the remains of a woman who died between 19 and 23 years of age. Mourners had tied a gleaming shell necklace around her neck and adorned her torso with 5,700 stone beads. In addition, the archaeologists found nearly 3,200 tiny shell beads—most just two and a half times the size of a grain of sand and much harder to make than the stone beads—in the sediment around her skull. “We have shown these to bead experts around the world and they have no idea how they were made,” says Clark.
Such tiny beads could have been woven into the young woman’s hair as ornamentation. “They would have been bright white with a bit of sheen, and in black hair, I think they would have been really beautiful,” Clark says.
Near the young woman, the team discovered two other graves. One of these contained the remains of two young men interred with another 2,200 stone and shell beads. An examination of these remains by biological anthropologist Jerome Cybulski of the Canadian Museum of History revealed that the two men could have been twins, based on some shared traits.
“They had identical impacted teeth and identical patterns of [skull] sutures,” says Clark. The other grave belonged to an infant whose skeleton bore extensive traces of red ochre, a pigment frequently used in Northwest Coast rituals today.
Just how this ancient chiefly family managed to accumulate such wealth 3,700 years ago remains an open question. Societies living along the shores of the Salish Sea at that time made their living by fishing, hunting deer and other game, and foraging or cultivating carbohydrate-rich root plants such as wapato. They had yet to acquire slaves or live in the big, multi-family longhouses characteristic of the historic period—conditions that could have led to the accumulation of wealth.
Clark thinks this chiefly family possessed knowledge of great value to others, who bestowed gifts on this lineage during feasts. “This family is so wealthy because they have special ritual knowledge or spiritual knowledge,” Clark says.
Andrew Martindale, an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia who is not a member of the team, thinks the discovery of such an extraordinary group of burials so early in time shows “that history is not as straightforward as we might have assumed.” And he applauds the way in which the research team and the shíshálh elders worked together to create the new facial reconstructions of this ancient chiefly family.
“This seems to be a really collaborative and mutually respectful project to show who these people are,” he says. “And I think that’s really important.”