Archaeology deals with cultural ancestry through an examination of material remains. We see this reflected in the places people lived, the art and the tools they made, and the foods they ate. One artifact type in particular, basketry, has proven to be particularly culturally sensitive as it displays techno-stylistic attributes that are particular to a specific culture group [Figure 1]. “Basketry” is a term used to refer to objects that are woven from unspun plant material, and includes objects such as baskets, mats, hats, and fish traps.
The materials and techniques used to make the baskets, the shapes and decoration of the finished product, all carry messages from the people who made them. In the same way that my mom taught me how to make pumpkin pie the way her grandma made it, basket weavers learned techniques from their relatives, who in turn learned from their ancestors, going back generation upon generation. But just how far back does this tradition extend, and how can we find out?
Take a moment to look around you – how many things are made of wood, fabric, or leather? These are all made from organic or “perishable” material. Usually such items would disappear in the archaeological record, decomposed by bugs, fungus, and bacteria in the soil. But under the right circumstances, this sort of material can be preserved. When perishable items are submerged in water for a long period of time they become waterlogged. The presence of water excludes the normal levels of oxygen that bacteria and fungus require to do their job. Therefore, waterlogged objects can survive hundreds or thousands of years if they are kept wet and aren’t subject to the agents of decomposition. Think of the 16th-century Tudor shipwreck the Mary Rose, bog bodies recovered in Europe, well-preserved Viking ships, or Ozette Village in Washington State, which was buried under a mudslide. All of these things have been preserved because they were deposited in a saturated environment and became waterlogged.
Here in British Columbia, there are a handful of archaeological sites in which plant material has survived, from bentwood boxes to baskets, wooden spoons to mats, shoes to fish hooks. Baskets were plentiful in the past, and are also well represented in waterlogged assemblages from the northwest coast. Specialist Kathryn Bernick, a research associate at the Royal BC Museum, has examined a great many of the baskets excavated in this area. By looking at attributes such as body weave, bases, decoration and selvage edges, she has been able to identify traits that appear repeatedly among particular ethnolinguistic groups. Evidence from archaeological sites along the BC coast indicates that consistent basketry construction techniques used by particular cultural groups extend far back in time.
Looking northwest across the Inner Harbour from the Royal BC Museum, one can see the hotels and condominiums that now sit where the Old Songhees Reserve was located [Figure 2]. In 2005, during an early phase of construction of the Shutters Spa and Residences, located in this area, archaeologists from I.R. Wilson Consulting Ltd. encountered an old cistern that was full of preserved organic material. The contents of the cistern were kept wet, long after it went out of use. Accordingly, a large number of perishable artifacts were preserved, including 260 leather shoes, a bentwood fish hook and a bentwood box, a carved wooden spoon, a variety of cordage, and 104 pieces of basketry.
Analysis of the artifacts from the cistern suggested that they came from the early settlement period, likely the early 1860s. Fort Victoria, established in 1843, attracted many First Nations people to the area in order to trade with and work for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Trade between visiting First Nations and the HBC increased steadily throughout the 1840s and 1850s. Then, in 1858, the Fraser River gold rush brought great numbers of aspiring gold miners through Victoria, and First Nations took the opportunity to sell provisions to them. During this period First Nations were discouraged from camping near the fort so many groups set up camp in the area of Rock Bay and across the water from the fort. A wide variety of things were traded during this period, and baskets were among the common items that changed hands [Figure 3].
The baskets from the cistern on the Old Songhees Reserve were studied in great detail by Bernick. The basketry was found in pieces, flattened and stained by the soil, therefore, distinctive features that can identify the style and function – such as shape and size – have not survived. Less obvious features, such as weave type and details of the handles, selvage edges, and evidence of decoration were also examined. Bernick noted that most of the baskets were made in styles characteristic of Tlingit and Haida groups from the north coast of British Columbia.
First, the baskets were examined in detail, and the techno-stylistic attributes of each were recorded. Then these attributes were compared to other baskets from ethnographic and archaeological collections to see if they resembled baskets of known origin. Several basketry fragments were constructed in styles commonly found in Coast Salish territory in recent times, while other baskets were constructed in several styles that resemble those from Haida and Tlingit territory, which appear to have been used over a very long period of time. Several basket fragments appear to have been made in the same way as baskets recovered from deposits in southeast Alaska [Figure 4]. A comparable basket fragment was recovered from an archaeological site in Yakutat, in southeastern Alaska, and was found to be 600 years old. Other comparable baskets recovered from Baranof Island, also in southeastern Alaska, were found to be 5,000 years old!
How did this collection of northern-style baskets end up in a cistern in Victoria? Some baskets may have been brought from home communities as far away as Alaska and Haida Gwaii, and some may have been made in Victoria using local materials but employing traditional methods from distant communities. The unusual quantity of Euro-American-style leather footwear, and the presence of articles that would have been used on a daily basis, such as glass, china and basketry, suggests that this material may have belonged to persons infected with smallpox, and may have been discarded during the epidemic of 1862 [Figure 5]. Daily British Colonist articles from 1982 state that houses of infected persons were destroyed and personal effects of the deceased were largely disposed of. Archaeological evidence supports contemporary sources which suggest these “infected” personal items may have been disposed of by casting them into the disused cistern.
This unusual collection of items provides us with details about the past that are not found in written documents. Analysis of this collection of basketry correlates to basket weaving techniques that have been passed down for thousands of years. Coast Salish and Haida or Tlingit basket weaving traditions are all represented in the assemblage from the cistern. The comparable examples of Tlingit basketry, mentioned above, extend back 600 to 5,000 years, showing a strong tradition of learning and teaching, resource use, and specifically basket making. The analysis of archaeological sites and the material they contain is like looking through a window into the past. The basketry material recovered in southeastern Alaska, along with the basketry recovered from the cistern on the Old Songhees Reserve are like snapshots of the ancestors at work [Figure 6], participating in a grand tradition that extends across millennia, and persists to this day.