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Archaeologists unearth ancient pithouse in British Columbia's Fraser Canyon

An ancient pithouse at Bridge River in the Fraser Canyon that spanned about 1,500 years and included 17 distinct layered floors ending at the European fur-trade era is providing unique insight into the lives of early First Nations, archaeological research reveals.

Archaeologists unearth ancient pithouse in British Columbia's Fraser Canyon
A new archaeology study is revealing fantastic details about an aboriginal pithouse at Bridge River 
in the Fraser Canyon spanning about 1,500 years and including 17 distinct layered floors 
ending at the European fur-trade era [Credit: PNG]
“For the entire Pacific Northwest region, this is the best documented, long-lived aboriginal house in the archaeological record,” confirmed Anna Marie Prentiss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Montana in Missoula. “We have exquisite detail, with all these floors.”

About every 20 years, the Bridge River people built a new roof on the pithouse and a new layer of dirt floor as a living area. Each layer or floor reveals details specific to that time period, be it the rise and fall of salmon stocks, the creation of artwork such as pendants, the trade in iron and beads, the processing of deer pelts, even the raising of domestic dogs for human consumption.

The excavation site is about two kilometres upstream of the Fraser River confluence next to the current Bridge River village. Band chief Susan James says her people — 457 members, about half of them living on reserve — had a general knowledge of their ancestors but not to the level of detail unveiled by archaeologists. “We’ve found it fascinating, it’s all been learning for us,” she said. Band tours of the site are available to the public.

Prentiss explained that Pithouse 54 was excavated over four seasons. Her book, The Last House at Bridge River, is about to be published.

“We realized this house had something special, an extraordinary record,” she said.

The dig found 157 dog bones on various floors, several featuring cut marks from defleshing. Although the Bridge River dog is related to Siberian dogs, it was considered its own unique breed. The thinking is that younger dogs up to 2.5 years old risked being eaten. Older dogs were typically kept as family pets and for work, including for transport and as a warning system for the village.

Dogs were also thought to be a delicacy at Bridge River, said Prentiss, who obtained her doctoral degree from Simon Fraser University. “When (explorer) Simon Fraser visited the Lillooet people (1808) he was served a feast of dog meat. That kind of says it all right there.”

The pithouse was not occupied consecutively for 1,500 years. It was abandoned three times, including about 1,000 years ago. A decline in salmon bones suggest fewer fish migrating through the Fraser Canyon during an era known as the Medieval Warm Period.

The house also expanded in size and shape, at times rectangular or round, over the generations. At its peak, it might have housed 30-40 people.

Pithouses were badgered into the ground to provide extra warmth in winter and cooling in summer, reflecting the more extreme climates of the Lillooet area.

The top layer of the pithouse is thought to span the late fur-trading period from 1835 to 1858. Researchers found numerous artifacts of the period, including: Venetian glass beads painted red, green and white; an iron horseshoe; a finger ring; machine-made bone buttons; and three stone spindle whorls, suggesting weaving yarn from dog or mountain goat hair.

Researchers also found heaps of deer bones, burned rocks from boiling, 250 hide scrapers, and 135 stone arrow points, evidence that aboriginals were trading skins with fur traders, a period when beaver populations had collapsed.

“The fur-trade material lets us see what life was like just before the onslaught of the gold rush,” Prentiss says. “We’ve never had that kind of insight.”

The pithouse, which is part of a larger settlement, contains no evidence from the gold-rush starting in 1858 in the area, she said. After that, aboriginals are thought to have lived in cabins.

Prentiss is presenting her findings at the Society for American Archaeology conference, which opens Wednesday in Vancouver and is expected to attract 5,000 visitors through this weekend.

Author: Larry Pynn | Source: Vancouver Sun [April 07, 2017]

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