Tse-whit-zen artifacts languish in storage

By Jonathan Martin
Seattle, Washington (AP) 5-08

One of the Pacific Northwest’s most astonishing archaeological finds in a generation has languished for more than a year, lingering on metal shelves in a Seattle warehouse, unseen by the public and unexamined by scientists.

No one questions the discoveries – artifacts from a 2,700-year-old Native American village excavated from the Port Angeles waterfront amid great public interest – should be exhibited, analyzed and celebrated.

But the 900 boxes of artifacts – such things as spindle whorls carved from whale vertebrae, along with animal bones and shell fragments – remain hung up in a bureaucratic no man’s land. Questions about who owns and controls access to the collection are still in dispute.

And there’s also another all-too-familiar problem when the government gets involved: The money to study the collection evaporated.

The federal government had promised analysis of and public education about the village, Tse-whit-zen, but backed out when excavation mushroomed in scope and controversy.

There’s some hope that the local congressional delegation may step up. But until then, frustrated local historians evoke the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when, after all the adventure and fuss, the Ark of the Covenant is crated and carted into obscurity inside a cavernous government archive.

“This is a big, important site, and it is sad that it is languishing on the shelf,” said Steve Denton of the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, which is taking care of the collection for the time being.

Tse-whit-zen (pronounced ch-WEET-sen), nestled in the elbow of Port Angeles’ Ediz Hook, was once a thriving fishing village inhabited by the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. It is the biggest Native American village found in the state since the Ozette village, once inhabited by the Makahs, was unearthed in the 1960s.

In August 2003, state contractors began digging a dry dock on the site to build bridge pontoons to repair the Hood Canal Bridge. Although crews began finding artifacts and human bones within weeks, the project was not shut down until 2004, after a tense, emotional clash of cultures involving the tribe, the city of Port Angeles and state and federal transportation managers.

About $90 million in state and federal money was spent on the failed dry-dock site, including about $10 million for archaeological work.

The result is more than 80,000 items or samples excavated from Tse-whit-zen, including carved bone harpoon points, fishing hooks and stone tools such as hammer stones and a finely polished adze head. For some, the star of the collection is a delicate bone comb, crowned by an exquisite carving of cormorants hovering over a child.

Ken Ames, a Portland State University archaeologist who specializes in Native American coastal tribes, said the site is so large and well-excavated that “you could reconstruct life 2,200 years ago.”

Even shell fragments found there could be useful: Molecular analysis could show the water temperature of the Strait of Juan de Fuca thousands of years ago, helping global-warming researchers.

But time is also of the essence, Ames urges. Records could be misplaced. And artifacts deteriorate.

“At some level, I’d say they might as well have not excavated it if they don’t analyze it,” he said.

Once the village began to be unearthed, an agreement among state, federal and tribal authorities in 2004 called for exhaustive analysis of the site and public education about the findings. How did villagers make tools? Had there been a tsunami there? What shellfish were prevalent?

But the agreement was changed in 2007, after more than 300 human remains were dug up and tensions erupted into lawsuits. The new agreement allowed the tribe to focus on reburying its ancestors, and gave local officials, angry about losing jobs from the aborted pontoon project, millions of dollars. But because the flow of federal road-building money stopped when the project was killed, money for the analysis and education was stopped, too.

Tom Fitzsimmons, who negotiated the project as Gov. Christine Gregoire’s chief of staff, said he was focused on resolving the disagreements, leaving the issue of analysis for the future.

“There are differences, and emotions, but we untied the huge Gordian knot to do this,” said Fitzsimmons, who has since left state government.

Under the agreement, the state will hold the artifacts in storage until the tribe builds a museum-quality education center on land leased to the tribe by the state. At that point, the artifacts will be released to the tribe.

But one big part of the deal remains contested: ownership of the artifacts.

Fitzsimmons argues the state Department of Transportation owns the collection because it owned the land where the artifacts were found. That gives the state – not the tribe – power to grant access to study the collection.

But the tribe vehemently disagrees.

“As far as we’re concerned, they are the tribe’s artifacts,” said Frances Charles, the chairwoman of the tribe.

The tribe successfully stopped carbon dating of the human remains, and is also opposed to testing of the other artifacts, she said.

“The archaeological firms are interested in the scientific methods,” Charles said. “Ours is the sensitivities and culture part of it. Science is science, and culture is the culture. We don’t want you dating the bones, and also dating the artifacts.”

For now, the tribe is more focused on plans to rebury their ancestors in a ceremony this summer, but members also have begun planning an education center and trying to find a way to pay for it.

“We’d like to tell our story,” Charles said.

Nonetheless, a group of Pacific Northwest scientists from Portland State and other universities is preparing an application to the National Science Foundation for money to study the artifacts.

Archaeologists estimate a thorough study could be done for about $1 million, a relatively minuscule amount compared with money already spent.

“We spent a lot of money excavating an archaeological site and for whatever reason, rightly or wrongly, the public won’t get to obtain the scientific value of the material,” worries Allison Brooks, the state historic preservation officer.

U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who supported stopping the dry-dock project, is willing to support the application – or find other funding – if he were asked, said his chief of staff, George Behan. Thus far, Dicks hasn’t been asked.

So for now, the collection still sits in the Burke Museum, in bubble wrap, at the back of a huge UW warehouse on the former Sandpoint Naval Air Station, unavailable to the public.

One day last week, Denton, the held-in-trust program manager for the UW’s Burke Museum, lifted the cherished cormorant bone comb out of its special acid-free box and suspended it on a piece of twill cloth. “This is one of the most significant excavations ever in Washington,” he said. “The research potential is enormous.”

Then he lowered the comb back into the box, closed the lid, and put it back in a metal filing cabinet.