Excavating Wu’dat

Excavating Wu’dat

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔Oct 02, 2013

In 2010, the Lake Babine Nation and the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) joined forces to excavate an archaeological site at the north end of Babine Lake. Working closely with representatives from the community, the Department of Anthropology at UNBC put together a field school. They spent several weeks that summer at the site, living and working alongside community members.

Last summer, following the success of this initial excavation, UNBC revisited the site about 100 km northeast of Smithers with a second field school, gathering data about one small, but very interesting, piece of the greater site. These recent excavations uncovered over 400 artifacts, ranging in age from well before Europeans set foot on western soil right up to relatively recent times.

The site is an extensive village traditionally known as Wu’dat. Resource-rich—especially in salmon—the location is perfect for a settlement and archaeological evidence suggests it was actively used for thousands of years. In fact, it would probably still be lived in today, if events hadn’t unfolded the way they did.

Living with the salmon

As a means to exploit the abundance of salmon, the village inhabitants had set up extensive fish weirs. In 1904, a Fisheries representative named Hans Helgerson said he saw the fishers catching 500 to 600 fish a day—at the end of the run. Skeena River cannery operators complained and put pressure on the Department of Marine and Fisheries to do something.

“They convinced the government to come and destroy the weirs,” says Farid Rahemtulla, the archaeologist and professor at UNBC who headed up the field school.

[See The salmon cycle: Keeping salmon sustainable and close to home, http://northword.ca/features/environment/the-salmon-cycle-keeping-salmon-sustainable-and-close-to-home]

With their main food source stripped away, it’s not hard to imagine the villagers leaving shortly after. Rahemtulla’s report for the 2010 excavations talks about how Helgerson praised the quality of the fish weirs, saying their construction was based on sound scientific principles. He also pulls from various historical accounts that point to the location as being a prime spot for fish.

“These descriptions indicate that the Babine River/Nilkitkwa Lake corridor was a highly productive zone for salmon harvesting and processing in antiquity,” he writes. He goes on to point out that “the communities in this area had the technology and social organization to harvest and process very large quantities of salmon.”

Having advanced technology and refined social structure means that the community’s culture was vibrant and varied. Which, in turn, means the archaeological record of Wu’dat should be pretty interesting. But, according to the personable UNBC professor, you don’t need to know any of this or dig in the ground to be impressed by Wu’dat. Simply going there is enough.

“When I first went out there and saw it, my jaw just dropped,” Rahemtulla says. “It’s such a huge site. The guy who initially recorded this site recorded over 1,000 cultural depressions.”

By cultural depressions, he means the imprint left where a house once stood. Over 1,000 houses. That’s a pretty big community. But why there? Large sites like this are more commonly found in coastal areas.

“Mainly because of the incredible wealth of resources,” Rahemtulla explains. “It’s a pretty amazing location.” But it’s not just the quantity of fish that makes this site so desirable. “There are some spots in the Interior where fish like sockeye lose just enough fat to be easily processed. I’m wondering if the Babine is that spot.” He says the abundance and quality of fish running through the region likely contributed to diversification of the Babine culture, through trade and intermarrying.

“It led to all kinds of really interesting social things,” he says. “Babine married into Tsimshian and Gitxsan. There’s been lots of debate about this,” he adds, noting that the prevalent academic theory says the Babine Nation didn’t adopt coastal culture until the fur trade. “To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. That interaction goes back a long way.”

Back to school

When he was first invited to set up the field school, Rahemtulla didn’t have to think twice. UNBC signed an agreement with the Lake Babine Nation and an amazing working relationship began.

“We have a pretty unique field school where we partner with various First Nations,” Rahemtulla says. “We wanted this to be in full partnership with the community. All the projects we do are like this. In 2010, half the students were Lake Babine Nation students. They got university credits. I always like to say, we bring the university to their backyard.”

This approach to archaeology is one that engenders respect and builds lasting relationships—even friendships. “It breaks down walls on both sides,” he says. His university students get more out of a field school experience in a community than they could ever get in a classroom and any preconceptions they might have quickly dissipate. “We lived right there in the community. It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch. And in the end, you have people in the community who know what archaeologists do.”

When they excavated a small portion of the site they discovered not only how big the village was, but also how old it is. “The site goes back at least 1,300 years,” Rahemtulla says. This was enough to prompt the Lake Babine Nation to approach UNBC a second time. “The community came and said they’d like us to go back and excavate more.” This time, Rahemtulla decided to focus on just one of the cultural depressions.

“We had students from UNBC, SFU, and UVic,” he says. “We spent several weeks excavating one house. I wanted to find out how far the houses go back. That village site was in situ, pretty much as the Europeans found it.”

But what sets this site apart from others is that it isn’t just an archaeological dig where the inhabitants have been long gone for thousands of years. “We found stone projectile points, but we also found musket balls and flints, and even modern cartridges.”

All this from one house. Which suggests that Wu’dat was continuously inhabited from pre-contact right up until the time of the so-called Barricade Conflict, when the weirs were destroyed and the village abandoned.

Sifting through the facts

Now comes the hard part. Rahemtulla has set a pair of graduate students to work on sifting through the artifacts and data. “One is trying to figure out what parts of the house were used for what,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time to sort through all that data.”

At the same time, the Lake Babine Nation is already working on gathering ethnographic information—oral histories that fit into the story the archaeologists are slowly unravelling. It’s a side to the site that Rahemtulla wishes he could spend more time on.

“We’ve done very little,” he admits, “but now they’re doing their own research. Many communities realize the value of it: the full integration of the various forms of knowledge.”

Locals have told Rahemtulla that some of the ancient fish weirs—or at least remnants of them—still exist. Wooden artifacts can remain preserved for hundreds, if not thousands, of years if they stay submerged underwater. That’s enough to entice the archaeologist up for another visit: “We’re going out there again, soon.”