Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Keatley Creek and the Meaning of Time

John Bedell

Keatley Creek is an archaeological site in British Columbia.  It is not on the coast, where the famous Indians of the Northwest have their towns and totem poles, but in an arid region of the interior plateau. The main resource is the immense runs of salmon that swim every year up the Frazier River with astonishing predictability, and Keatley Creek, like all the major sites of the area, overlooks a rough, narrow stretch of the river where the fishing is good.  From the air the site looks like a fragment of moonscape, or perhaps a NASA training facility, with craters jammed up against each other across the whole of a level hilltop.  The "craters" are the remains of the pit houses where the native inhabitants lived out the harsh local winters.  Pit houses like these were still in use only a century ago, so the way they were built is well known.  A round, flat-bottomed hole was dug through the topsoil and into the glacial gravel that underlay the site, about 3 feet (1 meter) deep and anywhere from 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 meters) in diameter.  A conical roof was then built by bracing logs against the walls of the pit and securing them together at the apex; this frame was covered with branches and then with the dirt that had been dug out of the hole.  A single hole near the center of the roof served as both door and chimney.

Keatley Creek was explored by a team of archeologists under the direction of Brian Hayden, and he describes their work in an excellent little book meant for undergraduates, The Pithouses of Keatley Creek.  As Hayden tells it, the story of Keatley Creek is a sort of experiment in extremely slow cultural change. Keatley Creek was occupied for about 3000 years and it seems that at least the larger pit houses were used throughout that entire period.  Of course, the roofs had to be replaced every century or so, but it does seem that people not only lived on this site for 3000 years, they lived in the same houses for 3000 years.  So far as anyone can tell, there was no major change in the local population from before 5000 BC until the arrival of Europeans, so that the current Native American inhabitants of the region are the descendants of the first builders of those pit houses.  Nor was there much in the way of cultural evolution.  Throughout the 3000-year history of Keatley Creek, the residents fished for salmon during the spring fish runs, dried the fish on racks, and stored the dried fish in pits in the floor of their houses.  They never adopted pottery, and there was no major change in their stone or bone tools, either.

But it gets worse.  In historic times, the larger pit houses belonged to aristocratic families whose large households included hereditary servant families.  The basis of these families' wealth was their ownership of the best fishing stations, but they also controlled mountain valleys where they hunted deer and gathered berries in the summer.  Hayden found that the stone tools at Keatley Creek were made of various cherts and jaspers from those upland valleys, and that each of the large houses favored one type of stone throughout its history.  It seems that for 3000 years the ownership of the house was held by a family that did its hunting, and quarried stone for tools, in the same part of the mountains; for all we know, it may have been the same family for the entire time.  Imagine:  one family, one house, one hunting ground, one fishing station, for 150 generations.

Now imagine what life was like inside those big pit houses.   Hayden was able to show that the aristocratic owners lived on one side of the house, where the larger hearths, the larger storage pits, and the better tools and ornaments were all found, and their servants or poor relations on the other side.  The bones from the good side of the house were mostly ribs and vertebrae from the best parts of the fish, while the tail bones came mostly from the poor side.  The deer bones were also mostly from the rich side.  So we can imagine the rich folks keeping warm with big fires and eating the best parts of the fish, while their inferiors watched them from the other side of the same room, huddling by tiny fires and gnawing on fish tails.  To this visual image we must add the smell.  Air-drying salmon protects it from harmful rot, but European observers all thought the process left the fish "half tainted."  The smell in a closed house full of the stuff "was such as nobody who has not grown up with the stench can endure it for even a few minutes."

The more I think about this strange place, the more disoriented and disgusted I become.  For a culture to change so little over such an enormous length of time astonishes me, and to think of the palpable unfairness that endured over the long centuries repulses me.  The image of long winters spent crowded into those smoky, foul-smelling houses reinforces the claustrophobic feel of the unchanging history, creating a perfect picture of frozen horror: 3000 years of the same people living in the same stinking pits, unfairly dividing the same dried fish.  I simply can't imagine.

February 2001

From the 
Commonplace Book

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

--Milan Kundera


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Keatley Creek and the Meaning of Time

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