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Raven Skeletons from Paleoindian Contexts, Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia

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Two raven skeletons were excavated from Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia, in association with Paleoindian occupations dated at about 10,500 and 9500 B.P. The distribution and condition of the bones, the association with artifacts, the configuration and location of the site, and data from ethnographic and historic sources contribute to the argument that the two ravens were deposited deliberately by people. Article Summary by Jonathan C. Driver, May 2015 This paper emerged from a series of personal experiences I had while working at Tse’K’wa. Fairly late in the 1991 season I was excavating a layer dating to about 9000 BC that didn’t appear to contain any humanly-made artifacts but, like many layers at the site, had a few animal bones scattered through it. As I was digging I uncovered two bird bones lying in an “articulated” position – in other words, they were in the same relationship to each other as they would be when the bird was alive. Leaving them in place, I began to dig carefully around them, and soon realized I was uncovering a complete bird skeleton. As I uncovered each bone I drew it onto a plan, numbered it and removed it, so by the end of the work I mapped an almost complete bird skeleton, with each bone numbered and bagged separately. The final part of the excavation was very delicate, as I uncovered and mapped the individual toe bones. In among the toe bones was a small rock, and as I removed it I realized that it was a rather unusual stone artifact known as a “microblade core”. Made of very fine-grained stone, ancient people had carried it around so they could remove small, parallel sided flakes of stone, which could then be hafted in a variety of handles – rather like blades of utility knives that we use today. This technology is so distinctive that archaeologists make special note when it appears. The bird skeleton was lying in a small hollow, either natural or humanly made, so it appeared that someone had placed the dead bird in the hollow, with an artifact at its feet, and then covered it up so that it would not be disturbed. As we excavated even deeper levels we uncovered a second bird skeleton, scattered across about a square metre. Although it was older by at least 1000 years, it was even better preserved. We also mapped the bones of this skeleton as they emerged, and confirmed that we had a second bird that seemed to have been buried as a complete individual. During excavation seasons one is always concerned about getting as much done in the days available, so I didn’t spend much time trying to identify these birds. I assumed that once I was able to study the bones they would turn out to be some kind of waterfowl because remains of ducks and grebes are quite common at Tse’K’wa. Once I got back to the university at the end of the summer one of the first things I did was to check on the identification, and I quickly realized we had uncovered two raven skeletons. For anyone living in British Columbia the connection between ravens and First Nations people is well known. Bill Reid’s massive cedar sculpture at the UBC Museum of Anthropology of Raven opening a clam shell is visited by tens of thousands of people every year, and his Jade Canoe, steered by Raven, is seen by millions at the Vancouver airport. Elementary school children all read stories about Raven the trickster. This connection to BC’s First Nations would be reason enough to get excited, but I had a personal connection to ravens and Tse’K’wa that caused shivers to run up my spine as I made the identification of the bird skeletons in the bone lab. When we had finished our excavations in 1991 I spent a morning at the site by myself, mainly down in the bottom of the deep excavation finalizing some of the drawings, checking measurements and just thinking about the site before we started backfilling on the following day. It had been very quiet in the excavation hole, too deep to hear traffic noise from the Alaska Highway, no comments from an excavation crew, no scraping of trowels on rock, and no rattling as sediments were shaken through the screens. My companions throughout that morning were a pair of ravens who hung around the site, talking to each other and, as I liked to think, talking to me as well. My experience with the ravens that morning filled my thoughts as soon as I had confirmed the identification of the bones. I knew that there was a story to tell about the buried ravens, but it took me a while to sort it out, and quite a long time to get it accepted for publication. Like most scholars, archaeologists are most comfortable with the familiar. No one had found any evidence in North America for ritual behaviour this early, other than very rare human burials, and reviewers were reluctant to accept the interpretation that these two ravens were placed deliberately by people. I found this somewhat frustrating because the other region in which I work – the American Southwest – has thousands of examples dating from more recent times of “special” birds (mainly eagles, hawks, owls and parrots) found as complete skeletons. Often times these remains are in association with buildings identified as places of ceremonial or ritual activity for ancestral Native Americans. Tse’K’wa clearly would have a been a special place on the landscape, and both caves and ravens have all kinds of spiritual importance around the world. Why was it so difficult for other scholars to accept that the combination of complete skeletons, a special place, and culturally significant birds suggest that Tse’K’wa was a sacred location to the First Nations people who visited the site many years ago? Eventually I was able to convince the editor of American Antiquity – arguably the best archaeology journal in North America – that there would never be agreement amongst reviewers. Some thought my manuscript was too speculative, and others thought it was worth publishing. The published paper describes the location, configuration and age of the skeletons. It briefly describes the importance of ravens in cultures around the world. They are often seen as messengers, and are frequently connected to hunting. In some parts of North America Raven is both creator and trickster who has many human qualities. I also noted that Tse’K’wa was likely a prominent feature of the landscape, not only because of the cave, but also because there was a very large vertical stone monolith in front of the cave that would have been much more visible than today. Caves are often entrances to the underworld, and the placing of spiritually important birds right in front of the cave mouth may suggest that they were seen as capable of communicating between the world of the living and the world of the spirits.
This item is part of the Tse'K'Wa (Charlie Lake Cave) Collection in Summit, the SFU Research Repository. We kindly thank the publisher, Society for American Archaeology, for permission to reproduce this work in Summit.
Published as
Driver, Jonathan C. Raven Skeletons from Paleoindian Contexts, Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia. American Antiquity 64(2):289-298.
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American Antiquity
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Raven Skeletons from Paleoindian Contexts, Charlie Lake Cave, British Columbia
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Copyright is held by the Society for American Archaeology. Reproduced with permission of the Society for American Archaeology.
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