SEATTLE — It's not the first time a multimillion-dollar public works project has clashed with a major archaeological discovery. But it is believed that never before in the United States has a publicly funded project unearthed a burial ground of anything close to the size of the one discovered in Washington State.
That's why Washington Gov. Gary Locke announced late last month that the state is ending all construction work at an Indian village site where hundreds of ancient burials have been discovered. To date, workers have recovered nearly 300 bodies, 800 partial remains, and more than 5,000 artifacts, ranging in age from 400 to more than 1,700 years old. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the exact number of remains recovered.]
The announcement marks an end to more than a year of efforts by government and tribal officials to reconcile the conflicting values of archaeological discovery, preservation of the state's crumbling infrastructure, and respect for the dead.
The decision is a painful victory for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe and a major setback for efforts to rehabilitate the aging Hood Canal Bridge. That floating saltwater span forms the only direct link between the Olympic Peninsula and greater Seattle.
The $275 million overhaul of the 1.5-mile bridge is the state's second-largest highway project. The state has already spent $58 million at the soon-to-be-abandoned construction site in Port Angeles. Months of continual discoveries at the site have turned it into one of the most important archaeological sites in the Western United States.
"What we found at the Port Angeles site is unparalleled in Washington prehistory," says senior archaeologist David Rice of the US Army Corps of Engineers' Seattle office.
Before construction began, archaeologists hired by the state dug several test pits and found nothing of significance. The tribe knew that a Klallam village had been located in the vicinity. But on the basis of an 1853 map from the US Coast Survey, they believed the village known as Tse-whit-zen lay just southeast of the construction zone.
The first human remains were discovered shortly after construction began. Work to build a dry dock for the construction of bridge pontoons and anchors soon came to a halt.
Frances Charles, the tribe's chairwoman, said that at that point she thought they were dealing with no more than a couple dozen ancestral remains, leaving her tribe in a quandary.
The bridge is a vital transportation link for the tribe as well as its neighbors on the Olympic Peninsula, and the construction project offered well-paying jobs.
Yet for the tribe, the idea of allowing their ancestors to remain buried underneath a huge cement slab was unacceptable. They feared that the slab would forever separate the spirits of the dead from their loved ones.
"From the beginning, this has been a difficult and even a painful subject for our tribe," says Ms. Charles.
But the tribe agreed to let construction resume, as long as their ancestors could be reburied elsewhere. The state agreed to pay $3.4 million to the tribe to purchase land for a new cemetery and perform ceremonies to rebury their ancestors.
For months, archaeologists and trained tribal assistants meticulously exhumed remains and placed them in cedar boxes. Tribal members daubed red ocher on their hands and faces and washed up at the end of the day with a ceremonial tea of snowberries to appease ancestors they had disturbed.
The scale of what they uncovered surprised everyone.
"It is far beyond anything we or the tribe expected," says John Conrad, Washington's assistant secretary of transportation.
Last month, the tribe asked the state to find another place to build its bridge.
Washington Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald said the breathtaking scale of discoveries and the tribe's request left the state "no real choice."
Pulling out from the site will delay the bridge overhaul at least another year and add many millions to the project's cost.
"That bridge continues to deteriorate every day," says Mr. Conrad. One of the bridge's quarter-mile-long anchor cables snapped last summer, preventing bridge tenders from opening it to boat traffic during storms or incoming tides.
Construction in the Hood Canal itself - a deep fiord on the eastern edge of the mountainous Olympic Peninsula - is forbidden during the area's stormy winters and during the seasonal migration of threatened salmon. Building the bridge's 14 pontoons simultaneously in a dry dock before towing them into place makes it possible to assemble the bridge on site in just one short construction season.
But no dry docks of comparable size exist in Washington. The state was also planning to use the dry dock to replace the State Route 520 floating bridge that connects Seattle commuters with high-tech employers like Microsoft on the east side of Lake Washington.
The careful excavations have reconnected the tribe with its history - from the pain of mass burials, probably in the wake of smallpox epidemics, to the beauty of artifacts like cedar baskets and trade items including ivory and Chinese coins.
Etched stones offer glimpses of centuries-old ceremonies, as do a pair of ritually sacrificed sea otters, harpooned together, laid on their backs and pointed east toward the rising sun. Tribal members themselves have done much of the excavation, and discussions will soon be held to decide how to commemorate the site, possibly with a museum. But whatever cultural revival may come from the unprecedented find, says Charles, it will not be worth the emotional toll on the tribe.