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Disposing of the dead : a shell midden cemetery in British Columbia’s Gulf of Georgia region Brown, Douglas Ronald


Archaeological excavations undertaken at the Somenos Creek site (DeRw 18) in 1994 were designed to evaluate the model of the site as an exclusive burial enclave for social elites during the last half of the Marpole culture phase (2400-1000 B.P.). The site first came to the attention of archaeologists in 1992, when land modification activities on the north bank of Somenos Creek resulted in the accidental disturbance of human burials. Burial data from a subsequent archaeological salvage operation raised the possibility that all the individuals interred at this southeastern Vancouver Island site may have been social elites. The fact that these apparently high-status burials were found in an inland shell deposit suggested that crushed shell may have been imported and placed in order to designate symbolically an exclusive burial location. Evaluating the burial enclave model involved a stratigraphic analysis of the shell deposit, an analysis of the cultural and temporal relationship of the shell deposit to the human burials, and a comparison of the Somenos Creek burial pattern with that of the nearby False Narrows site (DgRw 4). Expectations stemming from the model were that the shell deposit would not exhibit stratigraphic evidence for in situ development of a shell refuse midden. Further, had shell been imported to the site from an existing midden, one would expect the shell material to be older than the associated burials. Finally, all the Somenos Creek burials would be expected to correspond to the high-status burials found at False Narrows. Results show the Somenos Creek shell deposit to be a shell midden, in all likelihood the accumulated refuse from a small settlement. The Somenos Creek burial pattern appears to reflect at least two social strata. Significantly, all the Somenos Creek burials post-date the shell midden, indicating a shift in site use from settlement to cemetery. These results contradict the long-held view among archaeologists that Marpole societies interred their dead in shell middens behind occupied villages. In addition, researchers conducting cross-cultural analyses of ethnographic societies have found that when cemeteries occur, they tend to represent corporate groups which control crucial resources. These corporate groups are likely to legitimize rights of membership, resource control and inheritance by invoking claims of lineal descent from the dead.

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