PORT ANGELES, Wash. -- Wherever construction workers dug, they found bones of Indians.
At first, it was a few scattered shards. Soon, though, complete skeletons began to emerge. There were men and women whose arms and legs were entwined in a ritual embrace of death. There were entire families -- babies, children, parents and grandparents, as many as 11 in one grave -- who seemed to have died suddenly and had been buried together. Pandemics of smallpox and other white-man fevers probably caused the massive die-offs, archaeologists now say.
From left, tribe members Michael Q. Langland, Otto Ditlefsen and Alex Stevenson carry remains of Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe members near Port Angeles, Wash. Mary Anne Thomas, far right, carries a candle.
(Photos Steve Ringman -- The Seattle Times)
Without intending to do so, the Washington State Department of Transportation, as part of a multimillion-dollar bridge-repair project in this port city on the Olympic Peninsula, opened up what a federal archaeologist describes as the largest prehistoric Indian village and burial ground found in the United States.
"In my opinion, there is no other archaeological site in the country that has a direct association with so many human remains," said David G. Rice, senior archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle.
About 300 graves and 785 scattered pieces of human bones have been found, along with a huge trove of ritual and ceremonial Indian artifacts, some of which date back 1,700 years.
It dwarfs any previous Indian archaeological site found in the Pacific Northwest. Archaeologists say the site includes mass graves dating from 1780 and 1835, when infectious fevers borne by European fur traders were killing off about 90 percent of the Indians living in the Northwest.
Last week, just 15 months after it started, the state's bridge project sputtered to a costly stop. The state of Washington and the federal government, officials say, have decided to walk away from the $58 million spent here on what was to have been a dry-dock fabrication site for pontoons for the aging Hood Canal Bridge, a nearby highway bridge in urgent need of repairs.
"It is really unfortunate," said Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D). "I can't imagine us proceeding. It is almost impossible -- or very, very difficult -- to proceed without the support of the tribe."
The tribe is the Lower Elwha Klallam, with about 900 members who live near Port Angeles. The bones of their ancestors have been burping up almost daily in the sandy mud of the shoreline construction site.
The tribe's leaders decided this month that enough was enough.
"The current construction cannot be sustained without additional destruction of burials and remains of our ancestors," Frances Charles, chairwoman of the tribe, wrote the state Department of Transportation.
"We asked ourselves, 'How many more?' " she said. "The elders were getting upset. It was just overwhelming everybody."
When the project began in August 2003, the tribe had been somewhat supportive. An Indian village was known to have existed on the construction site, located near a spit of sand that creates a deep-water harbor for Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
But it had not been an active Indian cemetery for more than a century. No living tribal members could recall that a cemetery had been there, although some remembered the old village. It had been an industrial zone during most of the 20th century -- with lumber and paper mills.