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.
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.
'It was just overwhelming everybody'
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.
A pre-construction archaeological assessment — a survey that, in hindsight, was poorly funded and woefully incomplete — concluded that the proposed 22-acre construction zone was not a sizable Indian burial ground or archaeologically significant area.
When bones were found shortly after excavation began, work was halted as state and federal officials consulted tribal leaders. It took until March of this year, but they worked out an agreement for the tribe to take possession of remains and for tribal members to shadow archaeologists as bones and relics were unearthed.
"We thought, then, that there might be 25 burial sites out there," said Arlene Wheeler, a planner for the tribe and its cultural resource liaison with the construction project. That number was an educated guess by archaeologists, based on the assumption that they had found an ancient refuse dump.
"From Day One, we told them that we wanted to remove all the ancestors," Wheeler said.
As part of the agreement, the state paid the tribe $3 million to deal with the remains and buy land for a new cemetery.
As summer turned into fall this year, tribal members working with archaeologists at the construction site became alarmed.
"You keep digging out more and more and more burials," said Carmen Charles, an assistant cultural liaison for the tribe, who helped unearth scores of her ancestors. "It's like, 'Oh, my God, how many are there?' We were literally out there helping them dig up and replace our history."
A fearsome thing
In the religion of the tribe and those of many other Native Americans, disturbance of ancestral graves is a fearsome thing. It is believed that when ancestors' spirits are disturbed and made restless, it may have serious consequences among the living, causing accidents, illness and death.
"When you are playing with the dead, you are putting yourself at risk," said Frances Charles, the tribe's chairwoman. "It is not a myth. It is our reality."
To try to limit the risks, she said, tribal workers rubbed ceremonial red ocher on their hands and beneath their eyes before going out to observe and participate in the exhumation of graves. When they were done for the day, they washed their hands and faces with water steeped in local snowberries — to cleanse themselves so they would not take angry, dislocated spirits home to their families.
"I came to see the leaders of the Lower Elwha become more fearful, as there came to be no end to the number of human remains turning up," said Rice, the archaeologist for the Corps of Engineers, which licensed the construction site.
A federal law, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requires a halt to construction on federal land, if there is an inadvertent discovery of Indian remains. But the bones were being found on state-owned land, and the law in Washington allows work to proceed, after consultation with the affected tribe, Rice said.
Tribal leaders, after more than a year, decided that consultation had served the interests of neither the living nor the dead. They want to rebury the 300 coffins now stacked up on their reservation.
"We would like them put back where they were, so they will be at peace," Charles said.
State officials say that they will honor the tribe's decision, but that it will not be easy or cheap. Besides the loss of $58 million, terminating the bridge repair project will hurt the economy of Port Angeles, where 100 high-paid construction jobs will leave the town of 17,000.
Also, the state has found no other site on which it can build new pontoons for the old floating bridge.
"If we can't get the bridge fixed, that raises the specter of real economic dislocation in this area," said Doug MacDonald, the state secretary of transportation.