PORT ANGELES — The ancient remains of hundreds of Indians unearthed at a bridge construction site has state officials ready to cut their losses — millions of dollars and months of delays — and find another site.
“It is true we’ve spent money we won’t get back, but we also have found a major historical site that’s important to understanding the culture of the Pacific Northwest coast,” state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said yesterday.
The state has already spent $55 million on a project initially slated to cost $283 million.
State officials have all but decided to abandon the waterfront site they had planned to use to build new pontoons and anchors for the aging Hood Canal floating bridge. But MacDonald said that before an official decision is made, the agency must clarify future plans for the site with the Lower Elwah Klallam Tribe, the city of Port Angeles and federal and state leaders.
He would not give specific details, but said talks would include what will happen to the site and how it will be used.
“We don’t just want to be in a position of lurching forward. We have to be able to give people a sense of what’s going to happen,” MacDonald said.
The 22.5-acre site on Olympic Peninsula was a favorable spot for the state’s dry dock because other sites were too small or presented permit and hazardous-waste issues. But on Aug. 20, 2003, the first human bone fragment was found. Work was shut down six days later.
The site is where the Klallam village of Tse-whit-zen stood for 1,700 years before it was leveled in the 1920s to make way for a sawmill.
Both the state and the tribe were aware of the former village, and the department hired Western Shores Heritage Services to survey the site for archaeological remains.
Limited by onsite concrete slabs and buildings, Western Shores concluded that there was no evidence of significant ancient remains within the boundaries of the proposed project site. The tribe’s analysis of an 1853 U.S. Coast Survey map showed that the village was south and east of the planned dry dock.
No one was prepared for — or anticipated — the hundreds of additional full or partial remains that have been found.
The discoveries continued this week at the waterfront site where archeologists painstakingly brushed away heavy, compacted dirt to reveal what may be a grass mat, or perhaps remnants of a ceremonial costume.
Each find is bittersweet for the Klallam, whose tribal chairwoman, Frances Charles, sent a letter last week to MacDonald demanding a halt to all excavation.
“I was angry. I was hurt. How could another human being treat another human being that way?” Charles said, tears pooling in her eyes as she struggled to describe how she felt upon seeing her elders’ crushed skulls and human remains resting atop metal and concrete water pipes.
Thursday, tribal members moved 18 more cedar boxes filled with the fragile remains of their ancestors to a nearby storage building. So far, there are 278 of the makeshift coffins, made of cedar planks and wooden pegs.
The coffins and the 800 isolated skeletal parts and other artifacts make up a collection that the tribe and state archaeologists have said is the largest such find in the region.
“We will all undoubtedly be thinking for a long time, ‘Could it have been found?’ ” MacDonald said. “But for me, the important thing is, we did the best to look for it, and the tribe did its best to look for it.”