How can we fully understand the present environment or plan for the future, if we lack knowledge of our past? An important window into ancient worlds, revealing past landscapes, plants, and animals, can be found within some archaeological sites. An example of such a site lies at the foot of the North Delta bluffs, beside the Fraser River.
Known as the Glenrose Cannery site, it is six metres deep and dates to over 9,000 years ago, the oldest ever discovered in the Lower Mainland area, predating other local sites by 4,000 years. The artifacts found here provide us with priceless historical information, yet the site may not survive the impact of the South Fraser Perimeter Road, a four-lane truck highway destined to travel right along the wooded bluffs. Lack of public knowledge of the site may doom it, in the same way that other historically important archaeological locations have been lost to developments.
Nine thousand years ago, the mouth of the Fraser was located between North Delta and New Westminster, close to where the Alex Fraser Bridge now stands, and the rest of the delta did not exist. Early hunters set up camp here beside a little freshwater stream that now runs among concrete slabs and other construction detritus. R.G. Matson, a UBC professor emeritus of archaeology, participated in the site’s excavation from 1973, uncovering numerous faunal remains and three distinct cultural periods of use. On a recent tour, Matson described how the oldest period, known as the Old Cordilleran, was rich in cobble tools—rounded pebbles with sharpened edges. The long-ago inhabitants hunted elk, deer, and harbour seals, and caught spawning stickleback and oolichan in the stream.
This culture goes so far back in time that it predates the modern linguistic groups among the First Nations, so cannot be assigned to a particular people, although similar tools are found in other locations around the Pacific Northwest. Tools and bones were protected from acid decay by the abundance of bay mussel shells found in the more recent, but still very ancient, layer of the St. Mungo culture that lay above them. The site was not completely excavated in the 1970s and there is still much more to learn. Furthermore, there is an adjacent wet site which was washing away into the river until a protective cover of sacking and rocks was placed there in the 1990s.
Glenrose Cannery archaeology site is not well protected despite provincial heritage laws. Funding shortages limit site monitoring and visits. Development always seems to trump heritage; in exchange for salvage archaeological digs and site “mitigations”, part or all of a site can be built over. This happened to the adjacent 4,500-year-old St. Mungo cannery site during the building of the Alex Fraser Bridge. A similar situation is developing at the Glenrose site. The South Fraser Perimeter Road—part of the provincial Gateway Program—will rise from river level up to the top of the bluffs right where the site lies, and there are conflicting reports of the extent of the road bed, the position of the supports, and the amount of mitigation. The Musqueam, one of five or six First Nations with an interest in the area, are working with the provincial government but it is unclear just exactly what scenario is planned for the site.
As the most ancient archaeological site yet discovered in the Lower Mainland, Glenrose Cannery should be of interest to everyone, whether indigenous or immigrant. Children should learn about it in school; the story of those early inhabitants should become part of our common history. We do not know what future questions we will want to ask of the site and since our technological capabilities continue to improve, it only makes sense to keep everything intact.
The site’s setting beside the river amid the tall trees of the North Delta bluffs would make it an ideal location for a provincial protected area, keeping it accessible for study and interpretation opportunities. It would fit well with Metro Vancouver’s Experience the Fraser initiative, a system of trails and heritage locations between Hope and the lower Fraser designed to “promote the region as one of the great river communities of the world”. Surely this would be a more progressive and thoughtful vision for the Lower Mainland’s only 9,000-year-old archaeological site than building a four-lane truck highway over it?
Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.