Aboriginal Burial Cairns Mistaken For Rock Piles

By Janis Ringuette

Four “rock piles” appeared on the southeast slope of Beacon Hill in February, 2005. The boulder circles were exposed for the first time in years after city workers cleared away dense thickets of Scotch broom and blackberry vines.

The Beacon Hill Park “rock piles” are not ordinary piles of rock. Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology at the Royal B. C. Museum and author of the book Songhees Pictorial, knows this better than anyone. He personally directed the placement of each stone after a disastrous mistake by city workers.

Grant Keddie with reconstructed cairns
Grant Keddie and the reconstructed cairns
[2005 photo by Ray Smith, Times Colonist]

In August, 1986, a Parks Department work crew, apparently unaware of the boulders’ importance, cleared them off the south slope to facilitate mowing. Hearing the news, Grant Keddie and Jim Pike of the Museum’s Archaeology Branch rushed to the scene to stop the destruction, but the stones were already piled in a heap. Keddie proposed reconstructing the Beacon Hill cairns and the Parks Committee quickly agreed. In December, Park workers used a backhoe to rebuild four cairns under Keddie’s direction. Though exact placement was arbitrary, he explained, “These cairn reconstructions resemble some of those observed in the 19th century.”

Beacon Hill is the site of an ancient aboriginal cemetery and is sacred to the Songhees First Nation. All boulders on the hill are historically significant because they are remnants of prehistoric burial cairns which originally extended from the top down the south-east slope. At least twenty-three burial cairns were standing on the hill when James Douglas arrived in 1843 to establish Fort Victoria. In addition to the reconstructed cairns, many original cairns remain, according to researcher Darcy Mathews. They are not visible because bushes and shrub oaks have grown up around and within the cairns.

The Coast Salish ancestors of the Songhees (Lekwungen) people constructed the cairns entirely by hand. Enormous effort and teamwork were required to move and position boulders weighing up to a ton. Completed cairns measured from one to ten metres across and were up to two metres high. “Beneath these cairns a body was usually placed in a shallow grave lined with stones,” explained Keddie, who has spent decades researching aboriginal history in the Victoria region. “Rocks of various sizes and dirt were placed over the body and then large boulders placed around or on top of this cluster.”

Diagram of a burial cairn

The photo on the left shows a “beneath-the surface view”of a 1898 Oak Bay cairn excavation. “The body was placed inside a grave pit, surrounded by two rock alignments,” according to Grant Keddie, Curator of Archaeology at the Royal B. C. Museum. The drawing was included in Keddie’s paper titled “Native Indian Use of Beacon Hill Park” and is used with permission.

The significance of the cairns is not known, Keddie said. “We know almost nothing about these things because the tradition of burying people that way had stopped by the time the Europeans arrived in the 1840's. We can make the assumption that because of the effort needed to build those things there may be fairly well-to-do people buried there.”

There are thousands of aboriginal burial cairns in the Victoria region, according to Mathews. Though housing, roads and other developments have obliterated many cairns and those on private property are inaccessible to the public, there are many cairns still in place in regional public parks. Anyone walking the point west of Alyard Farm in Sooke Park can see cairns.

Dr. Keddie guessed the Beacon Hill cairns were constructed during the 18th century to bury victims of smallpox epidemics. If that were so, the cairns were prominent features on the Hill for about three hundred years. However, recent research by Darcy Mathews suggests the cairns are much older. He believes all burial cairns in the Greater Victoria area were constructed between 1500 and 1000 years ago.

Aboriginal burial cairns were often located on prominent hillsides and above defensive sites. Beacon Hill fits that pattern. Finlayson Point, directly below the Hill, was the location of a small native village and defensive site. The presence of human graves on Beacon Hill and evidence found at the Point--including house remains, a defensive trench and midden contents--indicates the village was “a more permanent settlement rather than a short-term camp. ” Keddie concluded: “People lived in a village on Finlayson Point beginning about 800 or 900 years before the founding of Fort Victoria.”

Though sacred to First Nations people, the cemetery was not respected by European immigrants. In 1858, white settlers excavated the largest grave, located at the top of Beacon Hill near the base of the present flagpole, revealing human remains wrapped in a cedar bark mat. Amateur archaeologist James Deans reported twenty-three cairns still visible on the Hill in 1877, but during the next twenty years, settlers moved most of the boulders. By the 1970's, many cairn boulders were scattered on the Hill. After the 1986 cairn reconstruction, Keddie warned that unless information was provided nearby, visitors and staff would continue to “mistake them for rock piles.”

Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Geoff Young promised an interpretative sign. He said the Committee had been planning a marker well before the stones were “accidently disturbed.” He agreed a sign was needed because “They just look like ordinary rocks on the surface. It’s not a spectacular site. You have to know them.” Parks Director Al Smith said, “It’s going to be one of the more interesting features of the park, especially when we get the marker in place. We should have something showing the Indians were the original owners of the land.”

As of April, 2008, there was still no sign. Acknowledgment of more than 1,000 years of native occupation and use of Beacon Hill Park land is limited to one sentence--sandwiched between information about Roderick Finlayson and a gun emplacement--on a Finlayson Point monument. By contrast, at least thirty-six park monuments, markers and plaques focus on the white culture’s 162 year presence. Nine of those markers honour the British Royal Family.

Until the City of Victoria erects an interpretative sign, the aboriginal burial cairns will continue to be mistaken for ordinary rock piles.