Funerary Ritual, Ancestral Presence, and the Rocky Point Ways of Death




Mathews, Darcy

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Around 1500 years ago, the Coast Salish peoples of southwestern British Columbia began to inter their dead within funerary petroforms. These burials, consisting of patterned arrangements of stone and soil built over the dead, marked a dramatic transition from below ground burials within the village, to above ground cemeteries located around village peripheries. This upward and outward movement of the dead is exemplified at the Rocky Point Peninsula on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. It is one of the largest mortuary landscapes on the Northwest Coast of North America, with 515 visible funerary petroforms distributed within and between two large neighbouring cemeteries. Catherine Bell’s (1992) notion of ritualization challenges us to consider what the building of funerary petroforms accomplished that previous funerary practices did not. While funerals are times of grieving, they may also be ritual actions in which the dead are transformed from corpse to ancestor and the family from mourner to inheritor. It was in the authority of tradition that funerary ritual served as a process for both enacting and contesting relationships of power within and between the two neighbouring communities at Rocky Point. Foregoing excavation, Coast Salish protocols of working with their dead challenged me to consider how the external and material attributes of funerary petroforms worked through space and time to produce a landscape inhabited by these durable, ancestral agents. Focusing on the mesoscale encompassing these two large cemeteries, this dissertation is an analysis of the depositional practices employed by the Rocky Point peoples in the burial of their dead. Tacking between an ethnographic thematic analysis of Coast Salish ritualization, a body of social theory, and the archaeological record, I used a novel suite of quantitative analyses to identify patterns in how these burials were made, in addition to how they were placed relative to one another on the landscape. Results point to a fundamental bifurcation in funerary petroform morphology and placement, in part, differentiating communities of ritual practice at Rocky Point. In particular, the results highlight the social significance of the spaces between the burials, as much as the burials themselves. This is exemplified by a perceptual paradox in which these above ground features, built according to shared dispositions of practice and placed on distinctive landscapes, are simultaneously and intentionally hidden from day-to-day movement between villages. This Rocky Point sense of monumentality speaks to the liminality of their most powerful dead, anchored at the threshold of the living. Funerary petroforms have a persistent power to entangle the living and the dead in oblique relationships of power. The resilience of this memory work, however, is not limited to the past. At Rocky Point and other cemeteries throughout the Salish Sea, these ancestral places provide living descendants with a tangible connection to family and community history. Possessing a durability that continues to enmesh people and places through time, funerary petroforms are one of the fulcrums upon which relations of power are presently balanced between Coast Salish and settler communities in British Columbia.



Coast Salish, Vancouver Island, B.C., petroforms