One look at today's front page tells you "The Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen," is important and historical. But the story of this archaeological...
One look at today’s front page tells you “The Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen,” is important and historical. But the story of this archaeological treasure is also contemporary and is one of the more unusual special reports The Seattle Times has ever produced.
The ancient Klallam village called Tse-whit-zen was discovered on the Port Angeles waterfront when the state Department of Transportation started construction of a new dry dock. The work unearthed more than 10,000 artifacts and, painfully, more than 335 intact skeletons.
Beyond being one of the most important archaeological finds ever in this region, the discovery was a spiritual renewal for tribal members. It also became the end of the construction project, as the state stopped the work after spending more than $60 million on it.
Lynda Mapes, the reporter and a guiding force behind this report, said, “It’s really a story of our life here together in the Northwest. It’s an ‘all-of-us’ story.”
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The words, photographs and illustrations we are printing over four days are rich with detail and meaning. Beyond the printed report there will be:
• A comprehensive online package, including an interactive exploration of the Tse-whit-zen village.
• A Newspapers In Education program with questions and activities to help educators use the series in the classroom.
• Two segments on local affiliates of National Public Radio.
This is an extraordinary body of work to tell an extraordinary story.
“I think what makes this project unique,” said Suki Dardarian, assistant managing editor-Sunday, “is that we have been among the few to have witnessed this firsthand — to be right there to observe and document the discovery, the mystery, the awe, the frustration, the joy of that exploration. And we get to tell an important story that’s never been told this way.
“That’s an awesome opportunity — and responsibility.”
The report wouldn’t have been possible without the remarkable access granted by Klallam tribal members and state officials. “They were so generous,” said reporter Mapes, who deserves credit for gaining the kind of access and trust that makes a story like this come alive.
Mapes and photographer Steve Ringman first visited the site last November for a story that appeared about a month before the decision was made to stop construction at the site. In preparation for the current report, several others on The Times’ team also traveled to Port Angeles to variously see the site, view artifacts in the lab, meet tribal leaders and consult with archaeologists on the project.
Tribal members also traveled twice to The Times to review the main graphic and make invaluable additions to its content. Archaeologists at Larson Anthropological Archaeological Services in Gig Harbor also reviewed the graphic twice in their Gig Harbor offices, and traveled to The Seattle Times to give a presentation to the team on the geomorphology and archaeology of the site.
“You should have seen the white board from that meeting!” said Mapes, who added, “We did all of this as a team from the very beginning, and that was very rewarding. We all explored new ground here.”
Times journalists clearly were affected by what they saw.
“At the house where the archaeologists were analyzing the material, you got a real sense of the painstaking — often tedious — work required to reconstruct what was found at Tse-whit-zen,” said Metro Editor Jim Simon.
“The tribe also allowed us to visit the place on the reservation where the coffins holding the remains were being stored. There were row upon row of freshly made coffins — some quite tiny, holding the remains of babies or children — stacked on metal shelves. The tribal member who escorted me lit candles and rubbed herself with red ochre for spiritual protection.
“Without that kind of access, we couldn’t have done this series,” he added.
Photographer Ringman said he was struck “by the respect the tribal members had for their ancestors as they dug in the sacred ground. Here we are in the middle of an active industrial construction site with this very emotional scene of discovering and unearthing their ancestors and their belongings.
“The discovery of fascinating and beautiful artifacts was tempered by the pain of uncovering so many skeletons. I really appreciate the tribe letting me witness this historic and painful moment in their history,” Ringman added.
Whitney Stensrud, assistant art director, oversaw design of the illustrations and graphics. She said the visual department “was charged with transporting readers back in time,” especially with today’s presentation.
“We had the unique responsibility for piecing together an enormous amount of archaeological and cultural data and presenting the findings visually with the humanity and cultural weight they represent. We chose a hand-drawn style that is inherently personal and also makes it clear that the scene is what it might have been.
“We walked a fine line where imagination and science merge, and we were determined to create the most accurate representation possible, but still infuse it with the spirit of activity. We chose to tell the historical story visually so that readers could experience the re-created site while they learned how it was used and about the Klallam people who lived there.
“Our hopes are that seeing it all intact will help readers understand the meaning and value of this discovery,” Stensrud said.
Reporter Mapes stresses that in many ways the story of Tse-whit-zen is still unfolding and painful issues remain to be resolved.
“I think the biggest question is: What do we do now?” Mapes said.
The state still needs a dry dock and, most of all, the ancestors of the Klallam Tribe need a sacred resting place.
Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists