Council supports proposal to make Keatley Creek a World Heritage Site

The Keatley Creek archaeological site should be put on Canada’s list of potential World Heritage Sites, according to SFU professor Brian Hayden, who has excavated at the site for decades.

Professor Hayden wrote to District of Lillooet Council asking for its support for SFU’s Department of Archaeology’s application to have the site – he described it as an “exceptional site” - included in the list.

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Keatley Creek is located off Highway 99 North approximately halfway between Xaxli’p and Ts’kw’aylaxw. The site, first occupied 7,000 years ago, is located on a terrace overlooking the Fraser River and contains more than 120 structural depressions (pit houses or s7istkens), some up to 21 metres in diameter and three metres deep.

Council agreed to write the letter of support but only after Councillor John Courchesne received assurances that the letter would refer only to designating the six-hectare core area of the archaeological site.

Leading off the discussion on Jan. 9, Councillor Courchesne asked, “Is it going to be the immediate area, 10 hectares, is it going to be 500 hectares? They don’t say how much they want to put in this reserve. Will it impact Highway 99 if they someday want to move the road? How big an area do they plan to protect? If it’s just the immediate area, that’s fabulous.”

He added that he’s been involved in previous discussions on land use planning and preserving park areas.

“Through the land use planning, we’ve had agreements on parks and two years later, the boundaries are far larger than the discussion was, so I don’t trust these people, to be honest with you.”

The process involved in becoming a World Heritage Site is a lengthy one, occurring over many years and involving several major steps.

Hayden wrote that the initial step consists of submitting an application to Parks Canada. The application is evaluated by a committee, and successful applicants are then invited to prepare a formal dossier on the site. That can take three to five years. The dossier is then submitted to UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which makes the final decision on accepting the application.

Currently, Canada has only 16 locations designated as World Heritage sites and only three of those are pre-historic archaeological sites like Keatley Creek.

Hayden said he has already obtained letters of support from local aboriginal communities.

“Being designated a World Heritage Site will bring more scientific and tourist attention to the Lillooet region and increase international recognition of this location as one of the most interesting places to visit in Canada,” wrote Hayden. “It will become a destination place to visit for many individuals for some of the best tourist reasons.”

The Keatley Creek site once housed people who obtained or traded large numbers of salmon, practised ceremonies and rituals, and lived in a hierarchical society where the wealthiest families probably owned the most lucrative fishing and hunting areas.

Some of the inhabitants of Keatley Creek had leisure time to produce nephrite adzes, make copper jewellery and carve antler and bone. They also traded with other early inhabitants, procuring items such as shells and whalebone from coastal communities.

Archaeological research at Keatley Creek indicates the first pit houses were built at the site 4,800 to 2,400 years ago. Evidence indicates the site was most extensively inhabited 2,400 to 1,000 years ago.

Keatley Creek and other nearby villages were abandoned around 850 AD.

What happened?

Professor Hayden, who began his research at Keatley Creek in 1986, suggests an environmental catastrophe forced residents to leave Keatley Creek. He thinks the village was most likely abandoned due to a major landslide on the Fraser River at Texas Creek that may have blocked salmon runs for years or decades, destroying the major food source and trade economy of the community.

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