State experts have identified the remains of at least three more Native Americans under SE Pioneer Way in Oak Harbor.
Allyson Brooks, director for the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, confirmed late Thursday that the remains were discovered over the past two days by members of the archaeological firm hired by the city.
A physical anthropologist from the state office has since examined the remains and determined they are both human and Native American in origin. The discovery brings the total number of individuals found to seven.
“I would say it’s becoming more and more obvious, based on the evidence before us, that this was a well-used burial area,” Brooks said.
The bones of four individuals were found under the same section of roadway in June. The discovery resulted in the shutdown of the city’s downtown redevelopment road project for about six weeks.
Earlier this month, the historic preservation office approved the city’s permit to begin archaeological work on SE Pioneer Way and excavation began early last week along with limited construction.
Archaeological digging has taken place at spots all along the street but the most detailed work has taken place behind the fenced enclosure in front of Mike’s Mini Mart. It was there that the additional remains were found.
According to Emily Hutchinson, attorney for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the tribes’ requested the privacy enclosure be erected. The intent was not to hide what’s happening inside but to insure that no photographs of actual remains be published in the newspaper.
Brooks said the office’s physical anthropologist has completed only about two-thirds of his analysis so it’s very possible the remains of more people could be identified. She could not say whether this will further delay the project.
However, project manager Larry Cort said the recent discoveries will warrant another meeting between the state office, the city and the six affected tribes.
The discussion will focus mainly on what to do with the remains. They could be left where they are or removed and reburied with the bones of the four others discovered in June, Cort said.
At the time of the interview early Thursday, the state’s physical anthropologist had not yet identified the remains as belonging to individuals other than the original four. Cort was only aware that additional bone fragments had been found.
Some downtown merchants were disappointed to learn of the development. Tony Maggio, owner of My Father’s Home Community Thrift, said he first heard about additional bones being found Wednesday and worries it may cause the project to drag on.
“We’re just trying to recover from the initial construction,” Maggio said.
Mercy Speth, of Bayview Embroidery ‘N Print & Whidbey Island Gifts, was also distressed when told, putting her hands up to her ears and saying, “I don’t hear it, I don’t hear it.”
But City Engineer Eric Johnston said Friday morning that it’s too early to panic. That additional remains were found isn’t too surprising and, as of now, it doesn’t appear that the development will have any major impacts on the archaeological work or the project in general.
“The work on Pioneer Way is still proceeding on schedule,” Johnston said.
Note: An earlier online version of this story inaccurately reported the number of new individuals identified and the total number found to date.