IF YOU WERE GOING to stand around in a parking lot waiting for a truck to pull up, you couldn't have asked for a nicer day to do it. Or a nicer parking lot, for that matter: The University of Washington's Lot N1 is surrounded and seamed with trees and shrubs, in the full glory of autumn color at the moment. So the couple of dozen media members milling round the loading dock of the Burke Museum behind a bright yellow tape labeled "Police Line—Do Not Cross" were less cranky than usual: friendly—collegial, almost.
We were all waiting for the scheduled noon arrival of the incomplete remains of a 50-year-old man discovered in July 1996 in Kennewick and purported to be 9,000 years old. But nobody—not the press, not the excited UW flacks checking their watches, not the elderly Native Americans or the standoffish couple in blue homespun capes—was there because the bones in transit were old. All were there because a month after their discovery, a freelance anthropologist who lives in Richland had held a press conference declaring the bones, on no solid scientific evidence whatsoever, to be those of a "Caucasoid individual resembling a pre-modern European."
The buzz among the shuffling attendees was that Jim Chatters, the anthropologist in question, had chosen not to be present—despite the photo op. Nor, it was rumored, would Douglas Owsley, head of the Smithsonian Institution's division of physical anthropology and Chatters' most vigorous champion in the established scientific community. The Army Corps of Engineers colonel—whose decision to hand the remains over for reburial by their putative closest-living Native American relatives set off a two-year federal court battle over control of the bones—is long gone and lying low at the Pentagon.
We would have to be satisfied with the old guy himself, what was left of him, and with some less glamorous players. An aide to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was in attendance, as was Frank McManamon, the National Park Service archeologist whose compromise approach persuaded a judge to allow the remains to be moved to the Burke for thorough study. But McManamon, as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's reporter found to her frustration, gives bad interview. He's loath to express any opinion at all about the age or ethnic affiliations of "Kennewick man" without seeing some evidence first. So unaware of his responsibility to provide a trenchant sound bite or two was McManamon that KING 5's reporter switched off the mike in the middle of the archaeologist's presentation and used him as a mute gesticulating backdrop for her own stand-up.
Fortunately, not everyone present was so measured and cautious—particularly the conventionally suited gent accompanying the group in oversized hobbit outfits. From his electric blue eyes on down, the attorney for the Asatru Folk Assembly was impeccably Nordic in every lineament of his body and glowing conviction. He also was willing to tell anyone as much about prehistoric Vikings, Icelandic sagas, and the cult of Odin the Sky God as they were prepared to take in.
Suddenly, at 12:20, a buzz went through the little crowd. K-man's convoy (which included a few state patrol vehicles intended to discourage anthro-terrorists from staging a daring daylight raid somewhere along westbound I-90 from the Tri-Cities) was said to be delayed at the Montlake Cut. Cell phones snapped open; potential sources of hard copy were queried: Why Montlake? Why bring the convoy to the U via 405 and 520 instead of I-5 to 45th? What kind of delay? Routine traffic congestion, or was the bridge open?
BEFORE THE TENSION reached the breaking point, two vans—one a dark blue GMC with Washington plates—rolled in, bearing the guest of honor. Out came the reporter pads, on went the high-intensity spotlights.
Next came a lull that threatened to become a full-blown hiatus as various unidentified players emerged from the museum back door to conduct muttered conversations with those outside. Finally, Burke director Karl Hutterer was introduced and offered some words of welcome to the as-yet-invisible Man from Kennewick, followed by tastefully modest declarations of pride in the Burke for having been selected to harbor him. Any questions? Not really. Dr. McManamon will now say a few words. Any questions? Very well—any questions for Dr. Trimble of the Corps of Engineers? Questions? One, from the Seattle Times science reporter, approved by Trimble as a good one. Well, if that's all the questions. . . .
The Native Americans, present to welcome their perhaps-ancestor to town, obstinately insisted on conducting their brief private ceremony in private—inside a teepee-shaped tent near the loading dock, where even their chants were all but inaudible. Again, the priests and priestess of the Asatru Folk Assembly, flanked as ever by their legal counsel, came to the rescue of the frustrated cameras by praying quietly in (presumably) prehistoric Norse while gazing reverently due north into the sky. As visuals go it wasn't more than a 5—about as exciting as shooting a politician standing with hands folded and head bowed during the national anthem while waiting to throw out the first ball—but it was better than nothing.
Next on the agenda was the anti-climax. Flanked by cops from various jurisdictions, the van was opened and two rectangular muslin-shrouded containers—one about the size of a 17-inch television, the other not much bigger than a breadbox*, were borne reverently up the loading-dock stairs and into the building.
And that was it. Not much, all in all, in the way of news. This reporter, however, came away with one exclusive: I have it on good authority that the containers concealed under that thematic muslin were plastic snap-lid Rubbermaid storage containers of 10- and 7-gallon capacity respectively. They are—like Kennewick man himself, perhaps—American made.
* Perhaps containing the remains of Kenne's wick—ed.