SEATTLE -- If it had been only one skeleton, the project would have continued. Even a few dozen skeletons might not have been enough to persuade Washington state officials to abandon a $283 million bridge-repair project along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about 65 miles northwest of here.
But what construction workers stumbled upon went beyond anything ever found in the Pacific Northwest: an ancient Indian village dating back 17 centuries, with lodges, dance halls, and cemeteries containing hundreds of skeletal remains. Nearly 300 complete skeletons have been unearthed, many of them buried in clusters, including entire extended families.
Men and women lay in ritual embrace. Infants were buried with mothers, the young and the old lay side by side, as many as 11 in a grouping.
''This is just the tip. There could be thousands of people buried there," said David Rice, a senior archeologist for the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, who characterized the site as potentially the largest prehistoric village and burial grounds ever found in the United States.
Rice said parts of the village, which has been identified as the ancient settlement of Tse-whit-zen, were at least 1,700 years old.
The skeletons are thought to be the ancestors of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, who still live near the site, outside Port Angeles. The leaders of the 900-member tribe asked the state to halt the construction project. In a letter to transportation officials, tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles explained that the daily exhumations were ''overwhelming everybody."
Last week, 15 months and $58 million into the project, the state complied. The heavy machines rumbled to a halt. Construction workers began packing up.
The project, part of a major overhaul of the aging Hood Canal Bridge, which connects the Olympic Peninsula to the rest of the state, is on hold.
''Money is money, and we regret we couldn't have made the decision earlier so we could have saved some," said Doug MacDonald, state transportation secretary. ''But what has been discovered has an importance that money can't value. We started out fixing one kind of bridge, but we ended up finding a bridge into the past."
Tribal members, who have been helping archeologists and construction workers, must decide what to do with the unearthed remains. Each complete skeleton has been blessed and placed in a cedar coffin. The coffins are being kept in an undisclosed location. In addition, workers have found nearly 800 other bones and bone fragments and more than 5,000 artifacts.
The state has given $3 million to the tribe to acquire land and rebury the remains. Some tribal leaders have said they want to return them all to Tse-whit-zen.
The state and tribe have agreed to stop further scientific excavation. Archeologists say the true size and scope of the village and burial grounds might never be known. ''This has been wrenching for us," said Dennis Sullivan, vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam.
''Every time we'd find one of our ancestors, we'd wrap them in a blanket and put them in a cedar box, and pack them in, and you could feel the silence among us. We wondered: 'Is this my great-grandfather? Is this my great-grandmother?' "
Sullivan said his tribal ancestors were part of one of the largest Indian nations in the region, made up of 29 villages on the Olympic Peninsula and another six in what is now the Canadian province of British Columbia. They were a fishing people who traveled the region by canoes carved from cedar.
The arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s and early 1800s marked the beginning of a devastating decline for the region's Indians. Smallpox and other European diseases wiped out 90 percent of the native population, scientists say. Rice thinks the mass graves at Tse-whit-zen resulted from these illnesses.
Excavation has been limited to about 9.5 acres of the 22-acre construction site, which the state Department of Transportation chose as a place to build a dry dock and fabrication plant. The plan was to manufacture pontoons and anchors there, and then transport them by boat to the bridge, about 50 miles away.
Tribal members rubbed ceremonial red ocher on their hands and faces before taking part in the recovery work. At the end of the day, they washed up with specially treated water. Often a tribal member would play a wooden flute as workers dug into the ground.
Such actions were meant to appease the spirits of the ancestors, according to Sullivan and Rice. As in many other traditional societies, local Indians think disturbing the dead could bring suffering to the living.
''It's a fearsome thing," Rice said. ''The spirits of the dead become restless and cause illnesses, accidents, and death. Western culture doesn't understand, but for the tribes, the consequences are very real."
No one knows what is next for Tse-whit-zen. Tribal leaders plan to enter into talks with state and federal agencies early next year about the possibility of ceding at least part of the site back to the tribe.