Northern archaeology

🕔Sep 24, 2007

photo by Remi Farvacque, Archer Cultural Research Management

There’s not much about archaeology that can be described as new, exactly.
Defined as the study of past human behaviour through material remains, archaeologists in northern British Columbia have excavated remnants of cultures dating back nearly 12,000 years. A discipline that dwells primarily in the past, researchers delve into the earth to reveal layers of buried eras, carefully retracing the steps of pre-historic peoples that moved along the coastline, rivers and forests of the North so long ago it almost eludes comprehension.
Generally the most accepted theory for populating the New World is that of coastal migration, in which people entered North America by crossing from Siberia to Alaska over a narrow land bridge during the last ice age, possibly up to 25,000 years ago. They migrated south via the northwest coast and ice-free areas in the Interior, putting northern BC right on the path of settlement.
That’s why it’s surprising to note that, if there’s anything that could be considered new, it’s the existence of archaeology in British Columbia at all.
When Charles Borden, known as the father of BC archaeology, began working in Western Canada back in the 1950s, it’s said that his was the only archaeology happening this side of Toronto.
“That shows how recent archaeology is in Western Canada,” says David Archer, an instructor at Northwest Community College’s Prince Rupert campus. “It’s really a very recent field of study and we’re still in a very pioneer stage as far as documenting what’s out there.”
As a result, archaeology in the region is still rapidly evolving. Significant discoveries are occurring on a regular basis and increasing involvement of First Nations in the archaeological process has brought important context to the research.
It’s an exciting time to be an archaeologist in the North, but also a pivotal one as development picks up and global warming threatens to alter the archaeological climate.

Research and development

The vast majority of archaeological exploration that takes place in northern British Columbia isn’t your stereotypical National Geographic image of researchers in pith hats peeling back layers of dry earth.
Most is driven by development: the force that simultaneously threatens countless unexplored sites while instigating the bulk of exploration in the North.
When undertaking “salvage” archaeology, consultants are called in to do baseline studies on a site by surveying it and digging test pits to determine its archaeological potential before developments like forestry projects, housing projects and road realignments are allowed to push through.
“Most archaeologists prefer to do research rather than salvage. That’s not to say cultural resource management projects can’t be interesting and satisfying, but sometimes it’s fairly mundane stuff,” Archer says. “From the construction and cultural resource management point of view, the ideal situation is when the archaeologists find nothing. So the archaeologist in charge is happy about that on one hand, but if you spend your life doing projects that find nothing, it’s not very satisfying.”
If the site contains cultural heritage, the developer can either chose to continue exploration in the hopes of qualifying for a site alternation permit, allowing development to continue, or abandon the project and look for an alternate location. Most salvage operations don’t lead to further archaeology work because of the high cost of excavation.
Under the Heritage Conservation Act, sites dated prior to 1846—before European contact—are automatically protected. Occasionally, discovered sites are passed on to academic institutions for research work, but at any given time there are less than a handful of research projects taking place across the North.
If archaeologists could send one message to developers in the North, it would be, ‘Slow down! Cultural heritage is a non-renewable resource.’

Interior advances

Frank Craig, an archaeologist with Archer Cultural Resource Management, has been working in the BC Interior for 14 years. Last summer, his company was hired by the Ministry of Transportation to do an impact assessment for the Simon Fraser Bridge project in Prince George. Right on the banks of the Fraser River, the site had extremely high archaeological potential.
What Craig’s crew found altered the history of settlement in the north-central Interior. Walking through an undisturbed stand of mature timber encircled by the highway on-ramp, Craig stumbled across 60 cache pits on the 115-by-140-metre plot.
One of the last areas not affected by development because of its position near the highway, Craig says there’s no doubt other sites in the area have already been destroyed.
“I mean, 60 cache pits. Basically, what that tells us is that there were all these fridges there. There were 60 fridges, so where’s the rest? There was probably a village site there. The rest is under pavement or houses,” he says.
What was most significant about the find were results of the site’s carbon dating, which indicate the settlement goes back 10,600 years. Until recently, it was thought the Interior was covered in ice at that time.
“That’s very significant. There are no dates from carbon samples for the Interior that are that old,” Craig says. Previously, the oldest carbon dating in the Interior was from 5,600 years ago. Other sites, though not confirmed by carbon dating, have turned up technology thought to date back 9,000 years.
“It just shows that there was an ice-free corridor into the Interior earlier than people thought,” Craig says, adding the discovery gives new insight into the cultural landscape, by providing information about how human migration into the Interior began.
Although the site has potential as a research project, its busy location next to a freeway makes it an undesirable place to conduct an excavation.
“There’s still a lot out there to be found (in the Interior), and it’s growing in leaps and bounds because there’s so much industry nowadays,” Craig says. “But most archaeological excavation work is done on the coast by universities and people doing their doctorates.”
This summer, 23 students of UNBC anthropology professor Farid Rahemtulla’s undertook the first university-led archaeological dig in the north-central Interior since the 1970s. The site, which is protected under the Heritage Conservation Act, was discovered by Craig’s crew while doing an archaeological impact assessment on a forestry logging block back in 2004 and contained stone tools and projectile points in various stages of manufacture.
“It’s an area that’s had very, very little work in terms of archaeological research,” Rahemtulla says. “We’re just starting to understand the whole cultural chronology of this area. Not only the time dept—which I think is very extensive, like almost everywhere in BC—but we know so little about the pre-contact archaeology of this particular area. It’s something that really, really needs to be done.”

Past lives of the northwest coast

Historically, it’s been the coast that has attracted the most research archaeology in the North, perhaps because the area remained ice-free during the last glaciation and is perceived to have a richer cultural heritage. Archer describes the coast as a world-class area for archaeological research. “We had very complex societies that had an economic base of fishing, hunting and gathering.”
For the last three years, Archer has spent summers doing fieldwork in the Dundas Island area off the coast of Prince Rupert. Working with a crew from UBC, the team has done topographical mapping and studied house depressions in 15 village sites, some that once had up to 37 dwellings on them. The sites appear to have settlements dating back 5,000 years, he says, although radio carbon dating tests have not been completed.
What make Dundas Island especially unique, he says, is that camps in the area are still in use by families from Lax Kw’Alaams, providing a cultural thread to the villages’ past occupants. The connection is a great resource compared to areas where cultures had already disappeared before European contact.
“Here on the northwest coast, we have all the ethnographic details that were collected in the late 1800s and the early 1900s after European contact. In some areas (those cultures) are still very strong.”
Working in co-operation with the Lax Kw’Alaams band, Archer’s team uses local First Nations’ oral traditions in conjunction with archaeological evidence to piece together the area’s history. Often the two sides mesh perfectly.
In the 1980s, Archer conducted research that indicated a mass exodus from the Prince Rupert area around 300 or 400 AD. “For a time—we don’t know exactly how long—groups that had traditionally wintered in Prince Rupert moved into the Lower Skeena,” Archer says. “It was a really dramatic find. Everyone had simply cleared out.”
Archaeological research shows two Tlingit migration waves south into the Prince Rupert area. The first, around 600 BC, appears to have lived peacefully side-by-side with the Tsimshean for 800 years.
Around 300 or 400 AD, there was a second, more warlike, wave of Tlingit. What had happened, supported by both Archer’s research and oral histories, was the original residents had moved up the Skeena to a position that was easier to defend. A few hundred years later, they pushed back and reclaimed their territory.
“Preliminary evidence fits beautifully with what we already know,” says Archer, noting that over the last 20 to 30 years, increasing First Nations involvement in archaeology has added invaluable depth to the discipline.
“In general, I think archaeologists are very respectful of First Nations priorities, in terms of documenting and preserving the archaeological record. Under ideal circumstances, you form a relationship and a partnership that goes on for years. Out of that comes a great deal of productive work.”

Oral history

In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark Delgamuukw decision marked a distinct change in approach to archaeology.
The 13-year proceedings, in which the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations successfully laid claim to land across northwestern BC, marked the first time oral histories had been permitted as evidence in a court of law. In the same year, Rick Budhwa began graduate studies in archaeology, specializing in First Nations’ oral traditions.
Until that time, archaeology had been primarily concerned with physical evidence, Budhwa says. Where traditional archaeology studied past human behaviour through “material” remains, the acceptance of oral histories by the Supreme Court of Canada presented somewhat of a conundrum.
“All of a sudden, I’m interested in something that some academics and resource managers can’t get their heads around. They can’t quantify it and turn it into useable bits,” says Budhwa, whose adoption into the Wet’suwet’en Bear Clan has provided additional insight into First Nations perspectives. “Archaeology’s a social science, and sometimes there’s a disconnect between it and anthropology—so I focused on keeping them connected.”
By their nature, oral histories are dynamic and always evolving. Never written down, they have been passed generation to generation for thousands of years, an approach that often doesn’t mesh well with Western scientific practices.
“In every facet of resource management, you have to bridge those perspectives if you want to get anywhere with First Nations and non-native perspectives, such as government and industry. That’s where I’ve lived my life since—in the middle,” he says.
“These aren’t just unsubstantiated myths or stories; they are records of past life ways.”

The future of our past

Connecting with local First Nations has helped archaeologists identify unexplored sites and areas with high potential for cultural heritage in an effort to protect them from development. But development isn’t the only force threatening archaeology’s future: archaeological sites found 50 metres below sea level on the bottom of Hecate Strait just off Haida Gwaii, along with oral histories referring to the strait as a grassy plain, are indicators of our changing planet.
In the latter part of the last ice age, sea levels were between 50 and 100 metres lower than they are now, notes Archer. As they continue to rise, important archaeological sites perched just above the high tide line could be lost to wave action and erosion. “I think we have a great deal to be concerned about,” he says, noting that climate change could cause a six- to 12-inch (15-30 cm) rise in seas level within our lifetime. “Within a century we could be losing many of the archaeological sites along the coast of British Columbia. The prospects are frightening.”
“In British Columbia as a whole our knowledge is still very patchy.”
Archaeologists have their work cut out for them. With thousands of sites still undiscovered, vast amounts of cultural heritage could be lost to development and climate change, and along with it valuable information about past human populations in BC.
Though the cultures they exhume may be ancient, archeologists here in northern BC have barely scratched the surface.