Dig It: Animals as unlikely archaeologists

Just recently, an article appeared in The Guardian titled, "Welsh rabbits serve up prehistoric finds on tiny Skokholm Island." This type of story makes for a fascinating read and often piques the public’s interest in archaeology.

Archaeology interest stories regularly appear in the news around the world when a captivating or unusual find is unearthed.

Just recently, an article appeared in The Guardian titled, Welsh rabbits serve up prehistoric finds on tiny Skokholm Island.

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While digging a burrow, a family of rabbits inadvertently dug up prehistoric artifacts on a tiny island outside of Wales. The artifacts included a lithic (stone) artifact that is approximately 9,000 years old, as well as a shard of a bronze age burial urn approximately 3,750 years old.

This type of story makes for a fascinating read and often piques the public’s interest in archaeology.

Because the items unearthed by the rabbits in this particular circumstance were of a certain style that could be attributed to date ranges almost 5,000 years apart, it highlights the use and occupation of this tiny island spanning millennia.

This type of fortuitous archaeological site discovery is not uncommon, even in our backyard in Kamloops and surrounding area.

Rabbits, reptiles, rodents and other small mammals often burrow through archaeological sites and, occasionally, artifacts are identified at the entrances to animal burrows and dens or within rodent mounds.

Dit It
An artifact found at the entrance to a burrow of a small mammal. - Phoebe Murphy

Finding these items during an archaeological survey can be incredibly helpful.

Most archaeology projects are related to proposed developments and involve multiple stages of work. Typically, the first stage is a pedestrian survey of the entire proposed development by an archaeological team.

This first stage may not be conducted under a Heritage Conservation Act permit, which means the archaeologists cannot dig shovel tests and screen the soil to search for buried artifacts (the typical way archaeological sites are discovered).

Instead, the archaeological team surveys the terrain on foot and identifies areas to shovel test in the future, once a Heritage Conservation Act permit is obtained.

While surveying the proposed development, the archaeological team carefully examines the ground to search for artifacts that may be visible on the surface or eroding out of subsurface exposures. Small mammal burrows and rodent mounds are carefully inspected, as these areas of recently overturned soils can potentially expose artifacts or buried cultural features, such as the remains of cooking hearths.

Additional subsurface exposures are also examined, whenever present, during archaeology surveys such as tree throws, stream banks, road cut banks, and wildlife trail beds.

The discovery of artifacts on the ground surface or in subsurface exposures during the early stages of a proposed development can facilitate project planning by identifying archaeological sites early on in the process.

Natural subsurface exposures allow archaeologists a view under the ground surface without actually digging into it with a shovel.

Archaeologists cannot collect artifacts without a Heritage Conservation Act permit in hand. So, if artifacts are discovered in an animal burrow, they are recorded with a GPS unit, photographed and described, but ultimately left in place.

There are archaeological sites exceeding 10,000 years of age in this region that are yet to be discovered. Rabbits, marmots, moles and the like can be helpful assistants in unearthing archaeological finds and providing us a glimpse beneath the ground surface and into the past.

Phoebe Murphy is a Kamloops-area archaeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the Kamloops region.

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