Nearly everyone I meet has at least some interest in archaeology. We benefit from adventurous news and articles showing ancient, lost cities and intrepid archaeologists braving the jungles and deserts of our planet.
The reality, of course, isn’t quite as glamorous, but we can still be interesting guests at dinner parties.
I suspect all of my colleagues have similar experiences at social gatherings (back when we had those), when meeting new people or, even, when getting a speeding ticket (true story). The inevitable question we are asked is: “What is the most interesting thing you have ever found?”
The question prompts a pause, followed by: “Well, that depends.” Different things are interesting for different reasons and, based on responses and reactions over the years, I’ve made the following observations.
Really old things are interesting, and if you’re looking for the “wow” response: the older the better.
Several years ago, I worked on a field project in central B.C. that resulted in the collection of hundreds of formed, stone tools. There were projectile points spanning the known pre-history in the region, as well as various other stone tools. Some of the smaller sites contained all the requisite ingredients for a perfect animal kill and butcher location — the projectile point used to kill the animal, a scraper used to process the hide and some burned bone fragments from where the animal was cooked.
However, the coolest find was an unassuming base of a projectile point with basal-thinning or flutes removed from both faces. These characteristics suggest it’s from some of the earliest known tool technologies in B.C. and, likely, in excess of 10,000 years old.
That’s interesting. Even more interesting are really old things that look like something.
The projectile point base described above is really old but requires you to know what you are looking at. Many years ago, I had the privilege of working in Texas and New Mexico, where I worked at one archaeological site that included artifacts attributed to the tail-end of the last ice age.
While the artifacts weren’t much to look at, the mammoth skull at the bottom of the site deposit certainly was. When uncovered, it was upside down and a bit crushed but, still, it looked like a great big mammoth skull. Sure, the site contained a huge amount of data on site formation processes and ancient environments, but the description of the skull always gets the “wow.”
People like to learn new things. In B.C., archaeologists have the advantage of working with Indigenous peoples, who are the descendants of the people that made the archaeology we find.
We can learn from these colleagues about how tools were made, used and why we find them where we do.
Based on oral tradition and teachings from Indigenous communities, the occupation of these lands since time immemorial is beyond refute, but it is sometimes useful to be able to point at places on a map for those who need this kind of information.
For me, the most interesting site I’ve recorded in my career was high up a mountain near Lillooet.
In a small area, we recorded hundreds of culturally modified trees, several roasting pits and found many stone tools.
Two of these stone tools were projectile points that we assigned to time periods from 1,200 to 3,500 years ago. However, the most interesting thing was a culturally modified tree growing out of the rim of one of the roasting pits.
I cored the tree and determined the cambium-stripping of the tree occurred in the 1960s.
All told, we had archaeological evidence showing continued use of the same location (not just the same area or environment, but the same spot) for at least 3,500 years. That goes beyond “wow.”
Matt Begg is a Kamloops-based 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. A group of nine
archaeologists working in the area contribute columns to KTW’s print edition and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.