Dig it: Barbecuing our way to uncovering history

Archaeologists usually do fieldwork in the summer months — well, the “defrosted” months, anyway.

Winters are generally reserved for nesting in our offices, drinking gallons of coffee, filling out site forms and writing reports for all the fieldwork completed during the summer months.

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It doesn’t always work that way, though.

An archaeology crew has been working regularly on the Big Bar Slide to complete archaeological assessments at the same time as the emergency response efforts to create a solution that helps the salmon get back upriver, where they need to be.

Because it’s an emergency response situation, our work can’t always be planned far enough in advance to complete during the warmer summer months, so we end up doing the dreaded winter archaeology.

We dread this work, not so much because of the less than ideal conditions, but more because it requires so much extra planning and takes so much longer than the “normal” fieldwork we do.

As an example, I have been working with an archaeology crew recently out near Big Bar to support the emergency response by conducting an impact assessment in advance of a proposed development. We’ll be out again in the coming weeks to finish.

The work is remote and the location is challenging at the best of times. November is not the best of times. It’s cold, we tend to run out of daylight, the access is limited and the roads can be unsafe.

But through our past fieldwork in the area, we have demonstrated that there is a long and rich history of Indigenous occupation and land use, so we must continue, even under these less-than-optimal conditions.

The last round of fieldwork was conducted under full winter conditions, with frozen, snow-covered ground. This makes it all but impossible to use our trusty shovels and dig the tests we need to excavate in order to screen the sediment and find artifacts or features that may be present.

There are several strategies that can be employed in these cases, with the specific choices depending on factors such as the remoteness of the project, its size and the specific methods allowed by the permit. In this case, we opted to lay out a very precise grid and defrost the ground at each and every shovel test location.

Our defrosting method? Using charcoal briquettes.

Since it’s not barbecue season in Kamloops, charcoal was hard to come by, with only a limited supply locally.

My always-patient husband made the trek with me to purchase 1,200 pounds of charcoal briquettes from the closest place we could find such a quantity — the Home Depot store in Westbank. Then I trucked it out to Big Bar.

Through a lot of manual labour and problem-solving, we worked out a pretty successful, and reasonably efficient, system to defrost the ground on a grid using charcoal briquettes lit by a tiger torch.

It all seems a bit ridiculous at first glance (you can bet there were plenty of strange looks and questions from people in Home Depot and at the gas station on our way home), but it actually worked quite well once we got a system going.

It defrosts the ground in an area big enough to do our shovel tests. In most cases the high heat also dries the ground as it defrosts, so it’s not too soupy when we screen the sediments, an unfortunate by-product of having to do winter archaeology with other methods.

Obviously, we would prefer to do this work under summer conditions, when the ground is defrosted and access is better.

But sometimes with a little creativity, ingenuity and good, old-fashioned elbow grease, we can complete archaeological assessments under less than ideal conditions to save the salmon.

Kim Christenson 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 region.

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