Dig It: Melt can reveal traces in ice patches

While the environmental effects of reduced glacial ice in alpine glaciers in Southern B.C. are not considered a good thing, it presents a unique opportunity to gain valuable insight about the past.

It is generally well accepted that climate change is real, that it is caused by humans and that there are some big changes ahead for us.

One well-documented effect of climate change is that glaciers almost everywhere are shrinking.

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While the environmental effects of reduced glacial ice in alpine glaciers in Southern B.C. are not considered a good thing, it presents a unique opportunity to gain valuable insight about the past.

As these “ice patches” that have been present on the landscape for thousands of years melt away, archeologists in other parts of the country, including the Alberta Rockies and in the Yukon, conduct surveys of areas of recent glacial melt to look for archeological traces. Incredibly well-preserved artifacts, including entire dart and arrow shafts with attached fletching and stone projectile points hafted with sinew, along with a variety of other organic artifacts including cordage, basketry, clothing, bone, wood and sinew that rarely survive in other environments have been recovered.

These kinds of artifacts are incredibly rare in other archeological sites in B.C., which makes the few that have been recovered a valuable resource.

The most well-known ice patch archeology discovery in the province is that of Kwäday Dän Ts'ìnchi (Long Ago Person Found), first observed by bighorn sheep hunters in the far northwest of B.C. near the Yukon border, in the traditional territory of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

The remains of a young man and his travelling/hunting gear, which were radiocarbon dated to between 300 and 550 years old, were studied in detail, with the permission of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, revealing an incredible wealth of knowledge about past lifeways that archeologists rarely get the opportunity to study.

The recent opportunities that climate change has presented to archeologists has also challenged some long-held assumptions about land use by past peoples.

Many archeologists did not conduct surveys in high elevation areas because they assumed that past people would not have spent much time in the alpine, and that any archeological sites present in these locations would be nearly impossible to find and would likely consist of small scatters of stone artifacts.

This has partly led to a long-held assumption that past peoples have left little to no archeological footprint in high elevation areas.

Ice patch archeology has both begun to open a window to a previously poorly understood part of past lifeways and seasonal hunting and gathering practices and has challenged our assumptions about where some of the most valuable pieces of information about the past can be found on the landscape.

Dig It Fraser Canyon glacier remains
Remnants of an ice patch in the Fraser Canyon.

The work is challenging, as many of these areas are extremely remote and in rugged high elevation terrain. Based on the results of other ice patch archeology projects being carried out in other parts of western North America, the cost of completing these surveys is fairly high, and the archeological finds are few and far between.

Unfortunately, this has meant that many melting glaciers in B.C. remain uninvestigated for archeological remains.

Ramsay McKee is a Kamloops archeologist. 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 professional archeologists living and working in the area contribute columns to Kamloops This Week.

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