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Dig It: Parsing the past through smoke and snow

While I was at university, an occasional venerable archaeologist would come through on a speaking tour — the theme was usually some variation of “My super cool and interesting career as an archaeologist.

While I was at university, an occasional venerable archaeologist would come through on a speaking tour — the theme was usually some variation of “My super cool and interesting career as an archaeologist.”

The speakers hailed from near and far, with topics ranging from early human origins in Africa, Greek and Roman archaeology, the peopling of North America and archaeology along the Skeena and Nass rivers in northwestern B.C.

There was always a slide show to accompany the talk. As diverse as the subjects were, they all had the following things in common: No Ski-Doos. No snow shovels. No snow.

Well, maybe the occasional skiff of snow on a faraway picturesque mountain peak,

but absolutely no snow anywhere nearby.

It was the mid-1990s when I had the first inklings that consulting archaeology might vary a bit from my naïve undergrad expectations.

It was late October and I was part way through excavating a 7,000-to-8,000-year-old site north of Fort St. John when it started to snow.

Fortunately for us, it snowed a lot, so the ground was insulated from freezing.

In this case, though the conditions appeared to be terrible, we were able to continue our work more or less as normal.

We did have to improvise with tarps, propane “tiger” torches and lots and lots of cardboard to insulate the exposed partly excavated units overnight.

Over the years, I have had a few more run-ins with snow when pushing work into the fall.

Usually, we were able to adapt our regular methods to get the job done without too much drama.

Fast forward 30 years to the middle of this summer, when I have been working on the logistics for a large winter excavation program, all the while wearing a mask to protect me from thick wildfire smoke.

As I was leaving an on-site meeting with the client and other archaeologists, I noted a new plume of smoke over the hill.

While driving back to where my crew was excavating a site, I watched the ominous cloud expand to cover half the sky.

The irony of planning winter work in such conditions was not lost on me when, an hour later, we had to evacuate.

It is one thing to extend archaeology work into the late fall snow and entirely another to contemplate working through the winter.

Now we are dealing with deeply frozen ground, consistent sub-zero temperatures and limited light.

It is not hard to come up with the obvious things we need to do: tasks like thawing the ground, keeping it thawed and creating conditions in which archaeologists can safely perform quality work are


Other things are only learned from experience.

For instance, I learned the hard way a few years ago that it is not simply enough to keep the excavation area warm and dry; the screening location must also be warm and dry.

Who knew that sifting warm, moist dirt through metal screens outside in freezing weather would result in a useless frozen mess?

When we excavate in summer conditions, we have the flexibility to improvise and modify our approach as we go along without significant impacts to schedules and budgets.

In contrast, the key to a successful winter archaeological excavation program is early and detailed planning.

Determining beforehand where the work will take place so we can insulate the ground before it ever freezes is more efficient than having to thaw and dry it later.

We need to know how large the excavation blocks will be so we can plan for tents big enough to cover those blocks and provide sufficient working room.

The dirt needs to be screened in a separate warm and dry location, so we must have an effective way of tracking from where each bucket of dirt comes.

Do we need to backfill the excavation units when we are done or can that wait until spring? If it cannot wait, we must keep that dirt thawed, as well. How many of what kind of lights will we need and how will they be mounted?

Seemingly mundane and simple variables must be carefully considered beforehand to avoid delays and minor disasters.

Most critically, do we have an espresso machine or drip coffee?

Clinton Coates is a Kamloops-based archaeologist. Dig It is KTW’s regularly published column on the history beneath our feet in the region. Interested in more? Go online to