Dig It: Playing hide and seek with history

Tens of thousands of archaeological sites are distributed across B.C. and accurate mapping is an essential aspect of managing this important and non-renewable resource.

If only I could have a dollar for every time I am asked why there is no easy way for a non-archaeologist to determine if there is a recorded archaeological site on a property.

It should be easy, right? After all, every property is precisely surveyed and displayed in online mapping applications and there is also an online repository that shows the location of all recorded archaeological sites. It would be a trivial exercise to automatically merge these and let every landowner know if there is a recorded site on their property.

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Alas, it is not this simple.

Until the late 1970s, the primary mindset for B.C. archaeologists was to increase the overall knowledge of archaeological sites across the landscape.

This was achieved through a rapid expansion of the known site inventory by completing large-scale surveys of specific geographical areas, such as the banks of the South Thompson River.

At that time, there was little thought given to the potential consequences of having an archaeological site on one’s property and sites were not mapped to legal survey standards.

This “let’s find as many sites as we can” focus also left little time to conduct subsurface work, such as shovel testing to find buried archaeological deposits, so these sites tend to only be recorded from what could be seen on the surface.

The result? A rich legacy of very interesting archaeological sites recorded across the landscape, with only an approximate idea of their actual size, shape and location.

Following the early inventory period, the drivers of archaeology shifted so that more and more of the work was development-driven.

Archaeologists were now going out into the field with maps provided by their clients, armed with an increased awareness that knowing the size, shape and locations of sites was now of heightened importance so the client could manage the impacts to those sites.

Much of the work during this era was conducted before the Global Positioning System (GPS) was available. Sites were quite accurately plotted in relation to the development plan maps, but often were only approximately located on the smaller scale maps that the B.C. Archaeology Branch was using at the time.

After this middle period of archaeology, from about the 2000s to the present, widespread availability of GPS technology allowed ever more accurate maps to be created. It was during the transition into this era that the B.C. Archaeology Branch moved from paper-based to digital maps.

This was a huge undertaking that took many years to complete as there was a backlog of more than 20,000 recorded sites to contend with, along with an ever-increasing tide of newly recorded sites that continued to flow in year after year.

In the end, it was realized that there was just not enough time or resources to accurately relocate every one of these old sites. In many cases, there was simply not enough information.

Finally, it was decided that the only workable process would be to locate these sites as best as possible in the new online map catalogue. A system was then created to involve professional archaeologists whenever a development referral was found to overlap, or be close to, a recorded archaeological site.

Following is a case study to illustrate a typical example of this process.

The brown polygon to the southwest in the inset map shows the shape, orientation and location plotted in the B.C. Archaeology Branch database for an archaeology site recorded in 1992. In 2015, I was asked by a client to assess this site in relation to a proposed development.

The development map showed the site located approximately 200 metres to the northeast, as shown by the cyan blue polygon on the inset map.

Obviously, something was amiss.

While doing the background research, I discovered another archaeologist had visited the site in 1997. I took the location map from the 1997 report and overlayed it onto Google Earth and found that it showed the site to be very close to where the development plan indicated, as shown by the red triangle on the inset map.

There was also a detailed hand-drawn site map in the report that indicated the location of the site in relation to nearby roads and landforms.

Armed with this information, I visited the project area.

First, I confirmed the site location, size and orientation plotted in the B.C. Archaeology Branch database was indeed incorrect. Then, I took the 1997 site map and matched it to roads and terrace edges, confirming the development plan and 1997 report map generally agreed.

Finally, I remapped the site with an accurate GPS. The red polygon shows this refined site location.

Unfortunately, this experience is more common than we would wish when dealing with archaeological sites that were recorded well into 1990s. Often, an hour or two of background research is all it takes for an archaeologist to determine how well plotted an archaeological site is, in relation to a property.

The widespread availability of GPS technology and applications such as Google Earth are important tools for archaeologists to determine the accuracy of a plotted archaeological site.

Tens of thousands of archaeological sites are distributed across B.C. and accurate mapping is an essential aspect of managing this important and non-renewable resource.

Clinton Coates is a Kamloops-based archaeologist. Interested in more? Go online to republicofarchaeology.ca.

© Kamloops This Week



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