Dig It: The patience and focus of an archeologist

When I meet people, they are usually surprised to learn I am an archaeologist.

This surprise typically turns into curiosity and one of the questions I’m commonly asked is, “OK, so what do you actually do?”

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Most archeologists in BC, and indeed all of the contributors to this column, work in the cultural resource management industry. Cultural resource management — usually shortened to CRM — is the work conducted by archeologists and others to navigate the complex and often confusing array of legislation, rules and bureaucracy that protect archeological sites, while working to find ways to facilitate the developments proposed by our clients.

Our clients may be anyone whose work has the potential to damage or destroy B.C.’s archeological heritage, but we most commonly work in the forestry, mining, transportation and energy sectors. Hundreds of British Columbians are employed in CRM and many more people work in CRM across Canada.

The BC Archaeology Branch works to oversee archeological research in the province and to enforce the Heritage Conservation Act. CRM archeologists are guided by the rules, regulations and policies established by the BC Archeology Branch. Indeed, we cannot conduct most kinds of archeological work without a permit from the branch.

The branch also works with proponents to ensure their developments don’t violate the act, by working with developers, CRM archeologists and First Nations to develop a plan to mitigate damage to archeological sites when conflicts between development and archeological resources cannot be avoided. In these circumstances, developers require a special permit from the branch — a site alteration permit.

As the name implies, site alteration permits allow a specific development to proceed in a manner that alters the archeological site or sites in conflict with it. These permits absolve developers of the consequences of illegal site destruction, but include a variety of conditions relating to how the development can proceed. Typically, these permits require modified construction techniques and archeological monitoring.

Archeological monitoring involves carefully and systematically watching construction excavations so work can be paused when archeological materials are encountered. It usually involves screening or raking through the displaced sediments to look for artifacts. If significant discoveries are made, work is paused while the archeology crew digs excavation units by hand to collect related data, artifacts and samples.

We do a lot of archeological monitoring. Because we work in proximity to heavy machinery like excavators, backhoes and graders, this work requires full personal protective equipment. It’s often extremely dusty and very hot. And, when you're not finding much, it can be repetitive and boring. But every now and then, we discover something significant, or unanticipated, which makes it all worthwhile. We jump into high gear, excavating units, collecting artifacts and samples and working hard to gather good data while not subjecting our projects to undue delays.

Many projects around Kamloops have included CRM archeologists monitoring construction.

These include upgrades to Highway 1 east of the city and the Victoria Street West reconstruction project downtown. The Victoria Street West project made the news when archeological monitors working there discovered prehistoric human remains during construction excavations last summer. Because the project included archeological monitors — and because protocols regarding the discovery of archeological resources, including human remains, had been established ahead of the project — the situation was managed in a manner that was consistent with the Heritage Conservation Act, was respectful of Tk’emlups te Secwépemc concerns and did not result in significant project delays.

The next time you drive past a construction project and you see folks in hard hats and high-viz vests who look like they are just standing around, you may in fact be witnessing the laser-like focus of a local CRM archeologist as he or she monitors the construction excavations happening around them.

Simon Kaltenrieder is a Kamloops-based 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 archeologists working in the area contribute columns to KTW’s print edition and online at kamloopsthisweek.com.

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