There’s a tense relationship between development and archeology in British Columbia.
Building in or extracting from land that’s been occupied for millennia inevitably means that the new must confront the old. Because archeological sites are protected by the Heritage Conservation Act, identifying and recording these heritage places is a common precursor to logging, mining, construction or other kinds of impacts.
On one hand, development-driven archeology allows us to find sites we never would otherwise know about. On the other hand, the sites we find are very likely to be destroyed.
So, what happens when archeological-impact assessments succeed at finding archeological sites and those sites are in the way? What happens to the sites? And who decides?
For many kinds of development, design changes can protect the most significant parts of sites. A forestry cutblock boundary, for example, can be adjusted to exclude sites. For infrastructure projects, special berms or overpasses can be worked into plans to reduce impacts. The Trans-Canada Highway near Chase, or the South Fraser Perimeter Road through Surrey and Delta, have good examples of this.
For other kinds of projects that can be hard to reroute or reduce impacts (like an open-pit mine or a linear right-of-way), it’s often necessary to remove the site entirely, an option that’s referred to as “mitigation.”
The concept of mitigation is common in environmental assessments. It refers to lessening the impact of a project on something that’s valued. You can mitigate pollution impacts on air quality, for example, by using scrubbers.
For archeological sites, which are fragile and non-renewable, mitigation usually means carefully removing the site through controlled excavation. We’re meant to be mitigating the impact to the archeological record by extracting data that will survive the site — replacing the actual site with its scientific reflection.
This assumes that the ultimate value of archeology is informational — what we can learn from it — and positions archeologists, with our special skills and methods, as the most qualified to manage and decide the fate of sites.
But there are other kinds of heritage value, too, social and cultural values that Indigenous descendants and inheritors of the sites may have. Indigenous communities are consulted on these values in a cursory way, but generally have little influence over outcomes for their own heritage.
So, what happens, for example, in the context of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline planned in northern BC, where Indigenous rights and industrial development have clashed?
In that case, the more than 60 archeological sites found around the right-of-way (with more still at camps and laydowns) will be gone by the time the pipe is in the ground.
Those sites — the physical manifestation of millennia of occupation that gives rise to Indigenous rights and title — won’t be allowed to get in the way of the pipeline. They will be dug up and treated more like contaminated soil to be removed than like the irreplaceable pieces of human history they are.
I wish I could say that archeological management worked out for everyone. I wish I could say that government and developers seek, and obtain, Indigenous consent to destroy the sites that are their cultural inheritance. I wish I could say that what we lose in physical heritage we gain in knowledge.
But most of the time, we don’t.
Most of the time, the most salient outcome of an archeological-impact assessment is a bag of artifacts that gathers dust in a museum and an expert report that allows development to proceed with a clear conscience, having checked all the boxes that law demands.
So often in B.C., archeology has become a tool to remove a problem. Until we can deal with that problem head-on, archeology’s potential to expand knowledge and generate interest and foster understanding will be wasted.
Joanne Hammond 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.