An Archaeology of Trees

If you’re one of the many Canadians spending this week sitting around a cut and dressed evergreen in the house, you’re part of an age-old human relationship, a unique tradition we have of mucking about with trees.

Trees are a material cornerstone of pre-industrial cultures. In precontact BC, both interior and coastal peoples relied heavily on trees for raw material, even food. Because trees have the ability heal after material and food are extracted, our forests still hold the evidence of these uses, if you know what to look for. These distinctively scarred trees are referred to as culturally modified trees (CMTs), and are a unique and disappearing kind of archaeology.

So what were people doing with these trees? In short: everything. In the way that hunting people expertly use every part of an animal, forest people expertly use every part of the tree: from fresh fir fronds for bedding and sweeping, through the woody trunk for building, all the way down to the teeniest stretchy rootlets for stitching and basketry.

Bark from cedar, sage, juniper and cottonwood was removed with bone and antler peelers, shredded and pounded until soft, then woven into textiles.

The sappy cambium (inner bark) of pine was eaten fresh in the spring, peeled from the tree in long juicy “noodles”. Late-season cambium, less sweet and tasty but flexible and with important antibacterial properties, was used as a packaging for food and bone implements.

Pine, spruce and subalpine fir (known also as balsam) were sought for their sticky pitch, used as a sealant and also as a powerful medicine for lung ailments.

Long, gently curved branches of Rocky Mountain juniper and Saskatoon were sought for bows, and often the same tree was used year after year, leaving a trunk peppered with smaller cut branches.

The wood itself, useful for so many purposes, could be obtained by falling whole trees or removing parts. The amazing western redcedar, central to the culture of Northwest Coast peoples, is uniquely suited to wood harvest: whole planks can be removed from live trees, which can be left standing for future use.

Standing trees are also a medium for art and communication: images carved into the trunks have been interpreted as guardians, territorial markers or simply artistic expression.

All these uses leave distinctive scars that slowly heal as the CMTs continue to live and grow, becoming living artifacts for archaeologists to study.

Entire trees, cedar on the coast and cottonwood in the interior, were felled and then carved and steamed into shape to be used as sturdy canoes. Tall, straight cedar were carved into iconic coastal totem poles.

These uses leave behind only the stump, or heaps of wood chips from carving that can be preserved in wet conditions and remain identifiable for centuries.

Harvesting these all products requires special attention to season, growing conditions, tree health, age and size. Trees were carefully chosen for unblemished bark, straight branches, or sound trunks, and specific locations in the forest that bred these qualities were revisited by generation after generation.

Archaeologists studying sites of modified trees can help recreate histories of Indigenous land use. Our ability to extract tree ring samples (using a tool called an increment bore) means that we can learn when the modifications were made, sometimes to the exact year.

As evidence of traditional practices that have waned since contact, these biodegradable artifacts are slowly disappearing through natural processes and modern forest harvesting. Keep an eye out for them when you’re next out for a walk in the woods-for now they’re still out there, hiding in plain sight.

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Blazing ancient trails from our past

The sprawling trail networks surrounding Kamloops allow us access to grasslands, mountain peaks, waterfalls, rock bluffs, and hoodoos whether by hiking, biking, or snowshoeing. As someone who regularly uses the recreational trail systems around Kamloops, one of the areas I find particularly interesting in archaeology is the location of ancient trail networks.

As part of the pre-field planning before undertaking an archaeological assessment, archaeologists complete a thorough review of past archaeological work conducted in the local area. This includes identifying the location of previously documented archaeological sites and any cultural heritage information provided by the local First Nations communities. This can include the location of ancient foot trails.

Unfortunately, many ancient trails are not documented. Historic maps produced by the Hudson’s Bay Company, early mining prospectors, and ethnographers can be a useful source to help identify ancient trail locations and routes. Early explorers often spent considerable effort drawing maps of the local area and the trails depicted on the maps were almost always originally established by local First Nations communities.

Besides travelling by boat through lake and river systems, travel by foot (and later horses) was the primary means to move around the landscape in the past. Trails networks were used extensively to access resource gathering locations, such as fishing, fur trapping, or berry picking areas, to interact and trade with neighbouring groups, to access important sacred and ceremonial sites, and general day to day travel throughout a region. Travel corridors generally followed a logical route over the most favourable terrain for foot travel through varying landscapes ranging from open grasslands in valley bottoms to steep mountain passes. These trail networks covered distances of thousands of kilometers.

In many cases, trees along the trails were marked in various ways in order to assist travellers with wayfinding. Blazed trees marked with axes or intentionally bent trees are sometimes found at intervals along trails in order to mark the route. The bent trees are referred to as trail marker trees with the bend in the tree indicating the direction of travel along a path or at a trail junction. Sometimes when the trail bed is overgrown from disuse and difficult to see, archaeology field crews can locate the path of a trail by following trail marker trees.

For an archaeologist, finding a segment of an ancient trail is an exciting process. If archaeology sites are found along the trail, such as stone artifacts, it further highlights the antiquity of the use of the trails. This summer, less than a hundred meters away from a major highway, the archaeology team I was working with came across a portion of a trail in a thickly shrubbed area. Once we cleared some of the brush out of the way and followed the trail, it became evident that it was an overgrown pack trail. The trail was about one metre wide and contained a well-defined and level trail bed that was cut into the side slope of the hillside. The trail followed a fairly linear path skirting above the steepest portions of the landscape. We were able to follow the trail for a few hundred meters until it was lost at the junction with the current highway. Presumably parts of the pack trail followed the same path as the current highway. We were able to locate a second portion of the same trail several hundred meters away. In total we recorded over half a kilometer of the pack trail during our study and found numerous stone artifacts in the surrounding area suggesting the trail was used many hundreds of years ago.

Unfortunately, development activities have impacted many ancient trail systems. Over the past two centuries, trails have been modified from foot paths to pack animal trails to wagon roads and eventually present-day paved highway and road systems. Although the look of the trails has changed over time, the purpose has remained unchanged – to transport people efficiently and safely across a vast province, including areas of high elevation and rugged terrain. The next time you drive through one of the many high mountain passes surrounding Kamloops, take a moment to consider the fact that for millennia people continually travelled and navigated similar routes by foot.


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Yes! You can get a job in archaeology!

I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was 8 years old. My “ah-ha” moment came when I was exploring a southern Saskatchewan beach and found two stone spear points.  I knew they had been made by human hands and, for some reason, was convinced they were 5,000 years old.  I was engrossed by this physical connection to a distant past and fascinated that people had made a living in the wilderness by using the materials at hand.

When I became an archaeology student at the University of Saskatchewan, I was captivated learning about the more than 10,000 years of human occupation in western Canada.  I also loved how archaeology incorporated knowledge from many branches of the social and natural sciences. Getting my hands dirty in the field school cemented my passion for the discipline.  Over the next years, as I progressed through my undergraduate degree and into graduate studies, I joined the local archaeology society as well as the professional archaeology association, delivered papers at conferences, worked with fellow graduate students and professors on research projects, was an assistant instructor on field schools, and met or worked with those in the cultural resource management (CRM) industry. 

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Fast forward to 2017.  Since finishing my M.A., I’ve had a 20-year career in the CRM industry.  For the first several years of my career, I worked seasonally on a project-by-project basis for several CRM firms as a shovel-jockey or crew supervisor.  I continued to deliver educational programs in archaeology and conducted research and writing on a contract basis to fill gaps between projects.  Eventually, I gained long-term employment with a large consulting firm.  Today, I’m in business for myself.  Through this career, I’ve worked from James Bay across western Canada into interior BC, and from the tundra of the Northwest Territories to the lava fields of southern Idaho. 

Yes, there is work in archaeology.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “I was always interested in archaeology but didn’t think there were jobs so didn’t pursue it”.  Today, the main employment opportunities in archaeology are in CRM, where developers commission archaeological studies to meet regulatory requirements before their projects move to construction.  For instance, this includes development related to mining, transportation, forestry, power generation, infrastructure, oil and gas, and residential projects. 

Those aspiring to become professional consulting archaeologists in BC must meet requirements established by the provincial Archaeology Branch.  This includes training and experience associated with achieving Field Director and/or Permit Holder status. In general, these requirements involve completing a minimum of an undergraduate degree in anthropology or archaeology and demonstrating ability by accumulating a specific number of days working in archaeological resource management.  These comprise experience on excavations, supervising work under Heritage Conservation Act permits, and receiving regulatory acceptance of a permit report.  You may need to work for several years on seasonal projects to gain the experience to become a Field Director.  But once you have a field directorship or permit-holding status, employment opportunities open up. 

Archaeology is not your typical job.  No two projects are ever the same. You see some amazing places, work with wonderful folks, and make incredible discoveries.  You gain a unique perspective that spans thousands of years relating to the adaptations that people have made to their physical, social, and spiritual environments.  Rarely have I ever been bored at work.

And guess what? One of the spear points I found at age 8 did, in fact, turn out to be almost 5,000 years old.

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A British Columbia archaeology primer

The 2017 British Columbia Archaeology Forum is being held in Kamloops on Saturday, November 18th.  This is an annual event that allows archaeologists, academics, First Nations, government representatives, and the interested public to come together and discuss current archaeological issues and research. The Forum is hosted by the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park and will be held at Moccasin Square Gardens at Tk’emlups te Secwepemc (Kamloops Indian Band). 

In anticipation of this event, I present the following BC Archaeology Primer.

Archaeology is the study of past human cultures through the analysis of the physical remains of those cultures.  But what do archaeologists in BC do?  And why? 

1.    An archaeological site is any location where these material cultural remains are identified.  Archaeological sites in BC range in size and complexity from a single discarded tool to the remains of entire villages.

2.    Archaeological sites are more common than you might think:  Almost 50,000 have been formally recorded in British Columbia.  These sites represent at least 14,000 years of First Nations history.

3.    The Kamloops area has been a focus of human habitation and activity for millennia.  There are more than 250 recorded archaeological sites within ten kilometers of the downtown core of Kamloops—and many more in the region.

4.    Archaeology involves a variety of approaches and techniques for investigating the past.  Many of these are borrowed from related fields, including anthropology, history, geology and ecology.

5.    Because First Nations people have lived here for so much longer than the rest of us, most archaeological research in BC is focused on First Nations cultural history.  But archaeology is also employed to study the non-aboriginal history of BC. For example, archaeological research has focused on gold rush sites, World War II Japanese internment camps, and early fish canneries.

6.    Archaeological sites in BC are legally protected by the Heritage Conservation Act.  It is overseen by the Archaeology Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.  The Act legally protects archaeological sites from alterations of any kind. The provisions of the Act apply to both public and private land, and it is binding on government.

7.    The Heritage Conservation Act automatically protects most archaeological sites if they are known or can be inferred to pre-date AD 1846, or if they contain human remains or aboriginal rock art of historical or archaeological value, regardless of age.  The Act also protects shipwrecks or airplane wrecks that are two or more years old.  The Act can also protect archaeological sites through formal agreement with First Nations, or by their formal designation as Provincial heritage sites. 

8.    The Archaeology Branch maintains an inventory of recorded archaeological sites and issues and oversees a permitting process.  Archaeologists must obtain permits to conduct their fieldwork.  These permits define the goals and methods of our archaeological studies, and confirm which repository will ultimately store and curate the artifacts and samples we collect (No, we archaeologists don’t get to keep the artifacts!).  The Archaeology Branch provide a variety of information and guidance for developers and for the public on their website:

9.    There are archaeologists affiliated with most universities and colleges in BC.  However, most archaeological research in BC is conducted not by academic archaeologists but by archaeologists employed in the field of Cultural Resource Management (CRM).  CRM archaeologists conduct applied research focussed on avoiding or mitigating the impacts of developments on archaeological sites.

10.  Archaeological and heritage sites are commonly addressed in provincial and federal Environmental Assessments.  The management of archaeological concerns is built into the planning processes in the forestry and mining industries and in the transportation sector.

11.  Interested members of the public are invited to join the Archaeological Society of British Columbia.  The ASBC has been educating British Columbians about archaeology since 1966!  Members receive The Midden, an illustrated journal that has long been a cornerstone of BC archaeology.  The ASBC’s website is

12.  In Kamloops, the Secwepemc Museum and Heritage Park offers a variety of displays focussed on Secwepemc culture and history, including extensive archaeological displays, and several recreated traditional dwellings and food processing features.  Group interpretive tours are available.  More information is available at

13.  The Kamloops Museum and Archives documents many aspects of the cultural history of our town and our region, including Secwepemc history and local archaeology.  Their website is

14.  Archaeologists in British Columbia have their own professional association, the BC Association of Professional Archaeologists.  It currently has about 230 members.  CRM archaeologists who are Professional Members are entitled to call themselves Registered Professional Consulting Archaeologists.  The Association’s website is

Indigenous oral history and archaeology

Much of the general knowledge of archeology often seems to be associated with excavation fieldwork. The preparation of the archeology project prior to fieldwork is making sure project objectives are defined, heritage permits are in place and safety plans are set up. It also means organizing a team and establishing the equipment for the field, such as shovels, trowels, sifters, tapes, global positioning system units and more, depending upon the type of project.

Yet once the fieldwork begins and something has been found, it is always exciting, especially when you find that 7,000-year-old artifact and wonder if you are the first person to touch something that was cleverly stored, accidently lost or purposely discarded.

However, the fieldwork only represents part of what we do. The other part is the interpretation of the field maps that locate all the shovel tests or evaluative units and defining the site and landforms on which they are found. It also involves looking at the environment they are found in and inventorying and analyzing the artifacts (cultural material) collected, including the documented features (i.e. hearths and depressions), which is the evidence of human activity.

How do we interpret all of this? Prior to the fieldwork, there is some background research completed to understand the local culture area, followed by a comprehensive investigation after the completion of the fieldwork.

Presenting the long-ago past includes a thorough understanding of the study area that comprises building on the work of others to include the paleo-ecology, geology, historical use of the area, archeology sites recorded in proximity to the project,  ethnographic studies (written from a non-Indigenous perspective) and, importantly, the language.

More recently, some archeologists have been including oral histories of the culture group in the study area as it does provide another source of evidence. Oral traditions provide information about the area, such as the environment or certain land formations, migration into certain areas  and some of the pictograph symbols. This is of great interest to the local and younger Indigenous peoples, as much of their culture was interrupted due to various practices imposed in the past. Therefore, archeology results and linking their oral histories connects them to their heritage and long-ago ancestors.

There have been some excellent studies completed in which the oral history provided by community members has augmented, corroborated or enhanced the information of the area, practices, events or meaning of artifacts. For instance, we assume designs found on various bone tools is artwork or a signature design, but we know from oral history that some of these designs were, in fact, markers used by an individual to keep  track of the number of items made in their lifetime.

In other cases, oral stories passed down through generations identified a flood or volcanic eruption that studies completed by Western knowledge also supported. But, more interestingly, the oral stories dated the tale to being more than 4,000 years old. There are many other examples; however, the important aspect is this kind of information brings together Indigenous and Western ways of interpreting the past.