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: for.gov.bc.ca/archaeology/index.htm.

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  asbc.bc.ca/

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 tkemlups.ca/museum-heritage-park/.

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 kamloops.ca/museum/index.shtml.

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 bcapa.ca/.

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.

Archaeological sites in alpine environments

This past summer, while camping in Wells Gray Provincial Park, I came across a broken stone projectile point in the alpine tundra. There it was, lying on the surface, tucked slightly into the mosses. I described this find to a colleague, who told me they had found another broken projectile point nearby. Busy spot, I thought, but what were people doing way up in the alpine?

As with much of B.C., archeological sites tend to be where archeologists look for them. Most archeological assessments are development-driven and it’s less common that large-scale archeological survey and assessment targets high alpine environments. High-elevation archeology has been the subject of at least three masters studies in B.C., all of which go into greater detail than presented in this column.


A Simon Fraser University study was conducted from 1986 to 1988 in alpine settings near Pavilion, on the east side of the Fraser River, within the traditional territories of the Ts’kw’aylaxw and Xaxli’p bands (Alexander, 1989). During this study, five archeological sites were identified in the alpine. These sites included a scatter of stone artifacts, a burial cairn and three sites with loosely stacked rock features that were identified by local First Nations informants as hunting blinds. Informants described how deer would be driven up gullies, where hunters waited behind hunting blinds. Ethnographic research conducted as part of the Pavilion-area study was consistent with the number and types of archeological sites identified in alpine settings.

The seasonal round of activities described by First Nations informants, and identified in the archeological record, indicates people accessed both animal and plant resources in the alpine periodically through the summer months. People would set up larger base camps in sub-alpine settings and travel into the alpine for shorter, specific hunting or gathering trips.This pattern is reflected in the archeological record by a greater number and diversity of archeological sites in montane parkland and montane forested settings, including sites with cultural depressions (roasting pits) and dense artifact scatters.

There are many other archeological sites recorded in Wells Gray Provincial Park, most during an inventory and assessment conducted in the late 1980s. Four of these sites were found in alpine settings near my find spot. Three of these sites are scatters of stone artifacts and one is a possible petroglyph. The artifact scatters are small and likely represent locations where hunters camped, waited for game or killed and butchered animals.

The setting where I found the broken projectile point is covered by small alpine lakes and, probably more importantly, dozens of marmot burrows. I can’t be sure people were specifically targeting marmots, but they are abundant in that setting. Evidence of plant-gathering activities is difficult to find. Most often, these activities did not include the manufacture or maintenance of stone tools at gathering sites, thus, no physical remains are left for archeologists to find.

I had the privilege of conducting a combined archeological inventory and traditional use study in alpine settings in northern B.C. several years ago. Like the Pavilion study described above, it was fascinating to see how stories shared by elders provided context and interpretation to the archeology we identified.

Past instalments of this column have taught us about the variety of archeological sites across the Southern Interior of B.C. Based on the number of sites on mountaintops, it looks as though archeology occurs up and down our part of the province, too.

Skeletons: What can we learn from human remains?

Human skeletal remains are a very direct, and substantial link to past human occupation in way that everyone can understand, and there is much to learn through osteological analysis, or the study of bones.   Everything from a basic inventory where we determine presence/absence of various elements, or bones, to DNA studies, to a variety of carbon-based tests, can answer a multitude of questions we may not have even known to ask.

Every osteological assessment begins with a straightforward, although not necessarily easy, exercise of conducting an inventory – a presence/absence of all the bones that should be present.   Based on this inventory, and by examining certain variables or ‘markers’ on the skeleton, an osteologist can often determine an individual’s sex, age at death, stature, if they suffered specific types of trauma and/or disease – and if those traumas or diseases occurred before, during, or after death.

Sometimes, analysis stops here.  But in other circumstances, further study is conducted.  While no means an exhaustive list, isotope analysis is commonly employed. Carbon 13, or C13, is a stable isotope utilized to determine the proportions of different types of plant material consumed. It can also aid in determining the consumption of marine (sea based) versus terrestrial (in-land based) food in a person’s diet. Carbon 14, or C14, is an unstable isotope used in a process commonly known as radio-carbon dating.  C14 is a radioactive isotope present in organic material, and it has a predictable half-life. By measuring the amount of C14 left in bone, and comparing that to the known rate of decay, we can determine approximately how many years ago an individual died. 

As personal example, I examined skulls for evidence of brain tumours from skeletal collections dating from Medieval and post-Medieval periods in England.  It’s not a disease that is commonly found, or searched for, in skeletal collections.  My research indicated that more than 10% of the large skeletal collections showed evidence of brain tumours, a relatively shocking number.  Keep in mind, these were not necessarily terminal, or even malignant, tumours.  But it provided an unexpected answer, and certainly raised more questions that could be important for medical considerations in today’s populations.

Ubeklaker 1978 Adult Skeleton.JPG

To bring it closer to home, there is an archaeological burial site east of Kamloops that some readers may be familiar with: Gore Creek Man.  This man’s remains were found eroding out of the creek bank several decades ago.  Through a series of studies we were able to learn a great deal both about this individual man, but also the wider group of First Nations people that lived in the Thompson valley at the time. 

Through inventory and analysis, we learned that Gore Creek man was in his late 20s or early 30s when he died, was approximately 5’6” tall, and that he likely perished in a mud slide or flash flood before coming to rest in the creek channel.  C13 studies told us that he had an almost totally terrestrial diet, although there were enough marine markers to indicate he had eaten sea-food at some point in his life – likely from spawning salmonid species in the river.  Perhaps most remarkably, C14 studies showed that Gore Creek man lived, and died, more than 8,000 years ago, an almost unfathomable number.  But it aligns with what First Nations people have told though oral histories; that they have lived here for time immemorial.

There is not enough space here to start a discussion about the ethics and cultural sensitivities surrounding the science of studying human remains, and there are as many opinions about what the ‘right’ thing to do is as there are individuals involved in the study of osteology.  Whatever the opinion however, there is indeed a great deal to be learned from our ancestors.


Archaeology Blankets the Valley

In the Secwepemc calendar, September is called Pesqelqlélten, or “Many Salmon Moon”. It refers to the vast numbers of sockeye salmon that run up the Fraser and Thompson watersheds in the fall, heading for natal lakes and streams. For thousands of years, September was a time when extended families came together at key spots to harvest this food that has been central to culture and survival.

One such location is just upstream from Kamloops, close to where the LaFarge cement plant sits today. In Secwepemctsin, the place is a called Cyew’kwe, roughly, “where people fish with scoop nets”. Here, more than 1,500 years ago, Secwepemc ancestors began to build weirs: massive, permanent fishing infrastructure that would serve their families for generation after generation.

Weirs, or fish fences, are built to funnel fish to be trapped. They’re found all over BC where waters are shallow and relatively slow, and fish are known to school, pool, gather. Locally, the town of Barriere derives its name from the weirs noted there by French-speaking fur traders in the 19th century.

The weir at Cyew’kwe was strategically positioned in a part of the flow of the South Thompson River preferred by salmon. The wide opening of its V-shaped design faces downstream, so that returning fish enter it and are channeled into a narrow opening, where fishers wait with spears, baskets or nets. When no more fish are needed (or no more can be processed fast enough), the fish can flow through, carrying on unimpeded. It's a brilliant system, a beautiful example of sustainable landscape modification.

The archaeological site here is more than a kilometre long, and consists of almost 1,400 individually sharpened stakes. They're mostly pine, a few of Douglas-fir and birch (all grow nearby today).  Radiocarbon dating of wood from different parts of the structure shows it was in use, and continually mended and maintained, for more than 1,500 years. While the earliest radiocarbon dates from the site are around 1,560 years, archaeologists and Secwepemc people believe it was built much earlier, the earliest stakes having decayed long ago.

LaFarge weir site JHammond.jpg

When the first stakes in this facility were sunk, the Secwepemc salmon industry was already wildly successful. For the preceding 3,000 years, technology and social systems formed around the unique blend of resources this landscape had to offer. Salmon, then as now, was an essential part of that existence.

The weir could provide all the food needed—and more—but the people turned that into an economic and cultural cornerstone.  Families were organized powerhouses, each fishing, curing and storing thousands of pounds of salmon every year. Surplus fish were stockpiled and traded in every direction, so this salmon wasn't only salmon: it became the cedar root and hemp and moosemeat and copper and abalone and buffalo hide traded by neighbouring nations. And later, iron and canvas, guns and glass.

Today, the evidence of intensive salmon processing at Cyew’kwe is spread across the exposed mudflats, along the shores, and up on the terraces above. At low water you can still make out the lines of wooden stakes pounded into the riverbed, the scattering of stone tools, and tons—quite literally—of hearth rocks spread along the shores.

It can sometimes be hard to articulate the depth of history, hard to express how Secwepemc people grew up hand in hand with this river. Here, it’s written on the land: the fish weirs, the processing stations, the pithomes that people returned to at night, bellies and caches full. Archaeology blankets the river valley, where families lived and worked together for millennia before contact. That's what time immemorial means.