BC Archaeology Forum Roundup

Musqueam Potlatch Dish, made 1895. Photo by Derek Tan. Source: MoA, CC Licenced.

It was fun to attend the BC Archaeology Forum on the weekend.  First and foremost, the Musqueam First Nation were gracious hosts who provided a warm and thoughtful welcome, and plentiful, delicious meals. Together with the organizing committee from the UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology, the event was an incredible bargain for 30 bucks, including dinner. I took in most of the talks. The short review is that it was an extremely successful forum, well attended, with interesting papers spanning the province and important issues raised.  The long review has become really long, so you’ll have to continue reading on page 2.

Probably the most important paper was the presentation and discussion on the “Curatorial Crisis” in B.C. Archaeology, which raises an important issue not everyone is aware of.  Field archaeology generates large amounts of material: boxes of artifacts, to be sure, but also soil samples, fauna, field notes, photographs, and the like. The volume of stuff can be overwhelming, especially as it accumulates relentlessly, year in and year out. Furthermore, much of the contextual information is now in digital form- and while that is more compact, it also suffers from digital rot – no one really knows how long a CD-ROM will last, or whether a .jpg or .cdr file will be readable 25 years. Yet archaeological data are forever, and digital data will need to be refreshed and even updated many times in the future.

Raiders of the Lost Arkeological Curation

It used to be the Royal BC Museum was the de facto repository for the whole province, but they are turning material away now, leaving these invaluable materials and data scattered across the province in differing levels of security and archival professionalism. Since by its very nature, archaeology is destructive, in essence we turn a dirt record into a paper one – and then may not be nearly as mindful of the paper record as of the sites themselves.  For whatever reason, the RBCM’s archaeology capacity has shrunk from something like six or seven people to only two, and their warehouse is said to be full.  I have no idea if they have a digital repository or not.  Correspondingly, they are reluctant to continue being the repository of first resort. Maybe if they were to be planning to hire more people as well as more space….

I heard a dismissive snort from a consulting archaeologist at the very notion that the true, long-term cost of curation be built into the coast of projects so that the developers, for instance, will pay the bill.This was a little grump-inducing, since archaeologists have a professional responsibility to the archaeological record that transcends their responsibilities to their clients. Unfortunately, the way consulting archaeology is set up in this province, then the combination of low bids and no professional college means there may be a race to the bottom – and what better way to cut costs than on some hypothetical cost of data transfer decades in the future?

Kathryn Bernick made two typically incisive points: (a) the standard of “paper records” associated with most artifact collection as deposited in storage is often abysmal; and (b) some sort of percentage of all project budgets should be allocated to cover all costs, so that any given project would not go hideously un-curated would be a good way to go.  And Gay Frederick asked the excellent rhetorical question when the idea of reducing volume by sampling archived faunal assemblages was suggested: “would you allow samples to be taken of artifact assemblages, and have the rest discarded?”  Yes, curation is meant to be factored into budgets already, but the unpredictability of what one finds, and the fact that archival bills come in last and so the money might all be gone, means that this is a big problem that needs to be fixed for the future.

This is all fine for moving forward.  But, resolution of this matter is going to be very costly, and who knows where the money to take care of the backlog will come from.  So, all credit to Susan Rowley of the LOA and the others who spoke so clearly to this issue. I probably wasn’t the only one thinking of the weak cardboard boxes and crumbling paper bags in the basement of my building.  And what would happen to the archaeological collections of a company which went bankrupt, for example?  If you ask me, we need a provincially funded, default single repository for all archaeological materials, except those affirmatively wanted, and demonstrably budgeted-for elsewhere.  I suggest a lot of money go to the RBCM to hire people and make space for them to resume their traditional role, which they have understandably had to give up.  The alternative is to see a second destruction of the archaeological record: this one taking the form of rotting bags, fading notes, and obsolete computer disks.

Another presentation, striking in its simplicity was given by John Welch of SFU.  This announced a program to document violations of the Heritage Conservation Act since 1994. What they are looking for are instances where there is public knowledge of apparent violations of the provisions of the Act, such that a database can be built and from there, patterns sought. This is not limited to violations where the Archaeology Branch has become involved, but also cases which private citizens, including archaeologists, are aware of. I am sure the database creation team is in touch with the Archaeology Branch, of course, but their scope probably goes beyond just what the AB may know about. I like to think of this as comparable to not only cataloguing plane crashes, but near-misses as well.  Even if not every incident is of the highest order, then an independent process to measure the problem, and all outcomes, is very welcome.

I mentioned some time ago in regards to collecting and looting, that so far as I knew, there are no data on whether this is a major problem or not in this province. How can we conserve the archaeological record if we don’t keep tabs on instances where it is wilfully destroyed?  I’m looking forward to seeing the scope of the problem and the range of remedies which have been applied.  I think it is ok to say, if you know of any violations from the past 15 years, especially little known ones, then maybe get in touch with John Welch and see if they fit his criteria.

Speaking of violations of the Heritage Conservation Act, it was rather startling to hear one archaeologist describing their efforts to clean up after a recent, egregious, documented violation as “fun”. In that case – no names needed – the presenter gave no context whatsoever for the case.  How did this huge hole in the ground come to be, what legal remedies were sought, what has become of the huge pile of back dirt, etc.: these were the questions on my mind. Instead, we saw some decontextualized pictures of pretty artifacts, which felt a bit ghoulish.

Other than the above, some of the other presentations included, briefly:

  • Farid Rahemtulla’s presentation on new research by UNBC in the Babine Lake area was quite exciting – a major “new” village site was found in an area of which we know little.
  • Dave Schaepe’s introduction to the new ca. 10 million dollar building housing the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre was quite inspiring: I look forward to a day when there are dozens of comparably sophisticated research centres across the province.  As I noted above, as a general rule it’s the people and not just the buildings, and Schaepe is doing extremely interesting research as well as management of cultural heritage.
  • Andrew Martindale of UBC gave a good summary of the UBC-Musqueam projects of recent years, aptly noting how Charles Borden had encouraged First Nations participation in archaeology in the 1950s, and that much of said participation was quite meaningful – more so than today in some cases, I suspect.
  • Charles Menzies of UBC discussed his team’s exciting survey and evaluation in the Laxyuup Gitxata (Kitkatla) project, which is visiting some parts of the coast not seen by shovels for forty years.
  • David Pokotylo of UBC spoke of the interesting return, together with Sandra Peacock and others, to the roasting pits of the Hat Creek Valley, including a huge concentration of huge pits.  In so doing, he noted a classic weakness of those 1970-style random sampling survey projects – you can get some basic idea of the landscape, but you run the risk of missing the One Big Singular Important Thing.
  • Jim Stafford’s exposition of Coast-Interior Archaeology’s recent work in Tsawataineuk-Kingcome Inlet and Namgis territories was extremely interesting.  If you haven’t heard, Roy Carlson’s unknown “Central Coast B” obsidian source has been pinned down, and Stafford has also shown the antiquity of the trans-Vancouver Island Woss trail and found the oldest site on Vancouver Island. Not bad for him, Tina, and  their three vertically-challenged assistants.
  • I was also interested in the early dates acquired by Amec’s Peter Vigneault and Ryan Dickie, who gave a well-made and fluent presentation on DkRn 1.  This site near Lillooet includes microblades at around 7000 BP and basal dates of 7900 or so.  I hope it sees more research.
  • UBC’s Chris Arnett gave a passionate talk which ended too soon, in which he introduced an intriguing argument that many or all pictographs were a historic phenomenon designed to protect sacred places from new threats.
  • Well, there were a bunch other good ones too, no offense if I didn’t mention yours.

A little bit of grumpy-making was also had, though. The BCAPA* presentation really didn’t get across a vision for archaeology in the province, whether professionally or even within the limits of that organization. As a voluntary organization, membership in which is not required to be a professional archaeologist, then I would expect them to be trying really hard to take a leadership role since persuasion is their only weapon. I didn’t see that. Looking forward to such emerging issues as the archival crisis, the use of geophysics, the HCA violations inventory, and the devolution of archaeology through treaty settlements, then the BCAPA has a chance to make a real difference.  I hope they seize it.

And the Archaeological Society of B.C. presentation showed hints of some interesting activity on the lower mainland which is great (and which I plan on reviewing in the days to come).  But it is a little disheartening to hear no mention at all of the Victoria and Nanaimo branches, which are actually just as or more active than the “Real ASBC”.  Even though the constitution of the ASBC reads “The operations of the Society are to be carried on throughout the Province of British Columbia, chiefly in the City of Vancouver”, the “Real ASBC” is still the default, provincial organization, it is not the “Vancouver Chapter” of the ASBC.   Is it too early to start thinking of an Archaeological Society of Vancouver Island? Or would it be more to the point that a Vancouver Chapter be formed, leaving the ASBC proper to focus on the big picture.  Advocacy at the Provincial level seems to be ineffective (what was the last concrete achievement of the ASBC?), and people may be more inspired to mobilize and act at a local level.

The purposes of this Society shall be:

  1. To protect the archaeological and historical heritage of British Columbia and to this end to assist the various levels of government in implementing applicable heritage legislation [editorial comment: what]
  2. To further public understanding of a scientific approach to archaeology

It was also surprising to see the plan for the ASBC website includes a members only section, where back-issues of The Midden will reside. Seriously, the mandate of the ASBC could be much better met by releasing this hard-to-find material into the wild.

The ASBC is not supposed to be a closed talking shop. Anyone can come to the meetings freely, and so they should be able to freely access the website.  Maybe have a short “moving wall” to encourage people to subscribe. By putting The Midden on the web, they would in a stroke increase the amount of freely available information about BC Archaeology by about 500 percent. They would also bring a lot more attention and readers, and generate hits to their website, which can then produce new members as well as enable public education. I mean, yes, it would be great for the Midden back issues to be digitized and mounted, but it would be even greater if this were open access.  Is it a copyright issue? I don’t see how making it behind a password wall makes any difference: this was the problem with the BC Arch Branch online reports too.  I wish I had had a chance to chat to the ASBC executives about this at the forum.

Anyway, I want as big a megaphone as possible to be used by the ASBC to get the message across that BC Archaeology is fantastic, and exciting, and threatened.  Open back issues of The Midden would be a great thing.

Well, that sums up my forum this year.  Pancakes got in the way of going to the Musqueam Creek and LOA fieldtrips, IKEA stressed me out, and I missed my ferry.


*not this BCAPA

10 responses to “BC Archaeology Forum Roundup

  1. Anthony P. Graesch

    Thanks for the great overview, Quentin!


  2. I attended the Forum as a member of the public who was hoping to learn more about the 9,000 year old Glenrose site and the impact Gateway’s South Fraser Perimeter Road will have on it. Sadly, Glenrose was not one of the topics of the day, but the Forum was fascinating and I learned a ton.

    As artists, my husband and I found Chris Arnett’s presentation on pictographs of particular interest. We bumped in to Mr. Arnett on our way out and had the opportunity to talk to him briefly about his work. Very interesting stuff!

    Again as artists, we took some issue with the presentation on Intellectual Property (George Nicholas), thinking that perhaps Mr. Nicholas is taking his case too far. As professional artists, my husband and I fully understand the frustration of people stealing artwork and designs (or wanting to grossly underpay for it), however we think the view expressed was extreme. Certainly, no group of people can copyright an entire art style, nor should they be able to. Personally, I think that the presentation was a natural response to what happened with the Cowichan sweaters and the Olympics, and that the answer to this issue lay somewhere in the middle.

    Q, I was hoping to bump into you at the Forum so I could shake your hand and thank you for your informative blog and taking time to answer my questions. I spent much of the day peering at name tags in the hopes of seeing your name. Since I didn’t get to thank you face-to-face, I’m doing it here. Your insight has been much appreciated. This blog has taught me a lot about the issue of looting (both sides of the story, no less), and is also where I learned about the Forum taking place. Thank you very much for all your work.


  3. Thanks Quentin!
    Yes, we certainly do encourage all who have knowledge of unpermitted site alterations to bring cases to our attention.
    We’d like to use whatever the momentum the Forum, this blog, and an upcoming post to the BCAPA membership can provide to push ahead with the addition of cases to the data base, so if you have knowledge or documentation concerning site losses.
    Importantly, please note that we are focusing on bona fide contraventions of the Heritage Conservation Act (i.e., unpermitted alterations of heritage sites since 1994). We have 56 solid cases already, and, as noted in the presentation, will be working intensively with data sources for the next few weeks. In early December we plan to take the expanded data base over to consult with our Arch Branch colleages, so sooner is better.
    What we need for each case (provide what you can and we’ll take it from there):
    1. Project name & location
    2. Source of conflict (alteration activity)
    3. Summary description of sites affected
    4. Parties involved (those responsible for the alteration, affected First Nations, archaeologists or other)
    5. Date of first violation
    6. Type / level of involvement by law enforcement
    7. Case disposition (what if anyhing happened in terms of charges laid, etc.)
    8. References to news articles, reports, etc.
    9. Photos or whatever else is available.
    If you have a big fat file on contraventions and no time to sort through it all, please be in touch and we’ll come to you.
    With some diligence and collaboration we may be able to position the issue for meaningful, constructive, and concerted attention by the “communities” of interested or involved people, organizations, and decision makers.
    Even if nothing else comes of it, I see value in attempting to rally the archaeological-paleontological-heritage community around the one issue we should all be able to agree upon–the mandate to curb unpermitted and un(der)documented site alterations and losses.
    Thanks again, and very much, Quentin, for your assistance and wonderful oversight.


  4. “If you ask me, we need a provincially funded, default single repository for all archaeological materials, except those affirmatively wanted, and demonstrably budgeted-for elsewhere. I suggest a lot of money go to the RBCM to hire people and make space for them to resume their traditional role, which they have understandably had to give up.”

    I agree! This is a huge problem and stories told after the meeting about the “curation” of some of the important collections made 30-40 years ago are really quite shocking. It is important to accept that archaeology is much more than pictures and displays of shiny and cool artifacts, and that the archaeological record is within the repositories and includes the detailed notes and photos as well as all the samples collected. This information is to be used to replicate previous studies or be examined when new methods are introduced and the effort spent toward longterm curation of these materials should be equal or greater than the effort spent to initially collect them.


  5. Kathleen Matthews

    Hi Quentin:

    Can I share your comments on the “Curatorial Crisis” in B.C. Archaeology with Librarian Colleagues on our Uvic Librarian listserv?

    Libraries are focusing on Research Data preservation issues too and Archaeology has a data complexity that we need to be aware of too.



  6. That sounds like a great conference. Far better than my Saturday sitting in service of the dealership watching my $#%$$ car wrack up the repair bills.

    A couple thoughts on curation, firstly the ubiquity of a computer format ensures it’s survival, for instance I have free programs which read, .doc files of various ages without issue. Likewise a jpeg or a .shp (not an EOO though) from 1990’s is still readable today, and looks to remain a standard due to inertia.

    For things like .cdr the case isn’t so clear. Aside from the Canadian government there hasn’t been a wide spread adoption of the standard. Where things really get lost is when the technology is replaced wholesale, like when computers stopped using punch cards. There are boxes and boxes of these a various institutions which are nothing more than kindling as the machines can’t read them, and even if they did there is no way to interpret the output.

    My second thought regarding curation is why not involve the first nations with the curation process? Out of all the stakeholders wouldn’t they a) have a vested interest in the curation of their own past and b) be part of the funding/storage solution?

    Having a central repository would be as much a benefit for them as for archaeologists.


  7. In my experience, First Nations are, by and large, not interested in a central repository. They want the materials stored close to hand in their communities. The Archaeology Branch has for decades had a policy (I think it is written in their AIA Guidelines back into the early 1980’s) that a suitable local repository is preferred.

    Thus, the move away from the RBCM is less to do with their capacity (strained as it is) or to do with some poorly thought out policies regarding curation of sample materials like fauna (policies that have since been reversed or modified) and more to do with greater interest in local communities for things to be kept nearby, combined with the development of a few good repositories in cultural centers or local museums.

    I know of a couple of very interesting potential research projects (one involving perishable artifacts that are likely now to have rotted away) that were scuttled because there was no suitable local repository leaving the FNs unable/unwilling to support the projects.

    Archaeological collections and data management in BC is slowly fragmenting and should be of concern to the archaeological community. Data are being stored in more and more locations, some of them totally unsuited to the task (either in their facilities, survivability as an institution, capacity of staff or accessibility of collections to researchers). FNs are often requiring, when they are in a position to do so, that data reside with them, or not reside in a central location. Reports of work from Indian Reserves are usually not sent to the Archaeology Branch and are not centrally stored anywhere else – in other words are unavailable and unknown to most of the archaeological community. Reports of work from federal lands are usually not sent to the Archaeology Branch and are not centrally stored and thus equally unknown, unless they are for Parks Canada work. Site forms from these lands are very often not sent to the Archaeology Branch, including from national Parks, and unless in Parks are not centrally stored. Who really knows what happens to the collections from the non-Park federal lands – some of it goes to museums (some of them out of province), some of it goes to FN band offices not equipped for long term storage and curation, and so on.

    This decentralization, while of some obvious benefit and political purpose, will inevitably result in more and more barriers to effective research, interpretation and resource management. Very often, knowing that there are sites near to a development (for instance sites on federal land near to a new subdivision) can inform decisions that ensure the development is captured in the AIA process. This is less likely if the data are not available. Development of regional archaeological potential models relies on these kinds of information for accuracy and precision.

    It used to be that all work done in BC resulted in data being stored centrally and this was a very large benefit and strength which is considerably watered down now. Or, it at least seems to be as in fact the dilution is impossible to quantify. It used to be, as another example, that the RBCM was the sole source for artifact numbers for collected materials from BC no matter where they were stored, but the integrity of this important centralised record also seems compromised, probably due to ignorance in the archaeological community.

    I understand many of these changes, and I applaud the development of what are some very fine First Nation repositories/cultural centers/museums that do have the capacity to do a really good job. I do worry though that it is getting much harder to find information and that some of it is at serious risk of being lost, neglected or forgotten.

    Thus, it is especially important that this repository dialogue occur at the BC Archaeology Forum and that it be repeated from year to year and that it include all the players active in preserving and conserving BC’s heritage. This is so that as the (inevitable) changes occur in a way that is not damaging to the heritage that is preserved in the collections and their associated records. Otherwise, it defeats the purpose of excavating and recording the sites and they might as well be bulldozed without prior archaeological intervention.


  8. A company going belly-up is a realistic but unlikely scenario – maybe the Branch should build into the Permits a requirement for (and proof of) insurance to cover completion costs however ?

    Maybe it is just time to rethink how and why we do curation – instead of adhering to old norms that may no longer be necessary or relevant ? The terms ‘collector’ and ‘collection’ are antiquated in many respects – when I think of ‘collection’ I think stamps (or butterflies) …

    Centralized repository – great idea if someone is willing to fund all archaeologists who don’t live in Victoria, and the traditional owners agree. I agree with APM that fragmentation is extensive – and I would add that it is only going to get worse.


  9. Q – the problem with the BCAPA is (in my opinion) that there are no full-time, paid positions within the organization to organize and lead the membership on a continuous basis, unlike other associations and lobby groups. The BCAPA’s impotence stems from the election and volunteerism of individuals who already have careers, not the individuals themselves or the membership. Most members are very driven – but also tired at the end of the work day. I too am disappointed that the BCAPA doesn’t accomplish much, but I also understand why – and I am equally to blame in that respect.

    The businesses and associations who exploit the BCAPA/RPCA tags to further their credentials can correct this deficiency. Considering the number of individuals employed in archaeology provincially, and the PR/advertising budgets of their employers, sharing support for a dedicated representative (or two) is not an outrageous proposal – and an investment that could pay back in spades (literally). A challenge would be to get those non-resident archaeologists & firms that work in BC (and under Permit) to contribute … and that could involve tying Permits & Field Directorships to RPCA-domship.

    Too bad the BCAPA AGMs are so short … they could be very productive.


  10. Hi all, I enjoyed the forum as well, good job on all those involved in making it happen! One thing I found difficult to do through is cover enough material in the time that was allotted. Ten minutes is not much time, anyone who has lectured for an hour to three knows this! Thus, I would have given more attention to other chapters of the ASBC. Regrets to those on the island as I did not mention you. By all means “us” here on the mainland do not want anyone to be left out and other to become “them.” Instead I will endeavour to work harder as the ASBC president to have more contact and communication between branches (though please also be reminded that this is all volunteer and I wear many hats). There are additional plans for more public archaeology that we have planned and I hope that the summary article (to be in the next issue of The Midden) of what was accomplished on the Sunshine Coast in collaboration with the museum there, the Squamish Nation and the ASBC can serve as a model for future work, anywhere in BC, as it may play an important role in the curation crisis that faces all of us!


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