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Microscopes and… Posthumanist Archaeology? (Or That Year I Spent the Summer in the Lab)


This year’s Archaeology Day found me in a cold, air conditioned lab working on my PhD pilot project. I work with the Arctic CHAR project now (a joint initiative of the University of Toronto and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre), which has been running for three years in the Mackenzie Delta, N.W.T.

Arctic CHAR studies patterns of climate change induced environmental degradation at major Inuvialuit settlements across the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, using shoreline reconstructions and predictive modelling of erosion patterns, and also conducts salvage where required.

The project has seen the unearthing of an 18th century cruciform winter house, the first complete example of its kind, during the 2014 field season. The house is located at Kuukpak, on the east coast of Richards Island, a massive settlement of the Kuukpangmiut. Kuukpak was likely a whaling village and was abandoned sometime in the 1800s. Approximately 40 dwellings were initially present on the site but only 23 survive today due to erosion, which is why the project will resume work there in 2016.

In the upcoming years, we are expanding our research to include data on permafrost degradation, which is why I’m here! I recently finished my MA on the use of integrated soil analyses for the study of short-term occupations and outdoor sites. I completed a thesis on the briefly occupied warm season dwellings that line a (roughly) 16th – 18th century Inuit winter settlement in Sandwich Bay, South Labrador (Figure 1), where I described the environmental characteristics of three tent floors using soil micromorphology, paleoethnobotanical and soil chemical analyses (Figure 2). Given archaeology’s traditional dependence on large material assemblages for the interpretation of prehistoric Inuit lifeways, much of Inuit archaeology has focused on the winter settlement. This approach has allowed me to temporarily suspend this dependence on material culture and focus on environmental changes. The data provided answers to age-old questions about relative chronology and potential season of use but soon I found myself looking at differential vegetation growth caused by anthropogenic chemical inputs and plant species replacement that didn’t fit so neatly in a heritage framework anymore. At the time, I simply noted that this data is relevant when looking at differential vulnerability in relation to climate change.

Harbor View_from Huntingdon_NW view_best

Figure 1: South view of Indian Harbor Island on the beautiful coast of Labrador.

W hill_NW view_houses_early season

Figure 2: A view of Huntingdon Island 5, a post-contact Southern Inuit settlement containing unique examples of communal houses in southern Labrador and evidence of early trade in European goods.

Today, I get to revisit and expand these findings. I am (literally) working at the limit of my MA research (Figures 3 and 4) both in terms of theory and methodology. I initially used a basic petrographic microscope to analyze my thin-sections, which limits the researcher to visual analysis and to a magnification of 400x. Today, I’m working with the UTSC biogeochemistry group to develop microchemical applications using thin-sections. This would enable the identification of organic compounds without the loss of visual data on sediment structure and composition and allow me to study the interaction of site-specific anthropogenic sediments with the immediate environment. So far we tested my thin-sections with a more traditional fluorescence microscope and then attempted the Raman microscope but encountered issues focusing the beam (Figure 5) (the issues seem to develop due to the difficulty of maintaining a consistent thickness when developing thin-sections of soils, something that I am trying to address at the level of the manufacturing process).

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Figure 3: Amorphous fine organic mass viewed at the highest magnification permitted by the petrographic microscope, a Nikon H 550 S. Microphotograph from one of the 17 thin-sections detailing characteristics of the floors of briefly occupied tents found at Huntingdon Island 5.


Figure 4: Thin-section MM8, on which the microphotograph was taken.


Figure 5: The Raman spectroscopy facility at the University of Toronto Scarborough

Meanwhile in the Western Canadian Arctic, my colleagues and my supervisor collected a new batch of undisturbed cores from an Inuvialuit house in McKinley Bay (Figure 5) during their regular yearly survey. The site contains at least 11 semi-subterranean houses dated between 1500 and 1700, and is likely associated with bowhead whale hunting. At this location, Dr. Friesen collected seven undisturbed cores from a section through the entrance tunnel that includes the undisturbed, sterile sands at the base, a cultural layer consisting of the tunnel floor with associated debris and tunnel collapse and overlying eolian deposits (many thanks to Dr. M. Friesen and Arctic CHAR). The cores are being developed at a petrographic facility and will be awaiting analysis!

Soil sampling - McKinley Bay

Figure 5: Dr. M. Friesen hammering in cores on the exposed profile containing the McKinley Bay house (reproduced with permission from the Arctic CHAR project).

I will eventually be testing a broader range of microscopes and comparing the results, while working through the theoretical significance of climate change-oriented projects in archaeology. This part of my work has already gotten me reading too much posthumanist theory for my own good!






A Day of Archaeological Survey in the Jungles of Northern British Columbia

Name: Paulina Dobrota.

Position: field archaeologist/ PhD student

I started working in interior B.C. in summer 2012. Although I’ve seen a couple of tough outdoors in my life, I am always baffled by the terrain here. After the beetle kill plague that hit these parts 10 years ago, the forests of northern British Columbia are jungles. Some days, I don’t even touch the ground at all. I walk on logs, balancing precariously. If they’re good, a pair of boots may last a whole season. Pants start tearing immediately in the thorny underbrush and the dreaded Devil’s club. And wait until you see the mosquitoes and flies!

I like to think of ourselves here as archaeological managers. We work for the logging industry. Like scores of other interested parties, we enter cut blocks prior to logging and do our part of the work. In our case, we rate the archaeological potential of each proposed development and proceed to mitigate or exclude areas of archaeological significance. We deal with archaeological sites and traditional use areas, and a lot of culturally modified trees (CMTs). Our work goes by a predictive model that isolates areas of interest which have to be surveyed on foot. As an amateur geologist and a geoarchaeologist in training, I am immensely thrilled by the breadth of our focus. We look out for cultural materials but also do terrain, hydrology, soil and sediment classifications and indicator plant species. Although we get to see artifacts quite rarely here, the scope of our survey makes this one of the most fun and stimulating areas I’ve ever worked in.

Every year, before returning to the field, I spend a month jogging 1 hour every day. I spruce up my gear and replace broken equipment. I re-read The Amateur Geologist’s Field Guide, and Indicator Plants of British Columbia and I’m ready to go.
On July 11 this year, we were notified that we were going to access a cut block by helicopter. We had already traveled to the area the previous day and were spending the night at a motel in a nearby town. We breakfasted in a road-side diner with other workers, piled into our trucks and drove out. First we negotiated our way through the forest road traffic, to the assembly point. Here, we had to wait in the grass by the side of the road with other forestry crews, joking with each other and spying at each other’s gear. Forestry crew often know lots about archaeology. Every time they meet us, they tell us about areas they think might have artifacts.

1 - logging road traffic

Logging road traffic

2 - heli ride to the block

Heli ride to the block

The helicopter was making its way and we could hear the sound of the propellers through the air. We got a brief safety training and then we lined up for pick up. My team was last. We were going to get dropped off into a swamp, make our way across and get picked up from the other side of our block.

I pulled down my hard hat, my survey vest, laden with flagging ribbon, my field gear and my water pack. Each object – GPS, a compass, a camera – was tied up with reflecting yellow ribbon and secured with carabiners to my vest, which gave a faint smell of insect repellent, sun screen and sweat. I crouched down and ran up to the door. The air was completely still, so the ride was very smooth. We arrived to our area and circled it a couple times then proceeded to descend onto the swamp. We dropped out and my feet were immediately ankle deep in water. We crouched down again and ran to the forest line with our gear at knee level.

Once in the block, we make a game plan, spread out in transects with a width based on visibility and start walking. I always like to state my goals for the day. “Today, I want to find a cache with at least 10 pre-Clovis points in a tree-throw”. Actually, this has been my goal for the past 3 years. I’m still working on it.

2 - surveying in the block

Surveying in the block

First I check out the forest cover, and figure out what the likeliness of finding culturally modified trees is. Then I start noting plant species, observing vegetation patterns, marking out slope degree and aspect on my map while waving away mosquitoes. We call out for each other sometimes, “Marco!”, and wait to hear “Polo!”.

The survey is advancing smoothly through a rolling terrain. Two hours in, we hit a body of water and start following its course. We hike up a slope, just 20 m above the water’s edge. At the top, I already see a nice, flat ground covered in ground cedar and reindeer lichen. “What do you think of this place?” It’s just about 10 by 10 m or so. I kick up a bit of sod and do a soil check. “All good! I’m taking this one!”. We flag it with ribbons looped around trees, GPS it and take notes on laminated sheets (our “field paper”). Based on our client’s decision, we will either excavate or exclude this area from the development.

3 - surveying in the block

Surveying in the block

Surveying by a wetland

Surveying by a wetland





Cut mark on a CMT

Cut mark on a CMT

We continue with our survey and reach our pick up place hours in advance of the helicopter. “It’s only 2 pm, we got a 2 hrs and a half wait”. We vote on it. “Lets walk it!” We got our truck location, it’s only 5 km away and the map shows that there’s a DR (deactivated road) in 1 km. Now comes the portion we call ‘dead walk’. We finally hit the road and start making our way. The day is hot, I’m tapping my last water resources and some granola bars from the bottom of my survey vest pocket. It’s been years now since I have eaten a granola bar that was not sun baked.

Like archaeologists all around the world, all we talk about is places we worked in, places we could work in, places we would like to work in and FOOD. Foods we’ve eaten, and foods we will eat when we’re not in the field.

We finally reach our truck. We see the helicopter parked nearby, with the driver reading in the back seat and wave at him. We throw our gear in the back, get on, I write some finishing notes about our block and we drive away. “Tomorrow, my goal is to find a a cache with at least 10 pre-Clovis points…”

Arrow point found in 2012

Arrow point found in 2012