Altamira

A day of archaeological survey in the British Columbia Interior

Hi, my name is Duncan.  I am an archaeologist, now based in Western Canada for Altamira Consulting Ltd, where I primarily undertake archaeological survey work.  My Day Of Archaeology posts for the last three years have neatly spanned the period where I made the transition from UK archaeology to Canadian archaeology; a transition as much methodological and idealogical as geographical.

My day begins at 6am in a campground west of Quesnel, British Columbia.  My survey team is staying in some little cabins here beacause it is somewhat closer to our remote survey areas than the town would be.  We are well looked after here; I have a large breakfast of bacon, eggs and hash-browns, and packed lunches are made for us.  Most days they give us more food in our lunches than we are able to eat, and we soon have little stockpiles of cookies, trail-mix and fruit in our cabins.

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The hazard that is logging trucks

 We set off usually at 7:30am (half an hour later than normal) so as to avoid the rush of logging trucks coming the other way.  This is a real safety concern on the often narrow roads in the active logging areas.  Today, however is a Saturday, so we are fairly safe.

Both survey teams travel in a single truck today, because we are going to tackle a particularly large and distant forestry block.  We travel for one and a half hours on a succession of smaller and smaller roads until we can travel no further by truck.  On the forestry roads we regularly call on our CB radio at selected km markers  to warn other vehicles that we are there, but being Saturday there is little other traffic.

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A Cougar on the road. Yes, really!

We then unload the quad-bikes from the trailer, and get all our equipment together for the survey.  I typically take into the field in addition to my field clothes and boots: gaiters,  gloves, safety glasses,  hi-visibility survey vest, GPS, voice recorder, maps, survival knife, bear spray, SLR camera, 3L camelback, sun-hat, shovel, and screen, and a bag containing: Waterproof, insect repellent, sunscreen, trowel, lunch, compass, first-aid kit, lighter, and sundry archaeological and survival equipment.  This, I should note, is a pared down version of the list I carried with me last season!

While suiting up I notice all my colleagues staring down the trail.  I’m just fast enough to take some very poor pictures of a cougar that has been watching us from the trail that we came in on.  This is the first cougar that I’ve ever seen, and it’s a great start to the day (Seeing wildlife in the forest is one of the huge perks to this job).

 

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Ready to go!

Finally, we are ready to go.

We ride the quad bikes tandem style down a small track for about an hour to get to the forest block that we are surveying.  These are larger quad-bikes designed for two, they are harder to maneuver than normal quads, but the only ones safe for our type of work.  Quadding is great fun, but I have to constantly remind myself that I am many miles from medical help and that safe driving is essential in the field.  We have all taken the Quad training course, so safety has been drummed into us all.  That said, flat tyres, punctured by branches are a constant and unavoidable hazard, which can mean a loooong walk back to the truck.  We also occasionally get stuck in the seemingle endless muskeg that we occasionally encounter.  In this situation a sturdy tree and the winch usually suffice to free us.  On this trip however we avoid both these hazards and after an hour we arrive at the survey area.

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More muddy obstacles, accompanied by fallen trees.

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A brief stop to plan the route

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Muddy obstacles.

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Braedy taking a quad across the same bridge

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Brett keeping good tightrope walking form on a tricky bridge crossing

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Possibly the last thing I’d expect to find in the forest.

 On our journey however, we encounter possibly the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.  It is a cougar that has been killed and stuffed, but then at some stage returned to its natural environment in the forest.  The forest dwellers then ate the skin, leaving only the wire frame, stuffing, and a single paw for us to identify the beast.  One can only marvel at the motivations of those involved in this strange chain of events, but I love the idea of taxidermied animals being repatriated to their natural environments.  Museums take note.

Pine beetle tracks; destructive but beautiful

Pine beetle tracks; destructive but beautiful

Another side note:  I am struck by how beautiful are the tracks of pine beetles.  British Columbia’s pine forests have been severely affected by this invader for a number of years now, but I can completely understand why a market for this “patterned” wood has sprung up.  It’s lovely, and reminds me of certain Anglo-Saxon decoration.

 We finally arrive at our survey area.  Our teams split up, with Brett and Braedy surveying the northern portion of the 196 hectare forest block, while Jode and myself survey the southern portion.     Almost immediately we find a series of nice bench features beside a lake.   These have good archaeological potential, but they are situated just outside the block so we move on.   We look at features just inland of this, inside the block boundary, and immediately find flakes on a little raised promontory that is also beside a small creek.  We shovel test the entire landform in a 5m grid, with each shovel test measuring 40cm by 40cm and extending down to the natural geology.  All the soil from the shovel tests gets screened, so that we don’t miss any tiny lithic artefacts.  Many of the shovel tests produce cultural lithics, predominantly of black Dacite, but also a single Quartzite flake.   We work steadily getting approximately 150 flakes and 2 tools from 23 out of 44 shovel tests. 

Our site

Our site (photos of sites in the forest always look rubbish)

 

The distant lake near the site

The distant lake near the site

"I've got more flakes!"

“I’ve got more flakes!”

Trowelling shovel tests

Trowelling shovel tests

The lithics recovered from the site

The lithics recovered from the site

When we are satisfied that we have identified the boundaries of the site (by negative shovel tests on the edges), we photograph the landform, draw a plan of the landform & shovel tests, bag and label all the artefacts, flag off the site with archaeological flagging tape, and decribe everything into our voice recorders (in lieu of detailed written notes).  This takes up most of our survey time for the day.  We check on the progress of the other team by radio, and determine that we will have to come back tomorrow to complete the survey.  We wrap up and set off on our quad back to the truck at 3:30.

On the way back to the trucks we are in radio contact with the other survey team and we determine that we are ahead of them.  We take the opportunity to have a look at a cabin that we passed on the way in.  It has some interesting features, although it probably is 20th Century in date.  It originally had a turf roof, that was replaced with a corrugated iron one at some stage.  The design of the outhouse I thought was particularly stylish, although it had lost its roof and most of its walls.  We also were able to name at least one of the later occupants (James) by mugs we found inside.

A collapsing outhouse

A collapsing outhouse

Exploring the cabin

Exploring the cabin

Artefacts in the cabin

Artefacts in the cabin

We arrive back at the truck at 4:30, with the other team arriving back about 5.  It gives us a chance to do our final voice recorder notes and stow our kit and load the quad.  The drive back is enlivened by a sighting of a large black bear. For some reason we see most of the wildlife from our truck; presumably because on a survey we intentionally make lots of noise, which gives the animals a chance to avoid us!  

We get back at 6:30 and have our dinner in the camp restaurant, showers, and an early night.  Tomorrow we do it all over again.