Culturally modified trees

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

Landscape

Landscape

a CMT

a CMT

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