Starting Over in Alberta

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

The Alberta weather is sometimes cold

This year, the Day of Archaeology actually fell upon the first day of a four day weekend. Having moved to Alberta from Wisconsin in late-2014, I’m currently working a 10-day on/four-day off shift as a field tech for a Canadian Cultural Resource Management company. Actually, they constantly remind me that I’m not a field tech, if only because they don’t use that particular title. Officially, I’m a staff archaeologist working for this particular firm for a limited time. The job duties are essentially the same, though. I basically accompany a higher ranking archaeologist and help them by doing the basics: dig, walk a lot, look for historic properties, and take notes. I’m pretty removed from any decision-making, which after 15 years of being in a supervisory role, is both incredibly relaxing and somewhat boring. It’s nice to be free of the stress and obligations of being a boss. At the same time, I really enjoy performing a lot of the boss-type duties.

In Alberta, you need to be issued a permit in order to conduct archaeological excavation. I’ve been approved to apply for one, with certain reasonable restrictions. This means that I could theoretically work for a firm as a permit-holder, and run my own projects. Unfortunately, I chose pretty much the worst time to move to Alberta. With the price of oil in the tank, development has all but stopped. There just aren’t very many archaeology positions, this year, so I feel lucky to have the job I do. The only other place that seems to be hiring is apparently working their staff for long shifts comprised of 12-hour days. That just sounds like burn out city to me. I can’t imagine how someone could consistently produce quality work with that sort of schedule and I wonder how many will still want to do archaeology in five-years time.

The typical day starts with a safety meeting, which is called a tailgate meeting despite the fact that most of them don’t occur at the tailgate of our truck. After that, the bosses knock out any coordination with the client that might remain. Then, we head out to the project site, where we drive around looking for sites and historic structures. We follow a judgemental survey strategy, which means we dig shovel tests in places where we think there’s a good chance of finding a site. This targeted approach is different than the systematic survey methods that I’m used to. For that, we shovel test along regular intervals in order to get broader coverage. There can be some down time while bosses do boss stuff. Flexibility is an essential skill for a (not a-) field tech.

During all of this, we talk. In addition to the usual discussions about our interests in pop culture, we discuss archaeology. As a result of the judgemental method of surveying, we debate about where sites might be located and how that differs between the boreal forest, the northern plains, the alpine portion of the Rockies, and any other places that we know about. We talk about possible interpretations of the sites that we’re currently working on. We compare the differences in the compliance process between Alberta, the other Canadian provinces, and the United States, which has strong federal legislation. We talk about the job market and the potential for work after the project ends. This all helps me calibrate my reasoning to the Albertan way of doing things, as well as the local variations of cultural property that we might encounter.

This job is sort of a restart for me. In addition to just getting the local experience that employers want to see, it lets me see the local archaeological properties, methods, and processes first hand so I can relate it back to what I already know. I’ve been taking advantage of the opportunities to discuss our work with my coworkers and that will hopefully lead to more (and longterm!) employment in the future. The bottom line for many of the archaeologists that you might have seen in other Day of Archaeology posts is that archaeology isn’t just something we love, it’s something we do to (hopefully) pay the bills. Trying to make that profession fit with the rest of our lives can sometimes be a challenge. In my case, moving has required me to restart my career in a number of ways.

A Third Day In The Life (Of An Archaeological Geophysicist)

Wow, time has flown. This time last year, I was doing radar work in Ballarat on gold mine sludge. But that’s more geological than archaeological, and it should have been covered in last year’s non-existent post (what happened last year, admins??), so I won’t discuss that further.

Let’s see… what was I doing this year?

Ah, yes. Friday. It was the last day of an eight-day project using ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves in a cemetery. The day didn’t really involve any geophysical surveying as such – all that had been done over the preceding week. Instead, Friday was spent using one of my new toys – a Topcon Power Station robotic total station. I love it. It has reflectorless mode so I don’t have to walk around the cemetery to map things. Set-up is a breeze with re-sections (I was previously using a 25-year old reflector-only total station that required two operators and couldn’t do re-sections).

Can you tell from my passion for a robotic total station that I don’t have a romantic partner?

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like a Topcon salesman, so I shall move on.

Basically, what I did that day was map the headstones that were present in the cemetery. That took me from 7am until about 1pm.

It’s one thing to have a geophysical survey performed, but you really need to have a map of the surrounding “stuff” so you know exactly where the geophysical survey was performed (and, hence, where all the unmarked graves are located). If you don’t do this, you’re just wasting time (and the client’s money).

Once I collected all the points needed to create the site map, I packed up, headed to my motel room and entered all the data into GIS (I use Global Mapper. It’s far easier and better than anything else. Yes, including ArcGIS. Deal with it. 😛 ). Then I spent the afternoon colour-coding the different points and lines and shapes and what-have-you. Little trees to indicate trees. Dark grey areas to indicate marked graves. Light grey areas to indicate concrete slabs for the lawn section. A crossed orange line to indicate the cemetery boundary fence. You get the idea. Make the map look pretty. Then whack a north arrow, scale and legend on it and Robert is your mother’s brother. And then the clock hit 5pm and it was time to sleep. (This week involved working from 6.30am until about 7pm each day. So I was overjoyed to see the bed Friday night).

So that was the excitement for my Day of Archaeology.Until next time, live long and prosper.Dave The Grave HunterPS: Sorry for the lack of photos. Here are some on my Facebook business page.

RCAHMS – Historic Land-use Assessment

The Historic Land-use Assessment (HLA) is a joint project between RCAHMS and Historic Scotland. It is an analysis of the present landscape, recording the visible traces of past land-use across Scotland, and presenting it as a digital map. The Scottish landscape is not, and has never been, static and has been managed, exploited and altered by past human activity over a long period of time. Evidence of some of this activity can still be traced on the ground today, though it is not always obvious to the untrained eye. HLA, therefore, aims to draw out this evidence from the present landscape and to provide a glimpse of the depth of time concealed within our landscape and immediate surroundings.

Paper and digital maps form the basis of the interpretation process and we consult a wide variety of materials to determine how the landscape has changed over time. The types of sources that we use include Ordnance Survey mapping, both current and historic, aerial photography, information from RCAHMS collections available through Canmore and any relevant written documentation. This information is used to determine the predominant current land-use of each part of the landscape and if there is any visible evidence for past land-use. In order to present this data, every part of the country has an Historic Land-use Type (the current land-use), of which there is a choice of 60, and up to three Relict Land-use types, of which there are 70. Each type is characterised by its period of origin, as well as its form and function. This data is collated, digitised and edited, and then made available via the HLA mapping website. Here a digital map of the data generated by the project can be viewed. The website also contains a number of supporting documents should anyone want to find out more about the project.

 HLA Officers Chris Nelson and Kirsty Millican at work. Kirsty is currently working on editing maps from Dumfriesshire, while Chris is busy interpreting the Lanarkshire area specifically Abington and Crawford.



Currently around 71% of the country is available to view and another 5%, the Galloway area, has been made available specially for Day of Archaeology!  We work by council area: Lanarkshire and Dumfriesshire are ongoing at the moment, work will then move into the Scottish borders, Angus, Perthshire, Argyll, Invernesshire, Skye and finally finishing in Orkney.

Ultimately, the HLA project provides a valuable tool for interpreting and understanding the landscape. It helps us understand the historic dimension of the landscape, from traces of prehistoric settlement and agriculture to the more recent effects of intensive agriculture and industry. This historic landscape holds evidence of the distant past inaccessible to any other means of research and gives voice to aspects of life that do not usually figure in written history. This makes it invaluable as a resource for learning and education.

AM: Eating toast – planning the day.

I am Nicole Beale (nee Smith),  a PhD student at the University of Southampton, looking at the impact that the Web is having on professional practice in the cultural heritage sector.  As with every weekday, my morning has begun with some toast, a cup of tea, and my RSS feeds.  I have a meeting with my supervisor later today, so I’ll mostly be spending time with my own thoughts this morning, but there’s still time  to do a few little fun ‘archaeology’ themed jobs.

Firstly, after I have brushed my teeth I am planning to clean up a blog that I set up for a great project that is run by two insanely motivated archaeologists, between Southampton University and Zupanja Museum in Croatia.  The blog is quite dusty and needs a spring-clean before the next load of students begin to populate it with this year’s fieldwork data (they survey/dig through August).  The blog aims to give updates about the fieldwork season as it goes on, but invariably has been updated at the end of a season with a few personal thoughts and then a season summary.  I’m going to try to encourage more ‘raw’ content this season, but don’t know if those digging and surveying will be able to find time to contribute content.

In an attempt to lessen the frustrations of visiting a blog that doesn’t have regular content updates, I have tried to fashion it more like a static website.  Not sure if that does actually make the lack of new content less frustrating for the subscribers, but it certainly does lessen my guilt for not spending much time cleaning it up as I should have last year (or the year before).  Time is the biggest barrier I think to the success of communication avenues like the blogs we set up every year.  Along with persuading team members that content can be brief and still worthy of inclusion.

Next up; the semantic web and art gallery data sets…