I'm a UK based commercial arch trying my hand in Canadian CRM work.

A day of excavation in Alberta’s Parkland.


My Day of Archaeology 2015 is a continuation of the project I reported on for DOA 2014.  Last year we were surveying and shovel testing for a linear development. This year we are excavating the sites we found.  We are on day 5 of our third 21 day shift.  My site is separated from the main site which entails a march up the sand-dunes along our “goat-trail”. The round trip between the sites is 15 minutes, and a large part of my day will be spent ferrying tools between them.



The site looks lovely in the early morning light with mist in the river valley below, one of the few benefits of our 6am start.


Our site has the benefit of tents, which are leftovers from the two winters we have worked on these sites. They get a bit green-house hot in the sun, but are a godsend for rainy days and storing equipment in.  I’m a big fan of the shanty-town look of them.


We are working in sand-dunes, with 2.6m of archaeological deposits, so substantial timber shoring is a must. Unfortunately, this often means working in confined spaces or in precarious positions.




The first part of my day after opening up the site involves some shoring up and moving the tools required between the sites, here, a camera set, a reciprocating saw, and the photographic scales.  Five round trips for the day!


Later, I do a soil compaction survey using the tool pictured. This is to record any compaction of archaeological deposits following a period during the winter when the site was covered by rig-matting to allow machinery to travel over it.


Hearth feature

DSC_0024DOAI take a lot of the pictures for the excavation, such as the hearth feature.


Profile pictures


Artefact pictures

The  day is always brightened by a visit from the baby chipmunk family. There are four of them somewhere in this picture, but they move fast and I’m not a wildlife photographer!



After lunch, since I don’t currently have an excavation unit of my own, I help my colleague Alex by mapping & tagging lithic finds.  She is into our very rich Besant period lithic workshop deposit, and it is slow work. Our record for a 5cm level is approximately 450 lithics, which gives you an idea of the density.  I’m quite happy to be down here as the temperature has climbed during the day into the low 30’s C and it is marginally cooler down in the excavation area.  While I’m doing this we are visited by archaeologists from the Royal Alberta Museum; just one of many tours we have given this week.


Our day ends at 4pm with tent close-up and moving all the finds and records down the hill, a final debrief with the site bosses and other crew chief, and a short trip back to the hotel.  All in all, a fairly typical day and pretty representative of our work for the last year and a half.  I hope you enjoyed joining us!

A day of bushwhacking in Alberta’s Parkland with Duncan & Maria.

Duncan – We are currently on a long running project along a large river valley in Eastern Alberta, as part of preliminary work for a pipeline. We have been here since January, and some of the team has been here since October last year. Winter working is a rarity in Alberta as the average temperature is about minus 20 degrees Celsius, occasionally reaching minus 40 this past winter. The work was only possible in heated tents, once the ground had been thawed out. Over the winter we excavated parts of three sites, but now in the heat of summer we have left our tents and are conducting exploratory survey work along both sides of the river valley. Last year a bison pound and associated processing site were excavated, and so far this year, we have excavated a badger den filled with placed artefacts – representative of a powow ceremony, a possible sweatlodge or hunting shelter, parts of a possible sundance lodge, as well as summer and winter campsites. The sites were repeatedly used over what seems to be the last 8 or 9 thousand years. Radiocarbon and OSL dates are pending, but we are hopeful that they will confirm this interpretation. The scale of the archaeological remains has thankfully prompted a re-routing of the pipeline to avoid the main sites, and we are currently doing survey work along the proposed re-routes. This entails digging shovel test pits at regular intervals along the routes to determine whether archaeological deposits, indicative of archaeological sites, are present. After the testing it is hoped that the best route, ie. the one that will impact the fewest archaeological deposits, can be chosen.

Maria – We start our day at 6am as we need to get as much work  done in the cooler tempretures of the morning.  We arrive at the edge of the survey area and have to spray down our footwear and put on paper shoes as there is a risk of bringing in club root (something which affects crops) .

spraying stationWe hike to the area we are shovel testing as it is not accessible by road.

morning hikeIt is really hot all day so we need to bring a lot of water with us and also a few crucial things in our packs: antiseptic wipes, sunscreen, blister plasters, trowel (with orange flagging tape so it won’t get lost in the bush), bear spray, insect bite pen, personal first aid kit, bug spray, stone tool ident book and emergency blanket and knife.

things in my bagWe are shovel testing and need to mark the locations along lines that we survey in.  Shovel testing is a way of sampling the archaeological potential of an area.  It is a hole dug 40x40cm wide and 80cm deep (deeper if we hit palaeosols).  We dig either in 5 or 10cm levels or spits and screen/sieve all the spoil to recover artefacts.  On this project we are digging the shovel tests by archaeological context, since have backgrounds in UK archaeology and are used to recording changes in soil colour, texture and composition.

The survey area is an ecozone called parkland, there is a lot of thick bush mixed with open grasslands.  Putting in lines for the shovel testing in the bush is very challenging, it is very hard to pull tapes through the thick aspen poplar, wild roses, wolf willow  and saskatoon berry bushes.

trying to get through the bushIt is very hot and airless, and full of ants and mosquitos.  I wrap up the wrist ends of my sleeves to stop ants crawling on my arms and biting me.

ant protection     On this day we are concentrating on getting some lines laid out through some of the thick bush.

forest surveyWe have spent some time clearing rhe bush with hand tools such as loppers and hatchets, using the pipeline surveyors’ pink flagging to guide us.  The lines are laid out using an optical theodolite, rather than a handheld GPS, as we require a higher level of accuracy.  We also have to tie orange flagging on all our equipment to stop it getting lost in the greenery.

cleared bushWe drop nails with orange flagging every 5m, and also flag the tree above to make the location clear.  Lines laid in the Spring have already been lost in the undergrowth!

putting in nails

flagging tape

We take breaks for lunch and water, and also to remove thorns!.

breaktimeAt the end of the day we cache our tools under a tarp in the bush, and hike back to the truck; we will start the digging of the shovel tests we laid out tomorrow.

Duncan – Our day of archaeology was fairly typical of the kind of preparatory work necessary before the digging begins.  The lines that were laid out today can be related to previous archaeological work in the area.  Little by little we are building a picture of life in this rich river valley over many thousands of years.  Thanks for joining us in our Day of Archaeology.



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.


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.


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).



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.


More muddy obstacles, accompanied by fallen trees.


A brief stop to plan the route


Muddy obstacles.


Braedy taking a quad across the same bridge


Brett keeping good tightrope walking form on a tricky bridge crossing


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.


A Day of Archaeological Survey in Alberta’s Parkland


Excited with my find… no, really.

Last year’s Day Of Archaeology saw me on a rather disappointing, but entirely typical urban project in York.  This year sees me on the other side of the Atlantic embarking on an entirely new venture.  In fact, the Day of Archaeology coincides (almost) with my first ever day working in commercial archaeology in Alberta in western Canada, and I’m both excited and nervous.  My Friday was taken up with a rather uneventful first aid course so I have taken the liberty of documenting Monday, which was my first day, and was much more interesting.

My day begins at 8am when I’m picked up from a friend’s place in Edmonton by Marg, who runs Circle Consulting.  We travel out to Stony Plain, where we meet Stephanie, an environmental consultant, who is accompanying us on our archaeological survey.  A further half hour drive takes us to the first of the mile long segments along the route of a water pipe that is to be surveyed.

Tailgate talk (done on the bonnet, but nevermind)

The first job is to do various health & safety paperwork; a standard risk-assessment, but here called a tailgate talk… or something.  Then we tool up.  I have been in archaeology a while, but I lack a lot of the PPE that is necessary here,  (thanks Marg for the loan).  It includes the boots, gloves, eye-protection, and sturdy long-sleeved clothes that I’m used to, as well as a sturdy red vest/equipment harness,  2litres of water, insect repellent (not enough as it turns out), hat (protection from the sun and ticks), gaiters (swampy ground and ticks again), bear horn & bear spray (funnily enough for bears), that I’m definitely not used to, as well as a lightweight spade.


An easy start to the job.

We set off on the first of the survey transects.  This part of Canada was originally surveyed in mile by mile “sections”, each divided into 4 “quarter sections” measuring half a mile square, and encompassing 160 acres.  Most of our survey transects were a mile long, and therefore a two mile round trip back to the truck.  This sounds easy, but as I was to discover, the terrain was extremely variable, and often very difficult.




Shovel testing

In places along the route that have a higher potential for human occupation, such as near watercourses, on south-facing slopes etc. we dig occasional shovel test-pits, each circa 30cm by 30cm, and only as deep as the sterile natural geology, and examine the upcast for artefacts.  The positions are marked with a hand-held GPS, notes are taken about the deposit depths and make-up, and if no artefacts have turned up we move on. On the second transect I find a bifacial tool fragment, which was the only stone of any sort in all of the shovel test pits I dug.  I find it hard to guage how common or uncommon this sort of find is during survey work, but I get the impression that it is towards the uncommon end of the scale.


This is the shovel test pit, so it really seems like needle-in-haystack stuff.  If an artefact is found in a test-pit, the next step is to dig a pattern of further test pits around the find-spot to determine if it is part of a larger scatter of artefacts and if so, how far it extends.  Video here.

Sadly, we don’t find anything in these test-pits, which I assume means that the bifacial tool was discarded or lost, and is not part of a occupation site.  Video here.

After our second mile long transect, 4 miles hiked so far, we have a welcome lunch in the truck. Video here. And we plan our next phase of work. Video here.

The third transect turns out to be where a road was started, the ditches were dug and the ground built up, but no surface was laid.  This therefore, is disturbed ground where there is little to no chance of finding an occupation site. This bit was not going to be productive, however the wildlife more than made up for it. Video here.

This transect was a long one, so we moved a vehicle to the far end so that we needn’t hike it twice.  Here is a video of the different type of terrain.  On this one we quite often lost the marked route of the pipeline. Video here.

At the end of the day we try to find a historic house that the pipeline passes.  We weren’t successful on this occasion, but here is a pic from the next day when we did find it.  It was built in the 1920’s by a skilled stonemason who used local stone (glacial erratic boulders I think), and is entirely unlike the other historic buildings out here.  I like it, but it looks a bit modern to my UK biased eyes.






I’ve had a great day, but I have no idea if it is typical of the work I’m going to be doing over the next 4 or 5 months.  Six miles, 33 shovel test-pits, some strange finds, left, and (video here), lots of insect bites, but no tick or bear encounters thankfully, and I’m knackered but pleased.



That’s my day, thanks for joining me on it!







A day of commercial archaeology in York.


I arrive on site at West Offices in York after a 10 minute walk.  This is probably the closest site I have ever worked on to my home, and I am enjoying the short commute.  It is the exception rather than the rule.

We have just finished a 7 week excavation of a Roman bath-house and parts of the civilian settlement beneath one of the platforms on the site which is a former railway station.  A photoblog of the excavation is available here.

A lot of the finds, samples and tools from the excavation are still on site and need moving before the builders appropriate or throw them away.  Three of our four barrows  have already gone missing.  So the first job of the day is loading finds into the car.  Then we have to transfer some soil samples from rubble sacks into sample tubs.

Transferring samples.

When the car is as full as it can get, Tim heads off to the office and I descend to the cellar.


I go to the room in the cellar that is beneath the hotel that was attached to the railway station.  This is my journey. Quite often the builders block access in part of the building, but it is maze-like, so we can always find a way through.

The trench in the cellar.

We are working in the cellar to determine what if any archaeological remains survive beneath the cellar floors in the hotel.  The developer needs to reduce the ground level in one of these rooms, and if archaeological deposits survive they will be damaged.  In an adjacent room we found what seems to be an archaeological cut feature containing large blocks of stone.  We have started excavating in this room to see if there are surviving archaeological deposits here also.   I have made a short film explaining this, which has been broken into episodes for the purposes of this blog.

The first of these episodes is available here.

The second episode explaining the archaeology in the adjacent room is explained here.

Archaeology in the adjacent room.

I finish removing a mixed clay and sand deposit that is located beneath the concrete floor and concrete rubble make-up for the floor.   I also take the opportunity while Tim is away to make some of the films for this blog.  Some groundworkers have been on hand to remove the spoil that we are creating, but they get called away to do other jobs and the spoil heap gets alarmingly large and spills into the trench.  Once the deposit is removed I trowel it clean, which entails removing any loose material to produce a uniform flat surface.  This helps us identify any potential archaeological features through differences in colour and textural changes.

The film of this process is here.

I get a call from Tim that the work car has broken down, not as feared a result of the weight of the samples and finds, but an unrelated clutch problem thankfully!

A second film of my lonely and boring work is here.


Tim makes it back to site after his car-related adventures.  Just in time for tea-break!


Final cleaning up for photography.


Photographing the deposits below the floor.

This is what we reveal.  Disappointingly, there seem to be no archaeological features beneath the cellar floor.  The stripes of sand and silty clay are typical alluvial glacial deposits laid down when the glaciers melted.  This is typical of the geology beneath York.

 Geological natural?

A film of this is here.


I lay out a sondge along one edge of the trench.  This is a trench within the trench, where we will excavate a limited portion of the deposits that we have revealed.  Although they look like geological deposits, what we call ‘natural’, we have to excavate a portion to prove this hypothesis.  Some of the deposits contain charcoal which is usually, but not always ‘anthropogenic’ meaning caused by human activity.

A film of us excavating the sondage is here.


Lunch!  The sondage is almost finished and it still all looks geological.  It looks like we will wrap this up early, which is nice, but very disappointing as we had high hopes for surviving Roman archaeology in the trench.  Worse still, I’m going to be out of a job for the rest of the week.

I eat my lunch at the nearby war memorial.  While a canteen hut and facilities are provided by the main contractors it has become over-full of builders.  Even though the archaeologists look almost identical to everyone else on the site we are regarded with suspicion by the builders, so most of us have breaks off-site.  Luckily, the weather is nice enough for al-fresco dining.


Back in the cellar we finish the sondage and I clean it.

A film of the revealed deposits is here.

Section through the geological deposits.

We are both certain now that it is glacial geology and not archaeological.  Tim goes to notify the clients of this.  They will be pleased I imagine.

All that remains for us to do is photograph and record the revealed deposits.  Even though Tim and I are certain that there are no archaeological deposits within the trench, we need to prove this.  We need to demonstrate this to both the local authority archaeologist who monitors our work, but also to any future archaeologists.  While this particular piece of work isn’t that interesting, it does however add a very small piece to the archaeological picture for York.  The record we make of this is photographs, descriptive context sheets for each deposit, a scale plan drawing, and a scale section drawing.

A film of me drawing the section is here.

Once the recording is completed we take the opportunity to examine a lovely old safe that is still in the cellar.  This was presumably for hotel guest’s valuables.  I joke to Tim that it would be funny if the key that I found yesterday below the concrete floor fit the safe.  eventually we can’t resist giving it a go.  It doesn’t fit.  While we are testing it though I find a key on the top of the safe!

I’ve found the key to the safe!

Amazingly it fits! However, some muppet has ruined the lock by trying to break into it.  The treasures within will have to remain undisturbed.  This interlude was actually the most interesting part of our day, but it is fairly typical of the things archaeologist will find to entertain themselves on an otherwise dull site.


Well, that’s it.  All finished.  We start moving our tools and equipment up to the tool chest.

A film of my last trip is here.


An early finish to what has been a relatively typical day in commercial archaeology.  As often as not we get negative results, in that we haven’t found archaeological deposits.  After the last seven weeks of excavating amazing Roman archaeology on the same site (pictures here), this seems about right.










A day of commercial archaeology in York.


I arrive on site at West Offices in York after a 10 minute walk.  This is probably the closest site I have ever worked on to my home, and I am enjoying the commute.

We have just finished a 7 week excavation of a Roman bath-house and parts of the civilian settlement beneath one of the platforms on the site which is a former railway station.  A photoblog of the excavation is available here.

A lot of the finds, samples and tools from the excavation are still on site and need moving before the builders appropriate or throw them away.  Three of the four barrows we had have already gone missing.  So the first job of the day is loading finds into the car.  Then we have to transfer some soil samples from rubble sacks into sample tubs.

When the car is as full as it can get, Tim heads off to the office and I decend to the cellar.


A day of commercial archaeology in York.

Hello,  My name is Duncan and I am a commercial archaeologist currently working in York, in the UK.  I am a freelance archaeologist, which means that when the project I was on ended early (it does sometimes happen) I was out of work for today, the Day Of Archaeology.

I have prepared some short films and some entries from my last day on site, which was Tuesday the 26th of July.