I work for a small consulting firm which conducts cultural resource field surveys of proposed oil and gas developments in the fields, forests, mountains and boreal muskeg of northeastern British Columbia. Each working day, we load up our big 4×4 trucks with ATV’s or skidoos and head out to play with the moose and bears in Canada’s great backyard. We are assigned specific project areas to inspect, such as pipelines and oil or gas leases, which take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to fully investigate. We are generally looking for areas which might have been favourable camping locations, such as creek banks or elevated terrain features with a bit of a view. Once we find one of these areas within our projects, we check surface exposure – if any – for cultural material (generally lithics in this neck of the woods – pre-contact ceramic technology didn’t catch on this far north and the acidic soils quickly deteriorate unburnt bone and wood) and then we conduct a little subsurface inspection through shovel testing. If we are able to find any flakes or tools, we then try to establish the boundaries of the cultural area through more shovel testing and then return with this information to our clients, oil and gas exploration firms. In the vast majority of cases, they will choose to alter their development to avoid the terrain feature upon which the site rests; if not, we will be asked to conduct an excavation to fully investigate the site area and record all associated features and remove all the cultural material. Today, July 29, 2011, was in the middle of just such an excavation for us.
Earlier this week our team of four drove two hours further north along the Alaska Highway and signed ourselves in to the remote camp north of the Sikanni Chief River which would be our base for the next two weeks. Then we drove another hour along a very rough dirt road to where we unloaded our ATV’s and then ‘quadded’ (as we say) a further 11 kilometres into the forest along steep and very challenging seismic line trails that are used by everyone up here as accesses into the bush. We arrived at the site, established a 10 m by 15 m grid (had to cut down a few spruce trees for this) over the cluster of shovel tests that contained cultural material, took some photos, drew up a plan and began to dig.
So far this week, we’ve excavated about half of the site area and found several suspected hearth-features, about 150 flakes and half a dozen stone tools. Projectile points are the real glory finds for any pre-contact excavation but everyone – myself included – loves to hold the scrapers. It’s always a thrill to find anything that has been hidden for so long and not only are they lovely to look at but they fit so comfortably in the hand, as the tool-maker has often thoughtfully included some kind of groove for the thumb – unlike arrows and spearheads, these are objects that were meant to be held, and they convey a quiet, homely domestic atmosphere to the site.
We will continue the dig for another week or so, until we are satisfied that we have removed all the cultural material from in front of the bulldozers which will be coming in after us, and then we’ll de-camp back to our home base to finish up our reports and any cataloging. The artifacts will eventually wind up in the local museum system and we will head back out into the wild to check new locations.