Winter Archaeology…it’s a thing

It certainly wasn’t what I would have expected after watching Indiana Jones as a kid, poring over my grandparents’ National Geographics, or even after numerous archaeology classes of various types during my university years. In the North of British Columbia, Canada, CRM archaeology is driven by the requirement of oil and gas companies to have archaeological assessments done prior to all developments. They are conducted by privately owned companies complying with government regulations, and this  happens year round.

Winter archaeology. Yes, it is a thing.

I wish you could all sit down for a few friendly drinks with those of us who have done it, and listen to the experiences we have had. The good the bad, the bizarre, the dangerous and the hilarious. Although I ended up leaving archaeology, largely due to the effects of a vehicle accident at work, the experiences I had there will last a lifetime. Those of winter archaeology are particularly special, and ones that I want to share with you on this Day of Archaeology.

It is beautiful and it is cold. You know those displays in newer vehicles that show the temperature? I can tell you from experience that their accuracy is limited below -30C, and they pretty much stop working around -35 C. Ours only showed the temperature occasionally in the winters.

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On an average day, we might arrive on site around 10:30am, after several hours of driving, some of which is on those ice roads and bridges that you see on TV sometimes. At that time it is barely becoming light, and it is a blue light. It is strange and amazing, and makes the whole world glow a bit like there is a blue filter on your eyes. On the deck in the back of the company’s Ford F-350 pickup truck, there are two snowmobiles. The complete silence is shattered entirely by the roar of them being started and warmed up before being backed off. The sound is a bit obscene, but also adrenaline-inducing ….. its some kind of Pavlovian “Let’s Do This” vibe. The trucks may be left running for the day, or they may not restart because the diesel could freeze.

Gear gets loaded into sleds that are dragged behind the snowmobiles. Shovels, cement saw, fuel, pickaxes, garbage bags, and personal packs. Some days multiple crews and multiple trucks make up a small convoy, other days the crew is only two of us. Generally there is a field director and/or permit holder, who are university graduated archaeologists with a lot of experience to get their status. Other crew can be university graduates learning and getting experience, others may be assistants. Sometimes we would have First Nations participants with us, from the bands whose traditional lands we were working in.  Although the Field director or permit holder is ultimately responsible, everyone is valuable in helping find potential areas, pitching in with substantial physical effort, and keeping each other safe.

Almost 10amAssessing projects means going out before anything gets built: on foot, snowshoe, snowmobile, (sometimes helicopter, though that is usually reserved for after the spring thaw, when the ground can be seen). We traverse the area, waddling and wandering in our dozen layers and -80 boots, many times over, making sure we don’t miss potential areas by misjudging the depth of snow. The area might be treed by dense spruce, spaced out poplars, a barren windy farm field, sparsely treed swamps, or even traversing frozen rivers and small lakes. Meanwhile, when I’m leading the crew I stop often to look at the GPS and maps, taking project pics before sticking anything battery-driven back into the warm depths of my jacket so the batteries don’t discharge.

Then we find an area of potential, and get ready to test. I decide on the number of tests for the area, and the snow on the ground is shovelled away so there is room to stand next to where the pit will be. Now the cement saws come out and are run over the ground so that there is a square divided in 4.  

Anybody wincing about harming artifacts yet?

Oh….just wait….

Another member of the crew comes around with the pick axe, or the shovel to dislodge these cubes of dirt (kinda makes you clench up a bit, doesn’t it?).

Both sawing and picking is extremely physical and can make you start to sweat! Most staff are stripping off layers to prevent this. I’ll never forget when I first started doing this I was told:

“No Sweat!…….no….seriously, you sweat too much and it can kill you”


Sweating can be bad because its actual function is to cool a person, which can be deadly at low temperatures, frostbite and hypothermia are all a danger; clothes wet from sweat get cold even faster. I’ve been down to a tank top in -35 C, with steam coming off of me so I’m not walking around in sweat-wet clothes once I need their insulation again. This is surprisingly not bad when there is no wind….though the second I stop, the layers are back on fast! Also, the safety glasses stay on at all times while picking, that sharp-edged frozen dirt could take out an eye!

At some point while the dirt is being sawed and picked, a sketch map needs to be made. As the archaeologist, it is usually my job. Despite the less physical nature, it is a tough job, and one of my least favorite (The pickaxe is my fave!), standing comparatively still and taking big warm mitts off. That is COLD!

The map has all of the GPS info, photograph numbers and directions, location of tests in relation to surroundings and are given numbers. Corresponding numbered tags are dropped next to each of the tests along with heavy-duty garbage bags.


Yes, we put the dirt in the garbage bags…….or grain bags if there are enough available

The frozen dirt and the ID tag are put in the garbage bag, then carried, rolled, dragged, driven, or otherwise transported to the truck where they are loaded. Sometimes with a great deal of swearing…..this is not only physical, but can sometimes be awkward if there is a long distance, lots of tests and barriers like fallen trees!

We would never have regimented break times. Doing all of that physical work, you take a break when you need it or the opportunity presents. Sometimes we would build a fire at lunch to keep warm as we sprawl in the snow, sit on snowmobiles, or balance in the bowl of the shovel. If we think ahead, or are in camp and have a nice kitchen staff, there could even be hot dogs to cook.

Until the soil is thawed and screened, we have no idea if there are artefacts, though it is usually only a couple of days before that’s done. On rare, special, and somewhat entertaining occasions, a frog is discovered. I found out that frogs often survive freezing and thawing. The person doing the sorting often survives the surprise of unexpectedly encountering a jumping frog, though it generally involves a scream or at least a surprised squeal.  


The whole process can take a lot of time. My record with one assistant was 100 tests, and that landed me with an acute case of carpal tunnel from that pick-axing that I enjoyed so much. Even though I was there, I still find that number mind-boggling. 60-70 tests with 2-3 people is generally a good solid day of work in an easily accessible location. Most days, even in the winter can be 10-12 hours long, depending on how long it takes to get on-site. Much time is also spent in oil and gas camps to be closer to the areas we work in, which means shorter days, but it can be 10-14 days at a stretch.

It is a hard job, a dangerous one, and an amazing one. Even with the accident happening (watch out for black ice folks), I could not wish to give away a second of it. There are so many memories of my 5-ish years doing that job, and of those memories, some of the most amazing are from working in that environment in the winter. Amazing, different, and one that I am pretty sure is quite unique to that part of the world. Those that I worked with, and those that continue to work there are some incredible people doing an incredible job that so few are even aware exists.