We never know what we are going to find when out walking in the woods. This summer we came across this neat modern cabin with a roof that doubles as a tree stand. The cabin overlooks a pretty stream and has nice fire pit with split log benches around it to boot.
Working in the field of archaeology requires more than a good eye to spot artifacts and a willingness to work away from home. Archaeologists are required to be a “Jane of all trades” meaning we have to be able to keep a cool head when things don’t go our way and problem solve our ways out of it. Whether this means fixing a tire on the side of the highway, MacGyvering an ATV repair or getting our ATVs out of sticky situations.
The most common career in archaeology is that of a consulting archaeologist. Consulting archaeologists work in the field of Historic Resource Management or Cultural Resource Management (CRM). People in this line of work generally work on Historic Resource Impact Assessments of planned developments before construction is started. The responsibility of consulting archaeologists is to identify historic resources and make recommendations as to how to manage those resources when they might be impacted by proposed developments. Most work conducted by consulting archaeologists is archaeological survey, rather than excavation. This work is typically done between the months of May and November and the winter months are spent writing reports. In some jurisdictions (northeastern British Columbia for example) field work can continue year-round with adaptations made to conduct work during the winter months. Supervisors and project managers typically have a Masters degree level of education. There are often seasonal positions for archaeologists with a Bachelor’s degree.
Some archaeologists work in universities as professors who teach classes during the school year. Over the summer and throughout the year they publish articles about their research. This may involve conducting detailed excavations of known archaeological / historic resource sites to learn about the lives of people in the past and to answer research questions. Some academic archaeologists focus on artifact reproduction and other experimental techniques to learn about past lifeways, while others use scientific methods such as isotopic analysis or ancient DNA to learn about specific topics, for example past human migration and diet. Academic archaeologists tend to do less field work, and often because they are restricted in time owing to teaching responsibilities they revisit the same site to excavate for short periods year after year (for example L’Anse aux Meadows was excavated over the course of eight summers). The focus of academic archaeology tends to be more theoretical and analytical work. Archaeologists working in universities generally have a PhD level of education and post-doctorate experience.
Jobs in museums are less common for archaeologists but do exist. These archaeologists work as curators creating exhibits at the museum for the general public, lead tours of the museum and special collections and conduct research and publish journal articles of their findings. Research projects done by museums tend to be smaller in scale than those done by universities as funding is less available (university research is often funded by grants that are only available to students or academics) and free student labour is harder to come by. Conservators are specialized archaeologists who work to preserve artifacts and maintain optimal storage conditions for those artifacts (appropriate humidity and temperature are examples). Most artifact conservation positions are at museums. Conservators often do a more in depth analysis of artifacts after they are received at the museum than the researcher may do as they need to know the exact chemical make up of the artifact in order to best preserve it. An archaeologist may only need to state in their research that an artifact is metal, but a conservationist needs to know exactly what kind of metal that is to best protect it. Conservators often have a background in archaeology but attain specialized graduate degrees in conservation or museum studies specifically related to conservation of artifacts. These positions are usually held by persons with a Masters degree or PhD.
The provincial government employs archaeologists to oversee the work of the archaeologists within the province. Archaeologists working for the government review permit applications, grant archaeological research permits and they review the work of the consulting and academic archaeologists by means of a review of the reports submitted upon the completion of a project. The folks at the government provide guidance to field archaeologists and manage the Archaeological Site Inventory, where all the site information is submitted and compiled into a searchable database. The federal government also employs a handful of archaeologists to do research projects. These research projects are usually done though Parks Canada or the Canadian Museum of History. A recent example is the underwater archaeological investigation to find the missing ships from the Franklin expedition. These positions are usually held by persons with a Masters degree or PhD.
In the summer of 2013, Vince and I were walking through a harvested cutblock south of Slave Lake and we noticed something big and white on a high hill along the tree line. At first we thought it was some sort of tarp but as we got closer we realized it was the broken tail portion of an airplane. We were both pretty excited to find the wreckage because a plane crash is something we don’t find everyday.
We documented the site with photographs and mapped it as we would a normal historic site. We found pieces of the wreckage scattered over 100 m along the hill. The site seems to be a local hangout as evident by the bullet holes in the tail and several beer cans scattered around the wreckage.
Thankfully the registration number, C-GWYD, was still visible on the tail portion and were able to learn more about the crash. On December 29, 1975 a Beechcraft 99 en route to Peace River from Edmonton crashed into a high hill overlooking Slave Lake to the north. The plane came to a rest upside down and sadly both pilots, Captain Bill Groesnick and Co-pilot Banshi Ghelani, were killed upon impact. However, all seven passengers survived with minor injuries.
When discussing historic resources we often attribute it’s value to the age of the site. The Slave Lake plane crash site, while only 40 years old, demonstrates that something can have historic value because of it’s significance to a local community or a historic event.
It’s not all sand, toothbrushes, and dust pans for consulting archaeologists. More often than not we find ourselves digging on aluvial fans. In other words, gravel bars created by glaciers, or even old beach shores. That doesn’t mean gravel is sterile. How many flakes can you find in this screen?
Scroll down to find out if you found them all!
The leaves are quickly changing their colours into their beautiful fall reds, yellows, and even browns. This usually marks our annual crunch as we try to complete all our fieldwork before the snow falls! Here Alex is testing out a site we found for Alberta Plywood in the Marten Hills, near Slave Lake, AB.
Where we find archaeological sites in the province is often strongly tied to the physical environment. We look for the different physical characteristics such as distance to water and if an area is high and dry. These features are indicators, which tell us that there could be an archaeological site in the area. This approach to finding archaeological sites is useful, but there are problems when we start considering how the landscape might change over time. The top of a hill set really far from a stream today, might have been beach front property in the past.
This is important in regards to our work on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta. The Lesser Slave Lake basin has undergone extensive changes over the past 13,000 years, largely due to the retreating front of the glacial ice sheets at the end of the last ice age, and the incision and creation of the modern river valleys. Understanding how this environment changed over time is useful for identifying new archaeological sites in the region, as it helps us to understand how First Nations used the landscape in the past. Older archaeological sites may be on ancient beaches and meltwater channels that don’t look like they would be suitable for a campsite today, but were actually prime real estate 10, 000 years ago. These sites could be missed during an archaeological review and survey based on the modern landscape, so it is important that we understand how an area has changed, so that we can better predict where archaeological sites are going to be.