Careers in Archaeology

Consulting

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.

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Tim Allan digging a shovel test in 2015

Universities

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.

Museums

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.

Government

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.

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Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt volunteering on an Alberta government research project in 2012.
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Photo of the Week

We get to do a lot of traveling around Alberta during the summer. Sometimes when time permits, we get to stop at local attractions. During a recent trip to Fort Vermilion we made a stop at St. Louis Catholic Church in what is locally referred to as ‘Buttertown’. This church was built in 1906-1909.

Check out the Fort Vermilion Heritage Center website for more information about the church and other attractions in the area

http://www.fortvermilionheritage.ca/buttertown.htm

Photo of the week

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.

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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.

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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.

Big John’s Spring

A couple of the traits that serve archaeologists best are curiousity and an ability to recognize when something doesn’t belong.

For example, look at this site Brittany found in 2014 on the North Saskatchewan River when we were undertaking assessments for Sundre Forest Products. It may not look like much at first glance, but it’s an interesting historic period site.

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Figure 1. The first hint of the site was a break in the berm.

Brittany was riding her ATV along the recreational trail that follows the route of the historic Canadian Northern Western Railway line that ran between Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House. She was looking for the best place to park and begin her hike when she noticed a break in the berm that follows some parts of the rail line. It was a strange and deliberate looking design and so she stopped to investigate. Visible from the trail and through the berm was a small pool of water. Closer inspection showed the pool to be square shaped, lined with cut boards, and overflowing; the water was flowing out of the pool and down the slope away from the railway line. It must be spring fed for the water to be flowing like that.

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Figure 2. Square pool of water near the railway line.

We both walked through the surrounding area, looking for anything else that might be related to the site. We found some cans, part of a shovel and some other metal items. These things are common along the railway line. We saw that there was barbed wire fencing strung across the pool, probably to keep cattle in as this area has a history of grazing. Could this pool be a watering hole for cattle? Since the barbed wire ran right over the middle of the pool we decided that it likely wasn’t made for that reason. Perhaps it was a watering stop for the nearby railway. It may be a bit small for refilling a train (although we couldn’t safely confirm how deep it is). I think it’s more likely this water was used for human consumption.

We later found this story about the nearby town of Saunders Creek in the book Ghost Town Stories of Alberta1:

During the hungry Depression years, when there was very little work at the mine, most residents survived on garden vegetables, wild meat and fish from the North Saskatchewan River. Near his cabin, Big John discovered a way for townsfolk to keep their food and water supplies fresh… One day in 1932 while out walking, Big John discovered water seeping from a side hill. He climbed up a bit and dug a hole. As water began flowing into it, he realized he’d found a spring. He built a little shed around it to create a cooler. People stored perishable food there, and whenever the mine’s washhouse water line froze up, Big John allowed folks to help themselves to water. Over the years, it became a regular sight to see residents walking along Big John’s path from the creek, loaded up with as many buckets of water as they could carry.

Could this be the remains of Big John’s spring / cooler? We later found the remains of a cabin just 130 m down the slope from this pool (see photo below) so it certainly sounds like the same set up described in the history book.

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Figure 3. Door frame of log cabin.

Unfortunately, the location just doesn’t quite match up. Big John apparently lived close to Saunders Creek whereas this site is more than 20 km down the railway from Saunders. It could be a coincidence or an example of how good ideas spread.

To hear more about what we’ve been finding along this stretch of railway, join us on May 21st at the Sundre Museum for an Archaeology Roadshow.

1 Bachusky, Johnnie 2011. Ghost Town Stories of Alberta: Abandoned Dreams in the Shadows of the Canadian Rockies.

 

Picture of the Week

Today’s picture comes from the Ahai Mneh site on the shores of Lake Wabamun, west of Edmonton, AB. This archaeological site has a long history of human occupation, from earliest hints of people in Alberta using Clovis technology, right up to the Late Precontact and Historic Periods. Featured here is a Late Precontact side-notched arrowhead, made of a fine-grained black siltstone, that likely dates between 1000 to 300 years ago.