Sometimes you just can’t win!

Digging in the forest we are always encountering tree roots. It’s a great test when you miss them all. Most days your shovel is sharp enough that you hardly notice the roots as the shovel blade slices through them. Sometimes you have layers of roots, which work as a group to form a wall. You can “smash” through them with a bit of effort, one root at a time. And then there are days like pictured here! Your shovel just won’t go through or you don’t have the energy to “smash” through them, so you have to break out the big guns! I like to carry a folding saw with me in my vest, so roots like these won’t get the better of me! Unfortunately these ones did. So I just dug around them.

Introduction to CRM Part 4: Evaluating a Site

Figure 1. Positive shovel test that contained lithic debitage.

When we identify a site, we conduct further evaluative testing to determine the type, character, and extent of the site. This is done according to government guidelines, and depends on the type of site, and the type of landform. If the landform allows for it, testing occurs in each cardinal direction or in a grid. Some sites are found on ridges or point terraces, and so in these cases, it is not possible to test in all directions (Figure 1).

Tree Time’s standards are that there must be three negative tests spaced at most 10 m apart in each direction from any positive. Sometimes additional tests are required in order to determine the significance, the size, and type of the site. For example if none of the evaluative tests were positive, further testing might be done at closer intervals to better determine the significance of the site. In addition to rigorous note taking, we also map and photograph the site (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Vince taking notes at a site.

The evaluation of the site is an important step for two main reasons. The first is to enable the government to maintain an accurate site database and to better inform future researchers of the size and type of sites are in the area (Figure 3).

Figure 3. We are evaluating an historic site by flagging artifacts with red flagging tape.

Secondly, in this stage we determine the extent and significance of the site. If a client decides to avoid the site, delineation allows us to more precisely buffer the site. This is important because it allows the development to occur as close to the original plan as possible while still avoiding impacts to the site. In addition, if a client chooses to mitigate their impacts to the site through excavation, a more detailed evaluation of a site allows us to better predict the productivity of the site, and to render cost estimates of any mitigation work more accurately.

Figure 4. Buffer flagged around the site with orange flagging tape.

Once we have surveyed our targets, evaluated any sites we have found, and have finished our notes, it is time to return to the office (Figures 5 and 6).

Figure 5. Reid is finishing his notes before we move onto another target.
Figure 6. After a long cold day, Brittany heads back to the office.

Introduction to CRM Part 3: Archaeological Survey

Using information compiled in the office, the next step of an HRIA is to leave the comforts of home behind and to venture into the field. Although there is a perception of archaeologists working at large excavations, often dressed in khakis and maybe wearing a fedora, archaeological survey is the most common type of field work in the CRM sector. So for now, we will focus on archaeological survey and discuss archaeological mitigation in an upcoming blog.

The purpose of an archaeological survey is to visit the high potential target areas we identified in our background research and GIS review in order to see if there are any historic or archaeological sites. We travel to these high potential locations using various means of transport including trucks, ATVs, Argos, the occasional helicopter for the most remote locations, and a lot of hiking (Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Teresa and Vince in an Argo travelling to target areas.
Figure 2. Archaeology happens in all weather as Teresa and Brittany hike in snow to our target areas.

When we arrive at these locations, we use experience and expertise to determine if the landform has potential for archaeological and historic sites. For example, is this spot flat and dry? Would we like to camp or hunt from here? High, dry areas, and spots that have nice views are often tested. In fact sometimes we identify a site in the exact spot where we dropped our gear for lunch, as we naturally tend to stop on the best part of the landform (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Our gear placed at a positive shovel test, flagged with red flagging tape.


The most common method of subsurface sampling that we use is screened shovel tests (Figure 4). This means we dig holes about 40 cm square and 30 to 40 cm deep and screen all of the sediment in portable screens. If there are any tree throws or surface exposures, we also conduct opportunistic examinations of these for artifacts (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Matt is shovel testing.
Figure 5. Picture of a tree throw that allows for opportunistic sampling.

There are several different sampling strategies that we use, these include systematic, semi-systematic, and judgmental testing. Systematic testing is the term we use when we place tests using a set interval, for example digging a test every 10 m along a landform. For judgmental testing we do not use a set interval instead we place shovel tests on the best part of a landform based on our past experience and conceptual models of how people lived on different types of landforms. Finally, semi-systematic testing is a combination of the previous two. For this method we place tests on the best locations of a land-form while trying to maintain a certain overall density of testing.

The shape of the landform helps determine what type of sampling strategy to use to test a target. A long uniform ridge might be better suited for hybrid or systematic testing, while a hillock might be more often tested in a judgmental manner (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Brittany testing a target using a semi-systematic strategy.

If the tests are negative, then we write our notes and move on to another location to survey. However, this does not mean that we can definitely say there is not a site at the location. Negative results only reduce the chance there’s a site at a location. To be 100% sure, we’d have to do a lot more excavation (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Although a nice area near water, we did not identify a site here.

On the other hand when we do identify a site, then we stay at the location to undertake further evaluative testing (Figure 8).

Figure 8. Vince is very happy after identifying a site when he found a point in a shovel test.

Atlatl Point

This little quartzite projectile point comes from a small site near Wabasca-Desmarais, Alberta. We found it on a small hill that was next to a lake, along with several chert and quartzite flakes. This point likely was fitted to an atlatl dart, a type of feathered throwing spear that uses a hooked throwing stick to help propel the projectile.

It is difficult to tell how old this particular projectile point is. It has a straight base and broad side-notches, which is similar to the Besant Phase (2500 to 1000 years ago on the northern plains), but it is also similar to some of the early side-notched points from the Middle Precontact (8000 to 5000 years ago). Looking further to the north, this stone point also has some similarities to the kind of projectile points found in the Taltheilei tradition in the Northwest Territories. Unfortunately, we do not have a clear understanding of projectile point typologies in the boreal forest of northern Alberta, as this region is lacking deeply stratified archaeological sites with material that we can radiocarbon date.

Introduction to CRM Part 1: Cultural Resource Management

Cultural Resource Management (CRM) is undertaken in many different countries all over the world and it can go by just as many names, Contract Archaeology, Consulting Archaeology, Compliance Archaeology, and Heritage Resource Management (HRM) to name a few. Whatever CRM is called, the underlying purpose is always the same. These archaeologists engage in the protection, preservation, and professional management of archaeological and historic sites. In Canada, this means that we help minimize any impacts planned developments might have on a province’s archaeological and historic resources. These resources include archaeological sites containing artifacts such as stone tools and animal bones (Figure 1), and historic sites consisting of structures like cabins or artifacts like metal tools (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A stone knife that was recovered from a pre-contact (prehistoric) site.
Figure 2. A cabin that we discovered during an archaeological survey.

Using our experience in archaeology and research, along with computer programs like GIS, we review development plans and identify recorded sites and areas that have high potential to have archaeological and historical resources (Figure 3). This most commonly results in an archaeological survey of the high potential areas. Another option is to move a development or minimize the potential impacts by changing the way the development will be done.

Figure 3. Corey is identifying high potential areas using GIS.

Next, we go into the field to survey the high potential areas (Figure 4). In forested parts of Alberta we do this by shovel testing. If we identify a site, we dig more evaluative tests to determine the nature and extent of it. This allows us to contribute information for the government and other researchers concerning the size and type of sites in the area. In addition, it allows us to more precisely buffer the site for our clients so development can occur close to the site without impacting it. It also makes it possible for us to better evaluate the significance of the site and to render cost estimates for any mitigation work much more accurately.

Figure 4. Teresa is taking notes about a site.


Once we complete the field survey, we return to the office. This is where we catalogue the artifacts and compile a report for our clients and the government.

Wet Screening

Archaeology is messy work, but sometimes things get really wet and muddy! Elenore and Teresa are practicing here what is called “wet screening.” Wet screening is similar to dry screening as you try to get all the sediment through a mesh screen, but water is used to wash away any particularly thick lumps of sediment. Once all the dirt has been washed through the screen, any rocks or artifacts will be left behind to find. This is a particularly effective way of dealing with heavy clay or bulk soil samples, but requires a lot of water and a place that you don’t mind getting messy!

Careers in Archaeology


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.

Tim Allan digging a shovel test in 2015


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.

Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt volunteering on an Alberta government research project in 2012.