Digging Into the Past Across the Country – Part 2: British Columbia

Pic: British Columbia stratigraphy in the left insert

Carrying on from what I started a few days ago, I’m offering a look into archaeology across the country through my own experiences.  I started with Alberta, which was full of hard clay, black squiggly lines, and bison bones.  Now I’m going to carry on, alphabetically, into British Columbia where the geography is different and the cultures are different, leading to vastly different archaeology.  Which is some of the coolest archaeology out there.  But I’m definitely biased on that, I love Northwest Coast archaeology and it gives me a chance to stay in the Motherland.  So of course I think it’s super cool stuff.

Unbiasedly (yes, I made up that word), British Columbia is a unique spot to do archaeology because we have such unique archaeology!  The province is split into three area for permit-holding purposes: Northwest Coast, Interior Plateau, and Subarctic/Boreal forest.  This is because the archaeology in these three areas requires different types of expertise.  My experience has been purely Northwest Coast, so I’m going to introduce you here to a bit of Northwest Coast archaeology.  Northwest Coast cultures were known as being “complex hunter-gatherers” due to their large-scale food storage, permanent winter villages, and pronounced social inequalities.  The Coast Salish cultures of the Gulf of Georgia region exemplified this and are generally considered the prime example of what a complex hunter-gatherer society looks like.  They reached their height of complexity during the Marpole phase, which began 2400 years ago and lasted until about 1400/1100 years ago.  During this time we see an intense system of chiefs/elites, commoners/free persons, and slaves.  Intentional cranial modification is used as a way to distinguish elites, villages and houses become bigger, art begins to be carved into wood and stone (styles of which are used in modern art), and marine resource surplus harvesting paves the way to huge food storage systems.  Food = wealth, so the more food you had the wealthier and more prestigious you were.  Houses were an extension of wealth, with several families and free persons living in one house to serve the house’s owner, or chief.  Chiefs would redistribute their wealth through potlatches as a way to demonstrate their prestige and attract new members to their households, which would in turn serve to raise their prestige.

Now that I’ve given you that story about the Northwest Coast (which I think also goes to show how interested I am in the NWC), here’s a little example for you of what working on the Northwest Coast actually looks like.  Lots of mountain hiking wearing spikey-bottomed boots which do nothing but get tangled in vines and make you fall down a lot.  But the reward is some pretty amazing sights!

Pic: Archaeology on the south coast of BC offers some pretty spectacular views, 50% of which involve ocean and the other 50% involving forests

Pic: Our two main methods of transportation to surveys – helicopters and boats

Pic: We spend our fair share of time in the lush rainforests of BC.  The con: it’s hard to stay on your feet when your spikey boots (we wear logging boots to deal with the inclines and fallen trees we climb up and over) get stuck on EVERYTHING.  The pro: you get pretty good at reading maps.

Pic: Archaeology can take many different shapes and forms; Top: close up of a culturally modified tree; Bottom: (L-R): a site hidden under the forest floor; a canoe skid on the beach; some typical Marpole artifacts (bone point and a ground slate knife)

Pic: Some examples of that famous shell midden, which everyone has come to associate with Northwest Coast archaeology.  

Pic: Yours truly, on a few different projects

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Pic: In the forest there’s always a comfy spot to take a nap while waiting for the boat to pick you up after a survey

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