Sunday, March 6, 2011

BC Archaeology Forum Roundup

It was fun to attend the BC Archaeology Forum on the weekend. First and foremost, the Musqueam First Nation were gracious hosts who provided a warm and thoughtful welcome, and plentiful, delicious meals. Together with the organizing committee from the UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology, the event was an incredible bargain for 30 bucks, including dinner. I took in most of the talks. The short review is that it was an extremely successful forum, well attended, with interesting papers spanning the province and important issues raised. The long review has become really long, so you’ll have to continue reading on page 2.

Probably the most important paper was the presentation and discussion on the “Curatorial Crisis” in B.C. Archaeology, which raises an important issue not everyone is aware of. Field archaeology generates large amounts of material: boxes of artifacts, to be sure, but also soil samples, fauna, field notes, photographs, and the like. The volume of stuff can be overwhelming, especially as it accumulates relentlessly, year in and year out. Furthermore, much of the contextual information is now in digital form- and while that is more compact, it also suffers from digital rot – no one really knows how long a CD-ROM will last, or whether a .jpg or .cdr file will be readable 25 years. Yet archaeological data are forever, and digital data will need to be refreshed and even updated many times in the future.

It used to be the Royal BC Museum was the de facto repository for the whole province, but they are turning material away now, leaving these invaluable materials and data scattered across the province in differing levels of security and archival professionalism. Since by its very nature, archaeology is destructive, in essence we turn a dirt record into a paper one – and then may not be nearly as mindful of the paper record as of the sites themselves. For whatever reason, the RBCM’s archaeology capacity has shrunk from something like six or seven people to only two, and their warehouse is said to be full. I have no idea if they have a digital repository or not. Correspondingly, they are reluctant to continue being the repository of first resort. Maybe if they were to be planning to hire more people as well as more space….

I heard a dismissive snort from a consulting archaeologist at the very notion that the true, long-term cost of curation be built into the coast of projects so that the developers, for instance, will pay the bill.This was a little grump-inducing, since archaeologists have a professional responsibility to the archaeological record that transcends their responsibilities to their clients. Unfortunately, the way consulting archaeology is set up in this province, then the combination of low bids and no professional college means there may be a race to the bottom – and what better way to cut costs than on some hypothetical cost of data transfer decades in the future?

Kathryn Bernick made two typically incisive points: (a) the standard of “paper records” associated with most artifact collection as deposited in storage is often abysmal; and (b) some sort of percentage of all project budgets should be allocated to cover all costs, so that any given project would not go hideously un-curated would be a good way to go. And Gay Frederick asked the excellent rhetorical question when the idea of reducing volume by sampling archived faunal assemblages was suggested: “would you allow samples to be taken of artifact assemblages, and have the rest discarded?” Yes, curation is meant to be factored into budgets already, but the unpredictability of what one finds, and the fact that archival bills come in last and so the money might all be gone, means that this is a big problem that needs to be fixed for the future.

This is all fine for moving forward. But, resolution of this matter is going to be very costly, and who knows where the money to take care of the backlog will come from. So, all credit to Susan Rowley of the LOA and the others who spoke so clearly to this issue. I probably wasn’t the only one thinking of the weak cardboard boxes and crumbling paper bags in the basement of my building. And what would happen to the archaeological collections of a company which went bankrupt, for example? If you ask me, we need a provincially funded, default single repository for all archaeological materials, except those affirmatively wanted, and demonstrably budgeted-for elsewhere. I suggest a lot of money go to the RBCM to hire people and make space for them to resume their traditional role, which they have understandably had to give up. The alternative is to see a second destruction of the archaeological record: this one taking the form of rotting bags, fading notes, and obsolete computer disks.

Another presentation, striking in its simplicity was given by John Welch of SFU. This announced a program to document violations of the Heritage Conservation Act since 1994. What they are looking for are instances where there is public knowledge of apparent violations of the provisions of the Act, such that a database can be built and from there, patterns sought. This is not limited to violations where the Archaeology Branch has become involved, but also cases which private citizens, including archaeologists, are aware of. I am sure the database creation team is in touch with the Archaeology Branch, of course, but their scope probably goes beyond just what the AB may know about. I like to think of this as comparable to not only cataloguing plane crashes, but near-misses as well. Even if not every incident is of the highest order, then an independent process to measure the problem, and all outcomes, is very welcome.

I mentioned some time ago in regards to collecting and looting, that so far as I knew, there are no data on whether this is a major problem or not in this province. How can we conserve the archaeological record if we don’t keep tabs on instances where it is wilfully destroyed? I’m looking forward to seeing the scope of the problem and the range of remedies which have been applied. I think it is ok to say, if you know of any violations from the past 15 years, especially little known ones, then maybe get in touch with John Welch and see if they fit his criteria.

Speaking of violations of the Heritage Conservation Act, it was rather startling to hear one archaeologist describing their efforts to clean up after a recent, egregious, documented violation as “fun”. In that case – no names needed – the presenter gave no context whatsoever for the case. How did this huge hole in the ground come to be, what legal remedies were sought, what has become of the huge pile of back dirt, etc.: these were the questions on my mind. Instead, we saw some decontextualized pictures of pretty artifacts, which felt a bit ghoulish.

Other than the above, some of the other presentations included, briefly:

* Farid Rahemtulla’s presentation on new research by UNBC in the Babine Lake area was quite exciting – a major “new” village site was found in an area of which we know little.
* Dave Schaepe’s introduction to the new ca. 10 million dollar building housing the Stó:lō Research and Resource Management Centre was quite inspiring: I look forward to a day when there are dozens of comparably sophisticated research centres across the province. As I noted above, as a general rule it’s the people and not just the buildings, and Schaepe is doing extremely interesting research as well as management of cultural heritage.
* Andrew Martindale of UBC gave a good summary of the UBC-Musqueam projects of recent years, aptly noting how Charles Borden had encouraged First Nations participation in archaeology in the 1950s, and that much of said participation was quite meaningful – more so than today in some cases, I suspect.
* Charles Menzies of UBC discussed his team’s exciting survey and evaluation in the Laxyuup Gitxata (Kitkatla) project, which is visiting some parts of the coast not seen by shovels for forty years.
* David Pokotylo of UBC spoke of the interesting return, together with Sandra Peacock and others, to the roasting pits of the Hat Creek Valley, including a huge concentration of huge pits. In so doing, he noted a classic weakness of those 1970-style random sampling survey projects – you can get some basic idea of the landscape, but you run the risk of missing the One Big Singular Important Thing.
* Jim Stafford’s exposition of Coast-Interior Archaeology’s recent work in Tsawataineuk-Kingcome Inlet and Namgis territories was extremely interesting. If you haven’t heard, Roy Carlson’s unknown “Central Coast B” obsidian source has been pinned down, and Stafford has also shown the antiquity of the trans-Vancouver Island Woss trail and found the oldest site on Vancouver Island. Not bad for him, Tina, and their three vertically-challenged assistants.
* I was also interested in the early dates acquired by Amec’s Peter Vigneault and Ryan Dickie, who gave a well-made and fluent presentation on DkRn 1. This site near Lillooet includes microblades at around 7000 BP and basal dates of 7900 or so. I hope it sees more research.
* UBC’s Chris Arnett gave a passionate talk which ended too soon, in which he introduced an intriguing argument that many or all pictographs were a historic phenomenon designed to protect sacred places from new threats.
* Well, there were a bunch other good ones too, no offense if I didn’t mention yours.

A little bit of grumpy-making was also had, though. The BCAPA* presentation really didn’t get across a vision for archaeology in the province, whether professionally or even within the limits of that organization. As a voluntary organization, membership in which is not required to be a professional archaeologist, then I would expect them to be trying really hard to take a leadership role since persuasion is their only weapon. I didn’t see that. Looking forward to such emerging issues as the archival crisis, the use of geophysics, the HCA violations inventory, and the devolution of archaeology through treaty settlements, then the BCAPA has a chance to make a real difference. I hope they seize it.

And the Archaeological Society of B.C. presentation showed hints of some interesting activity on the lower mainland which is great (and which I plan on reviewing in the days to come). But it is a little disheartening to hear no mention at all of the Victoria and Nanaimo branches, which are actually just as or more active than the “Real ASBC”. Even though the constitution of the ASBC reads “The operations of the Society are to be carried on throughout the Province of British Columbia, chiefly in the City of Vancouver”, the “Real ASBC” is still the default, provincial organization, it is not the “Vancouver Chapter” of the ASBC. Is it too early to start thinking of an Archaeological Society of Vancouver Island? Or would it be more to the point that a Vancouver Chapter be formed, leaving the ASBC proper to focus on the big picture. Advocacy at the Provincial level seems to be ineffective (what was the last concrete achievement of the ASBC?), and people may be more inspired to mobilize and act at a local level.

The purposes of this Society shall be:

1. To protect the archaeological and historical heritage of British Columbia and to this end to assist the various levels of government in implementing applicable heritage legislation [editorial comment: what]
2. To further public understanding of a scientific approach to archaeology

It was also surprising to see the plan for the ASBC website includes a members only section, where back-issues of The Midden will reside. Seriously, the mandate of the ASBC could be much better met by releasing this hard-to-find material into the wild.

The ASBC is not supposed to be a closed talking shop. Anyone can come to the meetings freely, and so they should be able to freely access the website. Maybe have a short “moving wall” to encourage people to subscribe. By putting The Midden on the web, they would in a stroke increase the amount of freely available information about BC Archaeology by about 500 percent. They would also bring a lot more attention and readers, and generate hits to their website, which can then produce new members as well as enable public education. I mean, yes, it would be great for the Midden back issues to be digitized and mounted, but it would be even greater if this were open access. Is it a copyright issue? I don’t see how making it behind a password wall makes any difference: this was the problem with the BC Arch Branch online reports too. I wish I had had a chance to chat to the ASBC executives about this at the forum.

Anyway, I want as big a megaphone as possible to be used by the ASBC to get the message across that BC Archaeology is fantastic, and exciting, and threatened. Open back issues of The Midden would be a great thing.

Well, that sums up my forum this year. Pancakes got in the way of going to the Musqueam Creek and LOA fieldtrips, IKEA stressed me out, and I missed my ferry.

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