Challenges Are Also Opportunities for Director of the Archaeological Survey

Darryl Bereziuk, speaks with attendees after presenting at a meeting.
Darryl Bereziuk, Director of the Archaeological Survey, speaks with consultants and students after presenting at a meeting.

Darryl Bereziuk is relatively new as Director of the Archaeological Survey of the Historic Resources Management Branch—he is just coming up on his first full year in the role. He is no stranger to the branch, however. Prior to becoming Director, he was the Northern Regional Archaeologist for the Archaeological Survey. “So I still worked in this organization, for about eight years. So, you know, I’ve come up through the ranks, so to speak,” Darryl says.

The Archaeological Survey Section preserves, studies, interprets, and promotes Alberta’s archaeological resources. Much of Darryl’s job involves overseeing several management systems that have been put in place to protect and mitigate threats to archaeological resources in the province.

The “Heart” of the Archeological Survey

The first (and fundamental) system is the Alberta Archaeological Site Inventory—what Darryl calls “the heart” of the Archaeological Survey. The section maintains an inventory of more than 40,000 archaeological sites of diverse types: tipi rings, rock art sites, stone feature such as medicine wheels, and quarry sites where First Nations people obtained stone for making tools. Such resources are fragile and easily destroyed by resource extraction and other types of development—and Alberta is a very busy place for that, Darryl notes. The up-to-date inventory helps the Archaeological Survey to fulfill a main part of its mandate: to protect significant archaeological sites that we know about.

Various industries must submit their development plans for review as part of the Historical Resources Act (HRA) Regulatory Approval System. If it is considered likely that a development will impact archaeological sites, then a requirement might be issued to conduct an Historic Resources Impact Assessment (HRIA). These field studies serve to identify and assess the significance of archaeological resources before they are impacted by ground disturbance activities.

What are Historic Resources Impact Assessments?

HRIAs are aimed at examining how potential impacts to significant sites can be avoided or mitigated. The consultants, in Darryl’s words, “examine the potential conflict between archaeological resources and a project’s footprint, and then forward recommendations, on behalf of the industry, for avoidance or mitigation. The Archaeological Survey considers the consultant’s findings and issues a final recommendation.” The final recommendation from the Archaeological Survey might be that there are no further concerns arising from the study, and that development may proceed. Or, the Archaeological Survey might recommend either that the site be avoided entirely, or that industry conduct archaeological excavations of a portion of the site to compensate—with the knowledge gained from the excavation—for destroying the remaining portions. “These sorts of mitigation activities happen on a very regular basis,” Darryl explains. Darryl was a private archaeological consultant himself for about fifteen years prior to joining the government, helping industry clients to fulfill the requirements issued by the section he now directs —the Archaeological Survey. “That knowledge and experience has really served me well in this position,” Darryl remarks.

Obtaining Permits

Before undertaking any survey or excavation, an archaeologist must come to the Archaeological Survey for official permission to do the work, triggering the second major management process that the section oversees: the Archaeological Research Permit Management System. “It’s not necessarily the materials in the archaeological site that are important,” Darryl explains. Instead, it is usually the “association of how the materials are distributed across the site that allows you to get at the important information”—that is, what the site has to tell us about past human behaviour or activities. It takes special training to excavate sites to see this larger pattern, and because the act of excavation is destructive in and of itself, the Historical Resources Act requires that anyone conducting an archaeological investigation have a valid permit. Permit holders must have “the appropriate educational training and experience to ensure that the destructive activities that they will be conducting will lead to really good information about that site—and that the information content of the site won’t be inadvertently lost,” says Darryl.

Despite the solid foundation of these regulatory management processes, the Archaeological Survey Section faces a number of challenges. First, as Darryl puts it, “we have very limited capacity and yet we want to save as many archaeological sites as possible.” The job is complicated by the fact that “we have to protect the [sites] we know about as well as the ones we don’t yet know about.”

In order to make a recommendation that an assessment is needed in light of a proposed development, the Archaeological Survey has to demonstrate that there is a “very high likelihood” that archaeological resources will be impacted. However, archaeologists have surveyed only a small portion of the province and detailed information about site location is sparse for some areas. Accordingly, “we’re always looking at ways to become more sophisticated in making these recommendations” when it comes archaeological sites that are unrecorded, but that undoubtedly hold a wealth of information about the province’s history. The section’s answer to this challenge is to draw on new technologies.

Using  Technology

The Archaeological Survey had already been using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to regulate development near known archaeological sites, but has now started using this technology to create predictive models that gauge archaeological resource sensitivity across the vast unsurveyed portions of Alberta. Another new technology—LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), a method of remote laser scanning—is providing detailed digital elevations models that help to better pinpoint potentially sensitive landforms.

Another challenge is for the section’s archaeologists to conduct research of their own, on top of their regulatory work, since “part of our mandate is also to promote the appreciation of archaeological resources in Alberta.” The archaeologists engage in much public outreach to share their research, from writing magazine articles to giving talks at schools to participating in professional conferences.

Darryl and colleagues have been excavating—little by little, at the rate of three to four square metres per year—a site called Hummingbird Creek, located on the front range of the Rocky Mountains west of Rocky Mountain House. “It’s an amazing archaeological site,” Darryl enthuses, “that has super-imposed occupations—six, in fact—that extend back to 2,450 years ago. It represents the kind of multistratified site that allows archaeologists to really look at cultural change in the precontact period.”

Other archaeologists in the section are working on sites in the Oilsands region. Another has been visiting local collectors in Grande Prairie, mostly farmers who over the years have gathered hundreds of very significant artefacts from their lands. He photographs these artefacts or borrows them so that they can be analysed. This is a great project, states Darryl, that gives the Archaeological Survey a better idea of the character of archaeological sites in a region where large-scale farming operations have disturbed the significant majority of sites. Through engagement with local collectors, the Archaeological Survey can also educate them about the Historical Resources Act and other public outreach initiatives.

Responding to Disasters – Flooding

The last challenge mentioned by Darryl, like the other two, also provides an opportunity. The 2013 flood in southern Alberta destroyed homes and infrastructure, but Darryl states that “a lot of people don’t realize that…archaeological and paleontological sites were severely impacted by the flood,” as well. Archaeological sites tend to be concentrated near major river valleys because these watercourses were vital to precontact lifeways, Darryl explains. The Historic Resources Management Branch recently received $3 million to conduct exploratory surveys of the major flood-affected rivers in the Calgary region: the Bow River and its tributaries, the Elbow, Highwood, and Sheep Rivers. This project will take up much of the section’s “time and capacity” over the next two years, Darryl says. Some of the sites may have been completely destroyed, and the inventory of archaeological sites needs to be updated accordingly.

But the flood also created a unique opportunity, as it has also exposed new sites not previously observed by archaeologists. Bison bone beds that were kill sites for these animals have been left “just basically sticking out—[they are] very highly visible in some cases,” says Darryl. These sites along the river are vulnerable not only to natural erosion, as unstable cutbanks are reclaimed by the river, but also to collecting by the general public. “We’re racing against time to identify and preserve these sites,” says Darryl. “We will try to protect them from future flooding, and if that’s not feasible we may excavate the most vulnerable portions of those [sites] to ensure that we have that information before the next flood takes it away.” The Archaeological Survey Section, accustomed to meeting challenges, is doing what it takes to get this work done.

Written by: Gretchen A. Albers.

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