The Museum across the Landscape

Striking a Balance for Alberta’s Nonrenewable Archaeological Resources

For Eric Damkjar, Head of Archaeology, what the Archaeological Survey Section of the Historic Resources Management Branch does is akin to running a museum. Not a traditional museum, composed of artifacts encased in glass boxes under lock and key. Instead, archaeological specimens are scattered “across the landscape in the province, and [we]’re trying to look after those specimens,” reflects Damkjar.

Eric Damkjar, Head of Archaeology

Eric Damkjar, Head of Archaeology

The Archaeological Survey Section has a mandate to protect and to interpret the province’s archaeological heritage. This necessitates striking a balance between protecting archaeological sites through regulating and redirecting development, and unlocking the knowledge of Alberta’s prehistoric past through excavation projects that, ironically, are triggered by development.

Archaeological Survey maintains a database of some 40,000 archaeological sites in Alberta that includes known historic resources as well as lands that are “highly probable to have historic resources.” About half of those places have been further identified as high priority sites requiring protection. The provincial government relies on its relationships with different industry sectors, such as oil and gas, to become aware of potential risks to these sites. Those proposing development projects must check whether the potentially affected lands are included in the provincial database of sensitive areas, and if so, proponents must send Archaeological Survey their development plans. Damkjar and a team of archaeologists review the plans and decide if there is a need for a Historical Resources Impact Assessment (HRIA), which will recommend a course of action.

Archaeological Survey’s preferred action is for the proponents of development projects to voluntarily change their plans to avoid sensitive sites. When impact is unavoidable, the department prescribes excavation. Damkjar’s team then reviews the work, and determines whether the knowledge generated from excavation has compensated for the site’s destruction. But in some cases, Damkjar says, “the Act gives us the discretion [to say], you can’t develop that site, it’s too important to [the people of] Alberta.”

An example of the excavation option can be seen in the town of Hardisty. Today, many pipelines that are built in the province converge there. Twelve hundred years ago, people drove bison into a buffalo pound near Hardisty. Next to that site, they processed hides and meat. This area, so rich in archaeological significance, is today heavily impacted by pipelines: one was put in last year, one is currently under construction, and another one is proposed. “Bit by bit,” Damkjar states, “these pipelines are eating into these sites.” The proponents of the pipelines, constrained by geography (namely, a nearby river) and unable to avoid impacting the sites, have been required by Archaeological Survey to perform a great deal of excavation work. “It’s turning into a very interesting site,” notes Damkjar, yielding a glimpse of a culture that archaeologists call Avonlea.

Archaeological Survey works closely with other sections within the Historic Resources Management Branch, such as Historic Places Stewardship and Aboriginal Heritage, to identify and address potential risks to sites. The section is working to build relationships, too, with First Nations. “Obviously, prehistoric archaeology in Alberta is very relevant and close to the heart of First Nations people,” notes Damkjar. This realization has led Damkjar deep into Treaty 8 territory, into the forests of northwestern Alberta and the homeland of the Dene Tha’. Exploring campsites, Damkjar went with a group of Elders to places where they had lived as young people. “You could see the remains of their camp from the early half of the twentieth century, but right at the same site, there were prehistoric tools there, as well. So people had lived there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. For them, and for us, it was quite exciting.”

That bridge between past and present is just one of the reasons why preserving prehistoric archaeology is so important. Archaeological historic resources, Damkjar reminds us, are nonrenewable—once they are destroyed, they are gone forever. However, when a historic resource is successfully avoided by proponents of development, and hence preserved, Damkjar points out that “you’re leaving the information that could be learned in the ground.”

The decisions that the Archaeological Survey Section makes are sometimes a leap of faith, says Damkjar. It’s not guaranteed that a protected site won’t be impacted, someday, by human activity; it is also not guaranteed that someone, eventually, will unlock the wealth of information that a protected sites holds for us. These are the challenges of planning for the future, notes Damkjar, but in the context of knowing that nonrenewable archaeological resources will continue to be threatened by development, the Province’s responsibility is to do what it can to protect them.

Written by: Gretchen Albers.

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