What is Archaeology?

Archaeology is the study of human cultures prior to written records. Archaeology studies thousands of years of human culture through physical material remains. In British Columbia, this is referred to as pre-contact, which refers to the period of time before indirect or direct contact with European explorers. The period called proto-contact is defined as the period when First Nation culture began to change caused by European influence. Examples such as trade goods that traveled on established trade networks, salvaged items from explorers ships that washed up on the coasts like metal, or viruses that spread disease rapidly from one community to the next. 

Post-contact is synonymous with the historic period, and in British Columbia that began approximately 1750.

Archaeology is a science that studies soil, fauna and flora, uses remote sensing, and dating techniques such as radio-carbon, accelerated mass spectrometry, and GIS computer based software (mapping).

Archaeological sites are everywhere, and as the science advances, so do the techniques to identify new types of sites, and generate new data.

Why is archaeology important? Because we are are a complex species that seeks to understand our collective past and clearer understanding of how our culture has developed and continues to develop through time. Through developing this knowledge, we gain a deeper sense of who we are as a species, as distinct cultural groups and finally as individuals in our capacity to perceive the vast range of human experience.

Petroglyphs on Vancouver Island

Archaeological sites are limited, there are a finite number of them. They contain sensitive cultural information and they are easily damaged. This is why they are protected under the Heritage Conservation Act in British Columbia.

Under this legislation, anyone who knowingly disturbs an archaeological site can be criminally charged and face fines up to 1 million dollars and possibly jail.

In addition, archeological sites contain artifacts. There is a serious problem globally of trade in antiquities and B.C. is not immune. This is partly why, archaeological sites are kept confidential and only authorized professional archaeologists are permitted to access the locations of known archaeological sites. The excavation or removal of any object of any archaeological site without a permit is illegal and the sale of any object from an archaeological site is also illegal.

Where do the artifacts go that are excavated under permit by an archaeologist? They usually go to the Royal BC Museum so that all British Columbians have an opportunity to learn from and appreciate our past.