Provincial archeologists rely on tips from public to save artifacts

The Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture admits it doesn't have an adequate system for identifying high-potential archeological sites before they're lost to new construction and has to rely largely on tips from worried residents.

Some construction projects fly under radar

Artifacts found by government archeologists after they learned of construction work on Station Road in Fredericton. (Alex Vietinghoff/CBC)

The Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture says it doesn't have a system for identifying all high-potential archeological sites before they're lost to new construction and often relies on tips from worried residents.

"We really do rely, especially in those areas outside municipalities, for input from the public," said Brent Suttie, the province's chief archeologist.

A private-sector archeologist and a member of the Maliseet advisory committee on archeology are both concerned about the preservation of sites imperilled by development projects.

Jason Jeandron, an archeologist with Archeological Prospectors, a private archeology firm based in Fredericton, cited the example of a property on the city's north side, where an apartment building is under construction.

When Jeandron approached the property on Station Road while he was on the adjacent walking trail, he saw what he believed to be a stone foundation of an old building.

Jeandron took to Twitter to express his concerns about the construction, which he said was happening in an area with high potential for archeological finds.

"It's within, I think, 130 metres of the Picaroons Roundhouse, which is a historic site, and there's a Loyalist site there as well, and I think it's also within 160 metres of Fort Nashwaak," said Jeandron.

"Once they started excavating into the ground to create their foundation, you could see flood deposits …  those are the areas archeologists consider a high potential for holding significant, particularly Indigenous archeological remains."

Sites not flagged

The Station Road site was not flagged as a possible archeological site to the province's archeologists until after construction began. (Alex Vietinghoff/CBC)

Some construction projects do require and get some form of archeological survey, but many projects, especially in municipalities, fly under the radar.

Any project financed with federal or provincial money, or any project that requires an environmental impact assessment, is required to have an archeological survey first. Those doing the survey can dig, use sonar or try other means to determine if a site has archeological value.

Any archeological material found on a site at any stage of a project also has to be reported to the province, which may trigger a survey.

But for projects that are privately financed or built with municipal money, archeological surveys are not always automatic, often because authorities don't know about them.

Brent Suttie, the chief archeologist at the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, says the province relies on tips from the public to learn where construction is taking place. (Alex Vietinghoff/CBC)

Suttie said the system has gotten better, and cities often inform the department about capital projects. But there is room for improvement, he said, and Archeological Services often relies on concerned citizens to inform the government about sites.

"We're always going to be in a situation where we have to rely on tips and expressions of concern from the public," said Suttie.

"It's a huge province, and so we have a limited number of archeologists."

Marie Perley, the acting co-chair of the Maliseet advisory committee on archeology, said she's had difficulty determining who's responsible for making sure an archeological survey is done.

Marie Perley, the acting co-chair of the Maliseet Advisory Committee on Archaeology, says the current system is 'a free pass for the municipality to do what it wants.' (Ed Hunter/CBC)

When she asks the province, she's referred to the municipality in question. When she asks the municipality, she's directed to the province.

"I think it's really a free pass for the municipality to do what it wants," Perley said.

Suttie said provincial archeologists did survey the Station Road site after seeing social media posts about the construction already underway.

A survey turned up some artifacts, he said, but nothing predating the 1800s.

"They've found evidence of 19th century, and I think there's a foundation, a cellar foundation feature, that probably dates to 1840 to the latest stuff, I think we have there, is probably early part of the 20th century," said Suttie.

Suttie says none of the artifacts found at the north side Fredericton site were older than 1840. (Alex Vietinghoff/CBC)

Jeandron said a majority of the work had already been done at the site before archeologists arrived, and it's impossible to say what might have been lost because of construction.

"Trying to find artifacts while construction is going on at the end of an excavator is extraordinarily difficult and often proves unsuccessful," he said.

"[You have] big heavy bits of equipment moving massive amounts of dirt and it's almost impossible to try and identify a thumbnail sized artifact that's moving through all that dirt."

Methods questioned

Archeologist Jason Jeandron likens the use of augering to cleaning 'the Mona Lisa and using a wire brush.' (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Perley and Jeandron also questioned the province's methods when it does do a survey. Most of the criticism is centred on the use of augering, or drilling into the ground using a drum about the diameter of an oil drum.

The auger will drill into the ground, remove anything in its path and dump out the dirt, which archeologists then sift through.

This method is only supposed to be used at levels where humans can't dig, but Perley said this isn't always the case.

"In videos I've submitted to the province it clearly shows that they're using it from the topsoil and not deep depth," she said.

Perley said augering is dangerous because of what it can do to artifacts below the surface.

An auger being used at an archeological dig. (Marie Pearley)

"The pressure of the augering machine can destroy ceramics and pottery," said Perley.

She also said auguring can make it difficult to carbon date artifacts.

The weight of the auger can push soil from one layer, or in archeological terms, horizon, into another. This contaminates the layers and makes it difficult to determine which layer an artifact was located in.

CBC News contacted the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture to discuss its use of augering but has not received a response.

While augering is quicker and cheaper than full archeological digs, Jeandron said the damage it causes makes it a poor fit.

"I almost equate it to wanting to clean the Mona Lisa and using a wire brush to get all of the grunge off," he said. 

"You'll get the gunk off of the Mona Lisa, but at what cost?"

About the Author

Jordan Gill

Reporter

Jordan Gill is a CBC reporter based out of Fredericton. He can be reached at jordan.gill@cbc.ca.