British Columbia

Wildfire destruction leads to re-discovery of ancient Indigenous sites in B.C.

The Elephant Hill Wildfire burned up 192,000 hectares of B.C. Interior in 2017. One archaeologist says that has made it easier to comb the forest floor for hidden Indigenous archaeological sites.

'Shifting our idea of what wilderness is and where the middle of nowhere is'

An archeological crew from the Skeetchestn First Nation walks through trees charred during the 2017 Elephant Hill Wildfire which started near the Southern Interior community of Ashcroft. (Joanne Hammond)

One of the most notorious, destructive wildfires of 2017 has led to a unique opportunity for archeological research.

The Elephant Hill Wildfire burned up 192,000 hectares of B.C.'s Interior which one archeologist says has made it easier to comb the forest floor for previously hidden Indigenous archeological sites.

"It provided an opportunity that couldn't be overlooked," said Joanne Hammond, an independent archeologist. "We're finding lots and lots of sites all over the landscape."

Hammond is working for the Skeetchestn Indian Band, a First Nation whose traditional territory is located west of Kamloops. Parts of that territory near Cache Creek burned in the massive fire and Hammond is leading one of several teams combing the blackened landscape.

Since the survey began in the spring, Hammond's Skeetchestn team alone has found around 100 archeological sites. Normally they might find only 20 to 25 sites in a full year.

The search has yielded artifacts conclusively dated to 6,500 to 7,000 years ago and some might be as old as 10,000 years old which Hammond says are a valuable part of Skeetchestn's cultural heritage.

This spear point, discovered in the wake of the Elephant Hill Wildfire is believed to be 8,000 to 10,000 years old. (Joanne Hammond)

'Intensively using the land'

The Elephant Hill fire burned largely high-elevation areas, Hammond said. Unlike low-lying areas, home to many of B.C.'s cities, these upland areas have not been as thoroughly explored by archeologists.

She said her colleagues have generally assumed the dense forest areas had low potential for re-discovering Indigenous sites.

"They're showing us that people were really intensively using the land," Hammond explained.

"It wasn't just kind of nomadic, opportunistic foraging. People were at home in the places that we consider the wilderness, the middle of nowhere.

"It's kind of shifting our idea of what wilderness is and where the middle of nowhere is … all of these places were used."

Among the artifacts discovered are pieces of ancient tools dating back millennia: arrowheads, spear tips, knife blades and axe heads.

The sites where those tools have been found include camps for hunting and plant gathering that were in use from thousands of years ago to as recently as 200 years ago.

This tool has been identified as a knife blade and could be 200 to 1,200 years old. (Joanne Hammond)

First for B.C.

Hammond believes this post-fire archeological work is a first for British Columbia. She's hoping its success could be used as an example to the rest of the province and she hopes it becomes part of the standard protocol for recovery after wildfires.

The Skeetchestn Indian Band is joined by four other Secwepemc First Nations in the work. The First Nations are co-leading the work with the province which Hammond says is crucial.

"It was a real priority for them to get out and do the work themselves to help add to the knowledge they've already collected and add to the cultural knowledge of the landscape," she explained.

Hammond believes that between the five First Nations, up to 300 or 400 archeological sites could be discovered by examining the ground beneath the fire's destruction.

A Skeetchestn First Nation archaeological crew assesses a site near Battle Creek, east of Cache Creek, one of the areas scorched by the Elephant Hill Wildfire. (Joanne Hammond)

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With files from CBC Radio One's Radio West


Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.