A map for miners: protecting Yukon archeological sites from development

 The Yukon's most recent mining rush has been a boon for prospectors, but it's also meant plenty of challenges for the territory's archeologists.

The Yukon’s most recent mining rush has been a boon for prospectors, but it’s also meant plenty of challenges for the territory’s archeologists.

In order for a mining project to get the go-ahead in the Yukon, archeological values on a site need to be assessed. Archeologists, however, have had difficulty keeping up with the number of files landing on their desks, which could be putting some archeological resources at risk.

The Yukon is one of the last places in Canada to have a GIS-based map that systematically details archeological site potential in the territory. With this model, land planners can effectively decide how a mining project should proceed without disturbing heritage resources. In the Yukon, a developer who disturbs a known archeological site is breaking the law.

“Historical features from the gold rush are fairly recognizable by people who aren’t trained in heritage resources, but the pre-contact archeological remains are much harder for a layperson to identify, and there’s a lot less known about their distribution in the Yukon,” says Stantec’s Ty Heffner, who is the lead archeologist on the project.

This summer Matrix Research, operating as Stantec, along with the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nations, surveyed a vast swath of land across central Yukon that has been experiencing a staking rush in placer and quartz claims. The 600,000-square-kilometre area includes Dawson and Mayo and reaches just north of Stewart Crossing. It’s an area that’s had very little of its archeology documented.

Last year archeologists studied topographic maps and aerial photos to pinpoint potential locations for heritage sites. They cross-referenced known archeological sites and traditional land use areas mentioned in First Nation oral histories. They also created a GIS model for areas that might have been used as ancient campsites, such as flat land found near major bodies of water.

It’s a model that’s been successfully used to manage large-scale forestry and oil and gas projects in British Columbia. In the absence of extensive archeological site inventories, GIS-based archeological site potential models are able to make predictions with a high degree of reliability.

In the summer the Matrix archeologists went into the field to see if their modelling predictions were correct. The scientists were mostly seeking stone tools that would have been used by First Nation people thousands of years ago. Artifacts made from organic material like wood, bone, and antlers that were also used in hunting and fishing don’t preserve as well and are less commonly found.

To locate the archeological sites, researchers carried out shovel testing, a systematic process of digging and sifting dirt through fine mesh screens. When the dirt passes through the screens, artifacts are captured in the mesh.

“In areas where there hasn’t been a lot of sediment accumulating over time, sometimes you can find archeological evidence right on the ground surface,” says Heffner. But often these sites become buried because of blowing silt or because they’re situated in areas that experience periodic floods. That’s when shovel-testing becomes crucial.

Between June and August, the team found a variety of artifacts. Most common were rock chips, a by-product of shaping stone tools. Spear points and arrowheads were also discovered, some as old as 6,000 to 7,000 years.

“Most stone chips that are produced through the manufacture of stone tools aren’t time-diagnostic,” says Heffner. “But there are certain types of tools, projectile points being a good example as well as spear points and arrow heads, which have certain shapes and forms that are time-diagnostic. A spear from 6,000 years ago will look very different from, say, 2,000 years ago.” That’s because attributes such as size, shape, and the hafting mechanism of a spear (how it’s attached to the shaft) change over time.

Heffner and his team are sometimes able to date these tool artifacts in the field. Other finds, like charcoal remnants and animal bones that have been burned and preserved by fire, require radio-carbon dating to determine age.

Over the summer months, hundreds of promising locations in the research area were “ground-truthed” for archeological potential. “The study area is huge and there’s been limited archeological research done in the past in this area,” says Heffner. The total inventory of pre-contact sites was 170. “It’s a good number, but over such a large region 170 sites is fairly limited data to work with. So one of the larger components of the project was to conduct an inventory of as much of the 600,000 square kilometre study area as we could to increase archeological data for the area,” he says. The team was able to bring the total number of catalogued sites to 300.

“There’s a huge amount of archeological resources out there that we didn’t know about,” says Tr’ondek Hwech’in heritage officer Lee Whalen. Linking First Nation traditional knowledge to these sites helps contextualize where activities like caribou hunting and fishing would have happened and at what time of year. “It puts a human face to these sites.”

Elders from the First Nation even accompanied the researchers into the field to show them campsites and prior hunting areas. “This allowed for traditional knowledge to be integrated in a project that could otherwise have been a straight scientific project,” says Whalen. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in will use the GIS-map information to help manage archeological sites. Whalen says these projects are important as they create a dialogue between elders and youth about traditional land uses.

For the Yukon government, the benefit of the project is enormous. “It’s important to have a planning tool that we can use to predict archeological sites,” says Yukon development assessment archeologist Christian Thomas. “Otherwise you’re left in a position of doing a fair amount of guesswork or it would cost quite a bit to fly or drive out to a site every time an application were to come in.”

The final data accumulated from the project won’t be ready until the spring of 2014. But the Yukon government has already been able to access initial drafts of the mapping information, which it’s now using to assess mining applications.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at taiga.net/yourYukon

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