Models of the past guide us into the future

"We have a sort of complex relationship with development," says Yukon archeologist Ruth Gotthardt. Before the D-9 Cats, front-end loaders and draglines start clanking on a project, archeologists must survey the targeted areas.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

“We have a sort of complex relationship with development,” says Yukon archeologist Ruth Gotthardt.

Before the D-9 Cats, front-end loaders and draglines start clanking on a project, archeologists must survey the targeted areas and try to determine the possibility of such industriousness damaging or destroying signs of ancient encampments, tool-making sites and other human activities of long ago. “The regime we have is a good one. We’re learning from the past,” she says. “If we didn’t develop, we wouldn’t learn half of what we do.”

Meanwhile, miners, road builders and others in industry receive a welcome heads-up about heritage-site possibilities in targeted areas while in the planning stages of their work rather than when it is already well underway. That’s a money saver. Ancient sites are protected by law and a significant archeological find can redirect, delay or stop development work.

The most demanding challenge the archeologists face is in trying to protect heritage sites no one yet knows of. There isn’t the money, person-power or other resources to survey every square centimetre of the Yukon landscape, Gotthardt stresses. But GIS-based (geographic information system) predictive mapping is allowing archeologists to make very educated guesses about where to search for evidence of ancient activity and where today’s developers should be most careful.

About three years ago, a staking and mineral rush increased the pressure on Yukon government archeologists to provide heritage data in the territory, especially for two very active mining areas near Dawson City and Mayo – the Klondike Plateau and the Yukon Plateau North ecoregions. Unfortunately, information about those areas was limited.

Gotthardt looked to resource-rich regions of Alberta and B.C., where archeological modeling projects were in use for large-scale oil and gas and forestry projects. In B.C., they achieved 80 per cent accuracy, a trustworthy percentage for scientists and developers to count on. How was the Yukon going to match that?

Gotthardt learned of federal CanNor funding available through Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. She applied and received funding to intensify mapping and inventory work in the areas most affected by staking and development plans. Several departments of the territorial government also came through. Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Nacho Nyak Dun First Nations came on as partners in the project and contract archeologists were brought on board. Archival work commenced last November.

“The key thing that I’ve been told we don’t have is digital elevation data as fine-tuned as it needs to be,” she says. Basically, this data is significant because people hundreds or thousands of years ago were much like us; they made strategic decisions about where to sleep, eat and walk. What do we want in a campsite or homesite? Good drainage, a water supply, handy food sources, availability of good travel corridors and, of course, a view.

The archeologists work to determine what the terrain in an area was like way back when, using satellite photographs, archival reports, and oral records and other evidence. In the Klondike area, valleys tend to be narrow and steep, which means prolonged darkness and difficulty of access. It’s a scramble to reach the top of a valley wall and then another scramble to work down the other side. Early people would have sought broader valleys and terraces: flattened areas along hillsides that are easier to walk on. Accurate digital elevation data can help pinpoint where those terraces are and how close together they are, metre by metre.

Human beings are most likely to leave signs of their passing where they can travel, hunt, gather and camp in some degree of comfort. The sunny, more gently sloped hills above the Yukon River would have provided comfort and stability. When we are able to determine the height of that river many centuries or millennia back, we get an even better idea where camps with river access might have been. “Previous levels of the Yukon River were higher,” says the archeologist. “If you look at the Moosehide site just down from Dawson, that’s 8,000 years old. You get a sense of where the river was.”

Field researchers, assisted by helicopters, will be going into the two regions in June and spending two very busy weeks seeking more data. The middle of the summer will find them back in the office, poring over what they have discovered thus far. Then, in late summer, they’ll be heading into the field again, to test the models they have managed to develop about archeological site potential against the reality.

The data will be refined three times during the 18-month course of the project. “It’s all about model refinement,” says Gotthardt. And the work may well be about refinement for some time to come. This summer’s models are “the beta version,” she says. Will the data prove sufficient to match that 80 per cent accuracy achieved to the south, where such work has been in progress longer? Will we soon see an alpha version of the modeling? “It’s a question mark. We’ll certainly know more when we come out of this than we do now!” she says with a laugh. “So I really can’t lose on this project.”

Gotthardt adds that this is “the biggest inventory project we’ve had in the Yukon for decades. We’re going to find all kinds of new sites in an area that wasn’t glaciated, an area we have very little information on.” The work will likely take the archeologists further back in time than they have yet been in the two mineral-rich ecoregions, perhaps well into the Pleistocene

It’s a positive scenario for both science and industry. “You have to make room for the living but you don’t want to destroy the past,” says Gotthardt.

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