Preserving the Past

The study of Archaeology in Alberta, like that of most other areas in northern North America, is a post-World War II phenomenon. However, unlike some of our sister provinces, initially the study of archaeology in Alberta was a private rather than a government initiative. This reflects the free enterprise nature of our Province and the lack of political and widespread public interest in preserving our past during the early years. We did not have a Provincial museum and archives in Alberta until the year of Canada’s centennial in 1967. In contrast, the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History with its archaeology program was established in the early 1950s.

Eric L. Harvey established the Glenbow Foundation in the mid-1950s as a vehicle to collect and preserve Western Canadian art and literature, archival materials, culture history, and archaeology. In 1957, the Glenbow Foundation established a Department of Archaeology and hired Dr. Richard G. Forbis as its director. This program ran until 1966 when the Glenbow closed the department and transferred the collections and records to the Department of Archaeology at the University of Calgary. The Glenbow’s work focused primarily on archaeological surveys and salvage excavations in the Plains and Parklands of southern and central Alberta because many important sites were being exposed by erosion and looted by collectors. Among the sites they excavated were the Women’s and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jumps. Some sites in the southern Alberta Rockies were also reported to and recorded by Glenbow staff, with some further studies undertaken in Waterton, Banff, and Jasper National Parks between 1967 and 1970 by the University of Calgary under contract to Parks Canada. These studies proved that there was a rich and significant Precontact Native archaeological record dating back at least 10,000 years in the Canadian Rockies, matching the knowledge being developed from sites on the Plains.

In the early years of archaeological research in Alberta, before the passage of the Alberta Historical Resources Act, there was no regulatory requirement for archaeologists to report on sites that they found, or on site excavations/studies which they carried out. Archaeological studies at that time were primarily research oriented and funded by private foundations (Glenbow) or public institutions (University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Provincial Museum of Alberta), and by federal research and granting agencies (Archaeological Survey of Canada, Canada Council). Although most archaeologists completed and filed site inventory forms with institutions, reporting was extremely variable. On a Provincial level, many excavations undertaken in those decades remain unreported on today. Reporting is a very time consuming and costly process (one person hour in the field often requires four to eight person hours in analysis/reporting). In those early years, funds were primarily secured for field studies.

The Alberta Historical Resources Act, originally known as the Alberta Heritage Act, was passed by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta in 1973. The Act was based on extensive public consultation carried out by a public advisory committee struck under the Environmental Conservation Authority on a proposed bill then titled “An Act for the Protection of Historical and Archaeological Sites and Objects, 1972.”

In 1974, Regulations to the Act were passed by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta pertaining to the protection, management, and disposition of Historical Resources as defined under the Act. Historical Resources Impact Assessment and reporting guidelines were also developed by the Archaeological Survey of Alberta of the Historical Resources Division of the Department of Alberta Culture, later to become Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, then Alberta Community Development, then Alberta Tourism, Parks, Recreation, and Culture, then Alberta Culture and Community Spirit, then as Alberta Culture, and now known as Alberta Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women. Geographic areas and land disturbing development activities of particular concern for the management of historical resources within Alberta were identified by the Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

With the passage of the Act and the regulations pertaining to it, there was a major change in the practice of archaeology in the Province of Alberta. There was a shift from primarily research/academic oriented archaeology towards professional/applied studies required under the Act. The focus was, and continues to be, primarily on Historical Resource Impact Assessments (HRIA) and Mitigation (HRIM) studies. These studies are the basis for most of our knowledge of the nature and significance of archaeology in Alberta. This work, with few exceptions, has primarily been carried out by private archaeological consultants and firms rather than by universities or other public institutions.

The vast majority of archaeology in the Province today is undertaken by consultants such as Lifeways.

Lifeways undertakes archaeological work on behalf of industry, government, and for research projects. Since the passage of the Act, over 41,000 archaeological sites have been recorded in Alberta, a large percentage of those by Lifeways since 1972. The Archaeological Survey of Alberta has issued approximately 10,000 permits for archaeological work in Alberta, almost 1 out of every 11 to Lifeways. Lifeways current, active permit holders have been issued over 550 permits collectively.