WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF I HAVE AN ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE ON MY PROPERTY? - by Dana Lepofsky
With the increased activity of the Xwe’etay/Lasqueti Archaeology Project (XLAP; www.lasquetiarc.ca), there has been a welcome burgeoning in the awareness of heritage on the island. Along with this awareness has come an increased sense of responsibility to and awe of the Indigenous archaeological heritage.
As expected of any emerging conversation, this increased awareness has also come with many questions about how best to “interact” with the archaeological record of our island. Unfortunately, fear-based concerns have surfaced and as a result some of the island’s landowners with known archaeological sites on their property are not keen to work with us. However, many are keen to learn more, and this is what we want to build on!
In part, the uncertainties surrounding archaeological explorations are linked to uncertainties about “what does it mean to have an archaeological site on my property”? In this article, we break down this question into smaller questions that are often asked of the XLAP team. Also visit our FAQ page for further information (https://www.lasquetiarc.ca/faqs )
What information does the Province have about the archaeological record on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti?
In some areas, like our island, the majority of sites in the Provincial database of archaeological sites were noted in the 1970’s as part of a Provincial effort to record coastal sites. The sites were recorded by young archaeologists in boats who mostly only got out of the boat when they saw shell middens on shore. Thus, shoreline sites are best represented and interior sites are least well represented. Each site location was recorded on a paper map and this information has since been transferred to a digital database. Laurence remembers talking to the archaeologists who visited Lasqueti at that time.
The data collected in these early surveys, while hugely valuable today, are also seriously flawed. In part this stems from the fact that plotting the site locations digitally sometimes introduced significant errors in the coordinates – with some sites ending up being plotted in the middle of the ocean! More importantly is the fact that the permits associated with these early archaeological explorations did not allow for excavations of any kind.
Therefore, the recorded boundaries of the sites are limited to what was visible on the surface and thus are almost always under-estimates of what the true site boundaries are. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly still, if a site or part of a site wasn’t visible from a small boat, it did not get recorded in the survey at all.
Thus, while 72 archaeological sites were recorded in the 1970’s on Lasqueti and are now part of the Provincial database, a huge number were missed, plotted in the wrong place, or were vastly underestimated in extent. We know this because when landowners welcome us on their property to investigate, we find that the sites are generally more extensive and more varied than recorded, and that there are often smaller, unrecorded associated sites. We have also found previously unrecorded sites on knolls and cliffs along the coastline and in many contexts inland.
How does the legal protection of archaeological sites play out on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti?
Despite strong Provincial heritage laws protecting archaeological sites:
the destruction of archaeological sites on our island and elsewhere largely continues at the pace of development – and in the vast majority of cases, with minimal or usually no archaeological investigations prior to site disturbance.
For small landowners, there may be strong incentive to develop your property “under the radar” so that no archaeological investigation is required. Many times, this happens without the landowner realizing that an archaeological site is being disturbed. This happens frequently on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti, where no building permits are required (and thus there is no trigger notifying the Archaeology Branch that development might be happening on an archaeological site), but this process is by no means limited to our island.
Given the limited Provincial resources, that Xwe’etay/Lasqueti is remote and does not require building permits, the heritage law rarely comes into play here. Thus, whether we protect the island’s archaeological heritage will come down to whether we think it is the right thing to do – and act on this belief.
What is really at stake for me, as a landowner?
We hear that people are concerned that if there is an archaeological site on their property, they will be restricted from altering it in the future, or will be required to hire a costly archaeological consultant before doing the project. However, in the majority of cases I know of, avoiding or minimizing disturbance to an archaeological site has been straightforward, as long as the landowner knew about the site beforehand and could plan accordingly.
In one case on the island, the archaeological assessment by our local team resulted in the landowner choosing to move the house floor plan by only 5 meters. The view and the building plans didn’t change significantly, and the site was protected from further damage. Problems arise when landowners are blindsided by the “discovery” of a site on their property during the building stage when plans and investments have already been made. Having information early makes a difference.
We have also heard concerns that land with an archaeological site on it will get taken by First Nations. It has also been said that acknowledging First Nation’s histories on our island will somehow diminish or remove the settler history. Both of these concerns have no basis in law, practice, or precedence. Yet, these views persist.
I’ve already disturbed the archaeological sites on my property. Now what?
You will not be penalized for disturbances that happened years ago; what is done is done. What we want is to do the best going forward. Our project team has worked with landowners who have sometimes considerably disturbed the sites they are stewarding. Working with our team, they now know the extent of the sites and any future plans will be designed to minimize further disturbance.
What do I have to gain by having an archaeological site on my property?
You must understand I am in the camp that thinks archaeology is inherently cool because it’s about discovery. But what really keeps my interest is that I also believe that the archaeological record holds a wealth of historical knowledge that should be honored and protected – and can inform how we sustainably steward lands in the future. Not surprisingly, we have heard many people say they feel an enhanced appreciation and respect for their property by understanding more about the people who lived there in the past.
Ultimately, archaeological sites are much more than just a collection of artifacts and features that can be studied. They are the material record of generations of lives lived in particular places. Understanding this record enables First Nations and settlers alike to (re)connect to age-old cultural knowledge and practices that were weakened by colonial impacts. Thus, respecting local Indigenous heritage means respecting the descendant communities whose past is embedded in the archaeological record.
If any of this resonates with you, then what you can gain is huge. You get to know your land better, more deeply, and to daily feel the privilege of being part of the history of that place. And, you get to know that you’re doing the best you can to protect the record that archives the lives of 100s of generations of people who have lived in that spot before you. This is a small, but foundational step towards reconciliation.
What can we do to best steward the archaeological sites on Xwe’etay/Lasqueti?
A goal of the XLAP project is to work with settler and First Nations communities to together figure out how best to honor and protect the archaeological heritage on Xwe’tay/Lasqueti in a way that is inclusive and effective.
The first step to honoring this heritage is knowing the extent of the archaeological record on the island. Many landowners on Lasqueti don’t even know that they have a recorded archaeological site on their property. In XLAP, we have been working to let people know this and many people are surprised to hear this (both pleasantly and not-so-much). However, even when someone knows they have a recorded site, the Provincial record is likely to give an incomplete or incorrect understanding of that record.
As part of XLAP, we have the means to visit people’s property to check things out for you. And, as an additional potential of these visits: if you want, and the site is not too disturbed, we will extract a small core from the site to determine its age (at $400/sample paid for by XLAP). Gathering the size and age of the sites will help us know the long-term history of this island – and will go way beyond the list of sites already recorded in the Provincial database. This information is the foundation to better stewarding the deep heritage on which we are living today.
Ultimately, for us to be truly responsible stewards of our island’s archaeological heritage requires islanders to talk openly about both their excitement and their concerns associated with recognizing the past Indigenous presence on the island. I appreciate those who have shared their thoughts with me (positive, curious, and not-so-positive) and hope that more people will do so.
Stay tuned for a busy summer of exciting XLAP activities that will involve our community and neighbouring Nations. We will get our first batch of radiocarbon dates from last summer back in 2 months and will report on them when we do. Can’t wait!