I’m over the moon at getting back to the field

This month, Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome David M. Finch, a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador to share a story from his fieldwork adventures! Read more about David at the end of the post.

Somewhere out there is a video of me in a crater lake in Labrador doing doughnuts in a Zodiac. In reverse. It wasn’t me doing the driving, but it’s still not my preferred way to make a first impression.

I’m an archaeologist, and no, I don’t usually spend much time in craters. But in the fall of 2021, the Innu Nation asked me to go to Kamestastin Lake in northern Labrador to monitor the potential impacts of a geological base camp. About 36 million years ago, an asteroid or comet slammed into northern Labrador. Flashing forward to the present, the crater is now a lake. Geologists were studying its rim, and I and two Innu guardians (community monitors) went along – as did two astronauts! The crater is an analogue for places on the moon, so this was a way to work on their rock-busting chops before flying real missions. Most of my field camping doesn’t involve astronauts so this was a definite plus. 

View from the Hill
View from Kamestastin Hill where the geologists were sampling melt rock.

Archaeology usually concerns itself with the human past, but Kamestastin sits in several worlds: it’s simultaneously an ancient crater and a home to the modern Innu people. Their ancestors left traces in the region as early as 7,000 years ago and their descendants still camp on the lakeshore and hunt caribou at the river narrows. All these times are mashed together in this place and stories flow from them.

This was all new territory for me, plus I had been out of the archaeology racket for years. You know the story: bad romance, move to Yellowknife, become a consultant. It’s the northern tango. The problem was that fieldwork was my way to express myself and I had cut myself off from it. After a few years I decided that I wanted it back in my life, but in a more social way. Archaeology often involves being stuck in the laboratory (especially the forensics that I did), and historically it did its own thing without much input from non-archaeologists.

So, I put my people skills to work and got back on the land. What I study now is called community-based archaeology. A lot of it focuses on the contemporary past: near-recent events to which there may be living witnesses. These events are important to all Canadians as we try to reconcile a mess of conflicting and difficult histories. I just look at them through an archaeological lens.

It turned out that the Innu Nation was looking for partners to look at those very things. My academic supervisor at Memorial had been working with the Innu for a decade and this partnership seemed like a good fit for my interests. So this past summer, I headed to Labrador for four and a half months, to run interviews and dig square holes. It was glorious but nerve-wracking.

Archaeologists put fieldwork on a pedestal. It’s an adventure. You go to new places, do new things, prove your worth. Community-based research is like that on steroids. You throw yourself into situations and try not to worry about looking stupid. That’s how you learn. For me, the key thing is not pretending I’m the expert. The communities that I work with are full of experts, with lifetimes of experience. My job is to lend my eyes or voice when I am asked. Navigating this is how I approach reconciliation.

view from a zodiac
View of Kamestastin Lake from the Zodiac (on one of the days when it was working).

So, back to Kamestastin Lake: there I was, keeping an eye on the base camp and ensuring that latrines weren’t dug into archaeological sites. At the same time, Innu families from Natuashish were making their way to Kamestastin, where they have many camps and sacred sites. I was struck by how differently geologists, archaeologists, and Innu guardians travel through the landscape. Archaeologists dawdle from point to point and stare at their feet, guided by where they think people might have camped or worked. These geologists hiked long distances from outcrop to outcrop, carrying bags of rocks back to camp each night. The Innu guardians in camp expressed how much more at home they felt in the country, and for them the lake was partly a social setting. It’s the same land but seen from different perspectives.

I took the opportunity to re-visit sites previously documented by the Innu and by archaeologists. Thankfully I met no bears, though there were frequent signs of their passing. The area is lichen tundra with occasional thickets of spruce and alder, and in fall the ground becomes a riot of reds, yellows, greens, and browns. The Innu gathering is timed to coincide with the arrival of caribou and the peak of berry picking. 

house structures
The footprint of a 19th century rectangular tent at the Ataka Village Site, looking west.
Kamestastin Lake fireweed
Fireweed in fall colour.

One morning the geology crew and I got into a finicky Zodiac to head to the lake’s south shore. For almost two weeks we had been alone on the lake, but the Innu had just returned to their camp. Naturally the motor chose to act up while we had an audience. There we were, metres from shore, the motor racing… but only in reverse. That’s when the locals came out with cell phones and took video of us doing reverse doughnuts. A hundred and thirty kilometres to the nearest town and there’s still internet access. All the PhDs in the world can’t stop a Facebook post. 

A day later I was on the same beach enjoying some downtime. I brought a fishing rod with me that day, and (finally!) caught an Arctic char. I reeled it in and gutted it on a plank on the shore. That’s when I realized that the cell phones were out again. The ladies on shore were delighted that I’d landed a fish, and I was told that in traditional Innu belief, the fish had allowed itself to be caught. A few days later a colleague said that she knew from Facebook that I caught that fish before I had even mentioned it.

So, everything goes in circles. Stories, boats, careers. Eventually things come around, even if backwards. The greatest thing that fieldwork ever taught me was patience. I’m glad that we found each other again.

dawn at Kamestastin
Dawn at Kamestastin on our last field day, September 15, 2021.

David Finch is a northern researcher based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Originally from Winnipeg, he has lived and worked across northern Canada. His doctoral research is on how Labrador archaeology can better reflect Innu cultural landscapes. He spends his spare time hiking, rabidly dissecting sci-fi films, and searching for the perfect bakery. Email him at dmfinch@mun.ca. https://www.mun.ca/archaeology/people/graduate-students/david-m-finch/

Seeing the land in a different way

This week, we have a change of pace on Dispatches from the Field!  We are very excited to welcome archaeologist Marianna Cervantes, who tells us a bit about her experience doing archaeological field work in British Columbia.  For more about Marianna, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For many, the field of archaeology is tied to the image of Indiana Jones defeating Nazis with whip in hand. Others associate archaeology with trowels, brushes, and meticulous desert excavations done by guys in pith helmets. Cultural Resource Management archaeology, or CRM, is neither…but maybe a bit of both. (No dinosaurs, though!) Dubbed “hit and run” archaeology by one of my undergrad profs, it is rapid assessment and testing of sites ahead of development to ensure nothing of archaeological importance is disturbed or destroyed.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Where I worked, in northeastern British Columbia, we would dig year-round, even in the winter (using pick-axes and cement saws). Areas to be assessed are accessed by any means necessary, be it on foot, by ATV, by snowmobile, or by helicopter. I will never say that my time in the field was not an adventure. I have so many stories, but for now I’m going to stick with my very first day working in the field…

In spring 2006, I went out in the field in the wilderness of northeastern British Columbia with an experienced archaeologist. As we drove down the dirt oilfield road, she called our position on the radio for other road users, a common practice on logging and oilfield roads, while I tried to figure out the maps in the passenger seat. In the back, and in the two trucks following us, were First Nations participants. We asked First Nations bands whose traditional lands we were assessing to send members with us, to provide input, represent their bands, and help us find areas that should be reported as important. That day, because of the geographic location we were assessing, there were representatives from eight bands – considerably more than usual. Indigenous representation and investment in the land is something important to consider for anyone working in nature.

We started down the final road to the site and found gigantic dump trucks, in the midst of building a wellsite, at the end. The dirt road had become mud, covered with ruts easily a foot deep caused by all of the traffic to the active construction site. To get down the road, our trucks had to be expertly balanced on the higher areas. When we made it to the end, we parked our trucks in a convenient spot, and struck off into the woods to have a look at the land. We had a large area to cover, with several kilometres to walk, and a lot of gear to carry. I was pretty overwhelmed by the logistics so far, and my boots weren’t even broken in yet. This was neither classroom nor field school, where I had learned about slow, controlled excavations rather than fast and decisive tests of areas that have archaeological potential, or simply ‘potential’.

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

While some scientists look at habitats, vegetation, water, or wildlife, the archaeologist looks at both nature and the land, trying to determine how it was used in the past and digging where there may be evidence of that. Those areas are areas of ‘potential’.  In the context of northeastern BC, we were looking for artifacts left by the past inhabitants, ancestors of some of the participants who accompanied us. Identifying potential is complicated though, because the use of land in the past is often different than what we would expect, given its present-day form. A dip in the landscape may be all that remains of an old oxbow lake, where someone may have camped because of access to water and fishing, whereas a south facing barren rise may have been a treed elevation over swampy ground, catching sunshine on short winter days.

After some interpretation, as well as input from the participants (if they are present), dig locations are decided upon. That first day, I recall digging tests. Tests are about 30x30cm, reaching down to glacial soils, and are dug on areas of potential.  They act as a representative sample of the topographic feature and hopefully show whether there are artifacts present. Artifacts indicate previous habitation or use, which can require a change in the client’s development plans. (For example, on that first day, we were scoping out a location where an oil and gas company were planning to build a wellsite).

A projectile point found in a test.

A projectile point found in a test.

Artifacts are sometimes obvious, like ‘arrowheads’, scrapers, and other tools; at other times, they can be less obvious. For example, stone tools are shaped using other stones, and their construction may leave behind identifiable (and important) flakes. Sometimes the source of the stones used for tools can even be traced. In the environment we were working in, organic artifacts don’t tend to be preserved well due to soil conditions, so stone flakes and tools are often all that remain. Disappointingly, despite doing several tests on potential areas, we did not find anything that first day in the field… which is often the case when doing archaeological assessments.

We ate our lunch sitting on the ground under the trees, a lunch environment I would eventually take for granted. I remember one of the First Nations Participants chatted cheerfully with me, knowing I was new. He explained to me how to tell the direction from the sun (a skill I used often during the rest of my time in the field), and told me that the direction of the shadow can help you tell time. Then he leaned in, and with the serious air of someone imparting deep, secret knowledge, told me that at night time I could use a flashlight.  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. We ended up having a good laugh at my bafflement while walking back to the truck.

While we were packing our gear back into the trucks, a big pickup with gigantic tires roared onto site. A man jumped down from the cab and came over.

“What are you guys planning to do?” he asked.

My co-worker replied, “We’re just on our way out; we did the archaeological assessment on the new site.”

“Well dear,” he replied somewhat condescendingly, “I’m thinking you’re not going to make it down that road there; the dump trucks have chewed it up pretty good the past few days”

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

My co-worker just raised an eyebrow.  One of the First Nations men came over and stated the obvious: “She got us down the road fine this morning. ”

“Oh….huh.” At a loss for words, the guy walked away muttering. My co worker drove again, leading back out with the same easy skill she exhibited on the way in.

That first day showed me that if this was just the start, I was going to like this much more than the waitressing I’d done to supplement my university loans.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

That was one day, and one assessment. Over the next few years, I became a field director and a permit holder, and I was involved in hundreds of site assessments, working in the field almost daily, driving many of the same roads I’d driven that first day. I identified many archaeological sites and had so many incredible moments. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave fieldwork,  but I sorely miss it…although it is nice to work indoors in the winter and have regular hours.  However, the lure of fieldwork will always be there. The way I see the environment and my world in general has been changed by the time I spent seeing the land and nature in a different way.

Marianna Cervantes started working in archaeology after completing a BA in Anthropology, and left archaeological fieldwork in 2010, to spend more time with family and have a chance to recuperate. She recently finished her dissertation in forensic anthropology as part of a part time MSc in Forensic Science, while also working full time assisting at autopsies. She is currently getting ready to start working on PhD applications and is looking forward to having some form of fieldwork in her future. She can be found on Twitter at @BoneArky.