Student News

LiDAR’s Potential for Improving Archaeological Field Inventories in British Columbia, Indigenous Archaeology, and Beyond

June 14, 2021

HRM Grad Sarah Smith embarked on research that added new dimensions to her 15 years of experience in heritage resource management. Here, her thesis work’s contribution to archaeological prospection at the Teck Highland Valley Copper Mine.

Without the delays some other archaeologists have faced with implementing their research this past year, HRM graduate Sarah Smith’s research involved the spatial analyses of existing data, which could be completed online. As part of the 2019 cohort, Smith stepped through the program in 5 semesters, and successfully defended her thesis this past March. “It was really great to continue working while going to school,” she says, “it was ideal.” While the program recommendation is to finish within 6 semesters, some students find they require additional time for their research and thesis writing. 

Growing up on Vancouver Island in the Cowichan Valley, with a childhood fascination with geology, at 13 she was already enthusiastic about archaeology as a career prospect. She had an opportunity to spend a day with the venerable consulting archaeologist Bjorn Simonsen for a middle school job shadow program which fostered an admiration and interest in Indigenous archaeology in BC. 

Later, after studying Chinese archaeology and completing field school in central China, Smith wasn’t sure what to do with her degree. “I’ve noticed there’s a lot more career planning available to students now,” she says. “This sort of guidance was definitely absent when I was an undergrad–there was no talk of CRM or HRM as an option.” After 15 years working as a senior archaeologist and project manager on various development-driven heritage management projects, she began her master’s studies in SFU’s Heritage Resource Management professional program. 

In her thesis, Analysis of the Efficacy of LiDAR Data as a Tool for Archaeological Prospection at the Highland Valley Copper Mine, Smith evaluated how successful this particular method could be for capturing the location of precontact archaeological lithic scatter sites. It was a prescribed topic from the Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council (NNTC). With the available data for the area where they’re managing heritage, Smith explored how that information could be used to streamline the Nation’s heritage resource management program. “My research was to test the spatial analysis method–and it was very tech focused,” says Smith. “I have no GIS background at all, but when I approached the research partners when I was applying, this was the topic they identified as most important to the community.”

Driven by this challenge and a commitment to make her thesis relevant to and useful for a First Nations community, over the course of the last two years Smith developed a love for tech and computers. “I’m actually really happy I picked something so far outside my wheelhouse because I definitely learned more.”

The result of her thesis research was that the method was 84-94% successful at identifying the target features and it meets provincial requirements for a moderately effective potential model. “It’s definitely a useful method, and an easy method to employ because it’s manual,” says Smith, noting the Tribal Council can now build off this research with the help of GIS specialists. “It showed that it’s a relevant method and they could be saving some time and resources in their HRM program.” 

A full survey of large areas of the mine site had already been completed by A.E.W.-LP, a limited partnership organization formed by NNTC, which carries out work related to archaeology, the environment and wildlife protection. Smith used their existing data and did her own blind study, selecting areas of potential where she thought tests should occur. “I assessed how much my areas intersected with the actual areas that were selected by A.E.W.-LP,” she says, “and then I assessed the negative results to find out what kinds of places are being missed by the method, so there was a good error matrix.”

Since she works as a project manager in HRM, Smith had a firm understanding of budgeting and logistics and knew the importance of completing a cost-benefit analysis. “I always feel like that’s missing, so I included a big piece on that.” This provided the necessary information for clients to make decisions about implementing research, knowing costs, and managing resources. “You could spend the same amount on archaeology, but you could re-allocate your resources to things that are more important to the community–like more compensatory mitigation or excavation and less survey,” says Smith.

Her research has a lot of implications for field work practice in BC, in particular. “We’re coming to a digital age, and it’s really happening all over the province,” she says, noting that everyone is finding ways to evaluate efficacy in a way that the regulator in the province can measure. 

Smith is also clear that technology has advantages, but that there has to be engagement with Indigenous groups and careful consideration of all the research that’s come before. “The fact that this research question came from a very carefully considered stewardship plan from a Nation and was directed by the Nation, is indicative of where archaeology in BC is going,” she says.

“We need to be looking at questions that the band wants answered about their belongings and the research that’s happening in their territory and that has happened in their territory for decades.” Getting input from the bands from the beginning and answering questions to facilitate the stewardship of their heritage is vital, says Smith, and something likely to be happening more and more. 

After completing the HRM graduate program in under two years, Smith continues to observe her own practice as always evolving. “Every year of my career, I think differently about HRM. Doing master’s research has made me a better writer and it’s made me more interested in tying research goals in at the beginning of projects.”

Smith sees the benefits of the coursework alone as being applicable for all those working in HRM. “I’ve told this to quite a few of my colleagues,” she says, “I think the courses provide incredibly useful information, especially the legislation class and the ethics class.”

Since she learned most of what she does in the field while doing the work, being in the classroom setting to explore how HRM and BC fit into this global legislation framework was insightful. “It really gave me a lot of language and tools to have more meaningful conversations in my day-to-day work.” 

Smith sees the value of having a master’s in the HRM consulting job market in BC. “Having a master’s opens a bunch of doors. You need it to move forward at a senior level and to hold permits in other provinces.” And receiving the Mitacs grant for financial assistance made the HRM program that much more accessible to her while she continued working full-time.

“You definitely can leverage it for higher pay,” she says, noting many companies are looking for archaeologists with graduate degrees in British Columbia, “especially with federal contracts and proposals that require employees to have master’s and PhDs in archaeology.” 

And though the majority of the HRM master’s takes place virtually, the camaraderie and connection between students in the professional program is beneficial to expanding knowledge and thinking beyond each individual’s chosen niche. “People are coming into this master’s program with huge careers worth of experience,” says Smith. “The cohort I was in, everyone had really drastically different experiences in the field and personal experiences and we all worked for really different types of companies.” This adds a complexity to how one considers the challenges of various forms of heritage resource management practice. “It was really nice to have so many different voices and perspectives.”