Kamloops students dig history

Jun 27, 2002, vol. 24, no. 5
By Marianne Meadahl

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Students participating in an archaeological field school on the South Thompson river in Kamloops are digging up some of the earliest indicators of the area's history and aboriginal cultural roots, including evidence of human activity that dates back 6,000 years.

For 10 years, the Kamloops field school has provided archaeology students from across the country the opportunity to learn archaeology skills as they produce a concrete historical record of the area.

The field school is part of a university degree-granting program co-run in Kamloops by the Secwepemc cultural education society and SFU. This spring, the focus of the 26 field school students has been a six by 16 metre portion of a large, riverside site located on Secwepemc heritage park on the Kamloops Indian reserve, south of the South Thompson. The park is situated on a large archaeological site, where a cluster of depressions marks the pithouses of a late prehistoric village.

While significant, archaeologist and field school coordinator George Nicholas (above) says the field school excavations are focused on a much earlier time period. Tests carried out at the site in 1991 by the first SCES-SFU field school revealed that further archaeological evidence existed at least three meters below the ground surface. At a depth of 2.5 metres, Nicholas found 6,000 year-old charcoal, proving the site to be one of the oldest in the area. This spring, students dug further, to a depth of 3.5 metres. The work is revealing some of the earliest archaeological evidence to date. Evidence collected includes an assortment of tool fragments spanning many thousands of years, including a carved antler, one of the few whole relics to be uncovered.

The field school has also carried out extensive site identification, testing, and excavation along the upper terraces on the north side of the North Thompson river. The present work is enabling Nicholas to compare the archaeological records of terrace occupations between the two sites. Since the field school first began, researchers have uncovered more than 75 archaeological sites. Thirty were located in what is now the Sun rivers development area.

Between 1996 and 2000, full-scale excavations were undertaken at the two terrace sites. Since its inception, the field school has uncovered details about life as it was away from the pithouse villages, which have been the dominant focus of archaeological research in the Interior Plateau.

Student researchers have also looked for evidence of what life was like before people began to settle into their semi-sedentary way. They've learned more about the long-term land use patterns evident in the Thompson river valley and continue to study the history of Secwepemc plant use. Nicholas says the field school gives aboriginal students a better understanding of their culture, while non-aboriginal participants broaden their understanding of indigenous issues, something Nicholas says is becoming increasingly important in the process of undertaking archaeological work.

The field school is the only archaeology program of its kind in Canada that is explicitly oriented to First Nations archaeology, and is internationally recognized. Former field school students have continued their involvement in archaeology, including John Jules, who is head of the cultural resources management department of the Kamloops Indian band, and Nola Markey, who is pursuing her PhD and recently was awarded the Society for American Archaeology Arthur C. Parker scholarship for Native Americans. Others are working for consulting archaeology companies, First Nations research organizations, or pursuing graduate degrees.

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