50 Looks Good On Archaeology

October 01, 2021

SFU’s Archaeology kicks off its 50th anniversary placing number one in Canada and 17th worldwide in the QS World University Rankings. It marks the past five decades with triumphs in scientific research, far-reaching global impacts, and meaningful Indigenous collaborations that have revolutionized the field. 

The department distinguishes itself from others in North America as a standalone program within SFU’s Faculty of Environment rather than the typical joining with anthropology units. This distinction supports its scientific emphasis, encourages interdisciplinary learning, and enables faculty to have broader specializations. 

Building a foundation
Credit for this design belongs to visionary Roy Carlson, the inaugural Chair of the department. One of the ways he animated this vison was boldly hiring Erle Nelson, a nuclear physicist to build a Liquid Scintillation Counting (LSC) laboratory. Nelson had a long-standing interest in archaeology and saw an opportunity for nuclear physics to inform radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis that paved an unconventional path to success as an archaeologist.

Most famously, his use of accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS) became the standard technique still used today in dating archaeological artifacts and organic samples. This innovation allowed for accurate findings while using smaller samples, helping to better preserve artifacts while making research more accessible.

Nelson’s innovations helped place the young department on the map and set the tone for 50 years of success in research and teaching.

Expanding the discipline

Decades later, the LSC lab, now the Archaeology Isotope Laboratory, is led by Mike Richards, a Canada Research Chair and former undergraduate student of Erle. Richards is making hefty archaeological advancements of his own. His current research involves identifying next-generation isotopic fingerprinting techniques for forensic, archaeological and climactic research but he still recalls the impact Nelson made as a teacher.  

“For a student, it was amazing to be taught by someone at the top of their field with a strong scientific perspective,” says Richards. 

Richards’s lab members still use techniques Nelson developed to measure a wide range of archaeological, forensic, and modern samples. Richards in particular uses isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating to look at human and neanderthal remains to better understand how people's diets have changed over time and more.

“Another interesting application is the work we do in forensics with the coroner's office. When human remains are found there's always the question of whether they are recent or archaeological. We can answer that.”  

Kudos to the visionaries

As a faculty member who now conducts research and teaches undergraduate students, Richards applauds the unique choices the department made early on when they hired Neslon.

“Nowadays there is no way a physicist would get hired in an archeology or anthropology department. That was definitely a bold and unique approach to take,” says Richards.  It is also an excellent example of how interdisciplinary learning and thinking can solve complex problems and break new ground for research and understanding. 

The scientific emphasis planted by Erle is an aspect of the department that Richards holds in high regard. Not only is SFU one of very few standalone archaeology programs in North America, but it allows its members to hold a level of specialization that is rare in the field. 

“With this kind of scientific approach or archaeometry as Nelson called it, you can really work all over the world. SFU Archaeology is really good at that and the students get a really good chance to take advanced courses that in an anthropology department you would never take.”

This is the first feature in a series celebrating Archaeology’s accomplishments over the past 50 years.