First thesis in archaeology’s Heritage Resource Management offers insights for gas development in BC’s North

April 13, 2018

In northern British Columbia’s fast-paced oil and gas sector, the extraction process operates year-round.

This means that the archaeological impact assessments required for every site must often be completed in sub-zero conditions.

Megan Vanderwel, one of 11 graduate students in the first cohort of SFU’s new Professional Master’s in Heritage Resource Management (HRM), was interested in finding out whether assessments completed in winter make it more difficult to identify heritage resources.

Vanderwel’s academic focus was motivated by her real-life work. Employed by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission in Fort St. John, she oversees the heritage impact assessments required by the BC Heritage Conservation Act. She often receives questions from stakeholders and archaeologists about the benefits and challenges of winter testing, the effectiveness of which has rarely been compared to summer or snow-free archaeology.

“The main goal of my thesis research is to identify any shortcomings in winter testing methodology and potential risks to the resource,” Vanderwel says. 

Assessments in all seasons typically require the use of shovel test pits, an archaeological method where small holes are dug into the ground at regular intervals and the soil is extracted in order to understand what exists below the surface of the site.

Through her research, Vanderwel learned that the rate at which archaeological resources are identified in winter versus summer conditions does not differ substantially, suggesting that winter testing in northern British Columbia is appropriate for meeting regulatory requirements for the oil and gas industry.

David Burley, Vanderwel’s thesis supervisor and professor in the Department of Archaeology, says that Vanderwell is exactly the kind of student that the master’s program was designed for.

“Her thesis topic was drawn directly from her employment experiences and the results support existing processes but also identify areas where policy and practice may be improved,“ Burley says.

After successfully defending her thesis last week, Vanderwel will be the first graduate of the innovative new program that was established in the Department of Archaeology in 2016. The program is based entirely online and is geared towards HRM professionals who want to remain in the workforce.

“Being a student in the HRM program allowed me to continue my career while I worked towards my master’s degree,” Vanderwel explains.

Because of its professional focus, the program is positioned to have direct, real-world impact.

John R. Welch, director of the HRM master’s program, says that Vanderwel’s research is an example of the benefit of professional programs.

“The study couldn’t have been completed by an outsider,” Welch says. “Megan’s results pave the way for practical upgrades in caring for the significant material legacies of sophisticated Aboriginal peoples.” 

There are 20 additional thesis research projects underway through SFU’s Professional Master’s in Heritage Resource Management, with students hailing from across Canada and the United States.

The program is currently accepting applications for its 2018-2019 cohort.