Archaeological Process

The following is an overview of the process of archaeological investigations within the Province of Ontario as it relates to requirements for archaeological investigations as a condition of property development. This overview is necessarily a simplification designed to explain the general practices employed. You should contact us with any questions you may have and provide us with details that relate to the specific project under consideration.

Please note that the standards and guidelines used to regulate the conduct of archaeological consulting work have undergone review and revision. The new standards and guidelines were implemented January 1, 2011. AMICK Consultants Limited was a participant in the Technical Advisory Group and the Customer Service Project under the aegis of the then Ontario Ministry of Culture now the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MTC) which was charged with delivering recommended changes to the current policies and regulations.

There are four (4) Stages generally employed in the archaeological assessment of particular properties. Each of these Stages is outlined below. Generally, these Stages progress in sequential fashion to completion of investigations. Minimally, Stages 1 & 2 are typically undertaken. Stages 3 & 4 are dependent upon the documentation and level of significance of resources encountered as a result of Stage 1 & 2 research.

Impacts of the Standards and Guidelines.

Mandatory compliance with the Standards and Guidelines for Consultant Archaeologists came into effect January 1st, 2011. While the general outline of how the archaeological process works has remained largely the same, many changes within each Stage have led to an overall increased cost to archaeological assessments. In general terms, the biggest change in Stages 1 and 2 is a result of the imposition of a mandatory reporting format. This has resulted in an increase in the size of our reports and the time needed to complete them. With respect to Stage 3, the mandatory excavation of many more one metre by one metre squares has resulted in increased costs to the field work. In addition, whereas many, if not most, consultants completed surface collections of sites as they were found during Stage 2, this work is now a mandatory component of Stage 3. This means that although sites have to be mapped in Stage 2 in order to document their location, we are no longer permitted to record detailed artifact distributions until Stage 3. This will add significant additional costs, not only because of a division of field work but also because this will often require that agricultural fields be reworked to complete the Stage 3. In addition, significant additional requirements have been added to artifact analysis which will not aid in determinations of significance or in the cultural or temporal association of any particular site. This is also the biggest change with respect to Stage 4 mitigation of sites. The detailed analysis of archaeological collections from Stage 4 field work is far more extensive than what is required for Stage 3. This includes detailed analysis of samples collected through flotation of soils in order to collect tiny bone and plant fragments for analysis.

In addition to the many changes contained within the Standards and Guidelines for Consultant Archaeologists, MTC has also begun to release technical bulletins which impose further obligations coupled with ongoing policy changes with respect to administrative processes. In order to keep our clients informed of these many ongoing developments, we have added a blog section to our website. Please check this area regularly for up to the minute information which affects your projects.

One of the newest and most challenging changes now in effect, is the requirement for Aboriginal Engagement. If your archaeological project is in Ontario you must engage Aboriginal communities at the following stages:

  • In Stage 3, when you are assessing the cultural heritage value or interest of an Aboriginal archaeological site that is known to have or appears to have sacred or spiritual importance, or is associated with traditional land uses or geographic features of cultural heritage interest, or is the subject of Aboriginal oral histories. [Standards and Guidelines for Consultant Archaeologists, Section 3.4];
  • At the end of Stage 3, when formulating a strategy to mitigate the impacts on the following types of Aboriginal archaeological sites through avoidance and protection or excavation [Sections 3.4 and 3.5];
  • rare Aboriginal archaeological sites;
  • sites identified as sacred or known to contain human remains; Woodland Aboriginal sites;
  • aboriginal archaeological sites where topsoil stripping is contemplated; undisturbed Aboriginal sites;
  • sites previously identified as of interest to an Aboriginal community. (S&G, 2010).

AMICK Consultants Limited has taken a leadership role in Aboriginal Engagement and recommends early and open discussions with First Nations. Mr. Henry was invited to make presentations to the Ontario Bar Association dealing with Aboriginal Engagement and was on Six Nations Round Table Discussions. His published articles are reproduced on this website for your convenience. Be sure to ask you consultant detailed questions about how the new Standards and Guidelines and Aboriginal Engagement affects your project. Feel free to give us a call, we would be happy to help you and bring your concerns to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MTC).

As a convenience to our clients, we have provided a downloadable copy of the new Standards & Guidelines for Consultant Archaeologists released late in 2010 and the Technical Bulletin, ENGAGING ABORIGINAL COMMUNITIES IN ARCHAEOLOGY , A Draft Technical Bulletin for Consultant Archaeologists in Ontario, 2010. Please refer to these documents for more detailed explanations of the manner in which archaeological investigations and reports are to be conducted within the province of Ontario. The Standards and Guidelines for Consultant Archaeologists are now in effect as of January 1st, 2011.

Stage 1 Background Study and Optional Property Inspection

The objective of this Stage is to document the land use and archaeological history of the study area and to relate this information to the present condition of the study area, including geographical context. This information is used to determine if the study area has potential for archaeological resources.

Although largely a desktop study, if any portion of the property is to be excluded from the Stage 2 assessment, then a property inspection by a licenced archaeologist is required. Unless a property inspection confirms that the entire property has no archaeological potential, a Stage 2 property assessment is mandatory.

The most cost effective and time sensitive approach to managing archaeological concerns for any project is to complete a joint Stage 1-2 Assessment. If done jointly, the Stage 1-2 assessment can often be completed for the same cost as a Stand Alone Stage 1 Assessment and always for less than two separate studies. In addition, separate studies are subject to separate reviews, which extend the timeline.

Stage 2 Property Assessment

Stage 2 Property Assessment is the physical assessment of the property. The physical assessment is normally completed using one or both of two survey methods depending upon the condition of the property.

Any portion of a property which can be ploughed must be ploughed in advance of physical assessment. Ploughing must be conducted so that soil is exposed across the entire surface area. Strip ploughing or soil-saver ploughing is not acceptable. In addition, ploughed areas must weather through rainfall prior to physical assessment. In most cases, two weeks should elapse between the completion of ploughing and the conduct of the archaeological assessment. Ploughed areas are assessed by walking across the ploughed area at a fixed interval of 5 meters between individual transects. The metre interval is dependent on potential or location. The surface of the ploughed area is examined for artifacts turned up by the plough which would indicate the presence of an archaeological site.

Areas of the property which cannot be ploughed, such as woodlots, must be assessed through test pit survey. This method of survey is labour intensive and can be quite costly. Employing this methodology requires that test pits (small shovel excavated holes) must be dug at a fixed interval of 5 or 10 meters between test pits across the entire surface area of any unploughed portion of the property. Areas of properties that can be demonstrated by reference to archaeological potential modeling to be unlikely areas to encounter archaeological resources, such as 300 metres from any feature of archaeological potential or portions the Canadian Shield, may be assessed at a ten meter interval between individual test pits. All excavated soil is screened through 6 mm wire mesh to ensure that any artifacts contained within the soil are recovered. Excavated test pits must then be filled and returned to the original surface grade in order to ensure that neither persons nor animals sustain injuries.

There are conditions encountered in the field which are not assessed such as existing road and building sites, steep slopes, and low-lying wet areas. Other areas of demonstrably heavy landscape alteration, such as former aggregate quarries, are also not assessed.

In order to get the best price from an archaeological consultant to undertake a Stage 1-2 Archaeological Assessment, we require as much information on the current condition of the property as possible. The price of an assessment reflects the overall property area and the proportions of the property that can be assessed through pedestrian or test pit survey, less those areas which would not require assessment.

Should the physical assessment produce evidence of archaeological deposits within the property, you can expect that Stage 3 Test Excavations will be required. If no archaeological resources are encountered, or if the resources encountered are deemed insufficientwarrant additional work (i.e. isolated finds), the archaeological investigations are completed and you can expect to receive a letter of clearance from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Culture with regard to any archaeological conditions on the property.

Stage 3 Site-Specific Assessments

Stage 3 Site-Specific Assessments are completed in order to enhance the information known regarding a site as a result of Stage 2. The purpose of this work is to document the extent of the site, collect detailed information on the nature of the site, identify the period and culture(s) responsible for its creation, determine the heritage value of the site, and to make detailed recommendations for any future work should this be deemed necessary. Sites found within ploughed fields will require what is termed a "Controlled Surface Pick-Up" or CSP. The locations of artifacts found on the surface of the site will be recorded and the artifacts collected and analyzed. The CSP must now be completed as part of the Stage 3 which may require that the field be ploughed again.

Test Excavations in the form of one metre by one metre squares or test units, as they are also referred to, are also required in order to test the nature of the archaeological deposits beneath the surface. The primary concern of these excavations is to determine if there are intact subsurface features constructed while the site was occupied or used such as foundation, root cellars, posts, pits, hearths and so forth. Test Excavations also produce numerous additional artifacts which aid in the refinement of temporal and cultural interpretations of the site. These subsurface features are not to be excavated as part of the Stage 3. New to the S&G is the requirement to place geotextile fabric over the recorded feature before backfilling the unit, which increases the cost of the Stage 3. Prior to the implementation of the 2010 S&G, the number of test units excavated varied markedly from site to site. The number of units required is now far more standardized and may also increase the costs.

Test units must be hand dug. Heavy machinery is only acceptable to remove sterile, deeply buried or sealed sites, fill layers or trenching.

Supplemental background research may also be required. Where available Land Registry records, Tax Assessment Rolls and Canada Census records are generally researched for Euro-Canadian sites. Other records such as early settlement maps, diaries, manuscripts, commercial directories, secondary sources, oral traditions, Aboriginal communities or any other available information may also be useful in providing valuable knowledge on the history of the archaeological site.

Stage 4 Mitigation of Development Impacts.

Significant sites which require Stage 4 Mitigation can be addressed in a number of ways such as preservation/protection through avoidance, excavation, or a combination of the two. Preservation/Protection is always the preferred option and excavation of the site should only be undertaken when other planning options are not viable. First Nations engagement is required between Stages 3 and 4.

Sites which are to be preserved or protected should be set aside as areas of passive use. Any areas which may be impacted through any construction activity will require excavation. Typically, sites are protected through planning measures such as restrictions on title that do not permit any alteration of the landscape within the site area unless any proposed modifications are addressed through excavation of the affected area.

If the site cannot be preserved, the site must be subject to full scale excavation work. The precise nature of the excavation will depend to some degree on the type of site and the nature of the deposits known to be present or which are likely to be encountered. Typically, areas of the site are identified during Stage 3 Site Specific Assessment which require further hand excavation given the sensitivity of the deposits. Most Woodland (First Nations villages and Euro-Canadian are also subject to topsoil stripping in order to expose intact cultural deposits. The 2010 S&G stipulates that stripping may not extend into the subsoil which increases the amount of hand shovelling required. Typically, middens, First Nations Paleao and Archaic sites are subject to block excavation which involves the digging of 1 x 1 metre squares.

These deposits are then mapped, photographed, excavated and their profiles recorded. It is typical that soil samples are collected from a number of these features for floatation. Floatation allows for the recovery of small floral and faunal remains which would not normally be recovered by screening dirt. In addition, samples are often collected for carbon dating. The new S&G greatly increases the number of soil samples required and the analysis of these samples, both of which are costly. The S&G also requires a far more detailed and in depth mapping, recording and most significantly artifact analysis which also adds to the cost.

Following Stage 4 excavations, a preliminary excavation report may submitted to the Ministry for the purpose of obtaining development clearance. This is an incomplete report which details the excavation work conducted on the site together with mapping which illustrates the areas in which the various excavation procedures were carried out but excludes analysis. However, given the volume of data generated during these types of excavations, the final report is normally deferred for at least one year. The final report is still required as part of the investigating archaeologist's license obligations but does not impact the development project.


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