Erin Hannon: Digging up ‘old dumps’ for fun finds ‘jeopardizes the archaeological record’

Christian Laub collects old bottles he digs out of the ground — an activity that is a concern to professional archaeologists. Francis Georgian / PNG

Members of the B.C. Association of Professional Archaeologists, and other heritage professionals, believe that offering heritage items for sale, placing monetary value on these items, or using them in commercial ventures jeopardizes the archaeological record by promoting the illicit collection of artifacts.

Accordingly, BCAPA supports members who speak out against activities that may violate our code of conduct, which states: “A member of the society shall: (1) not participate in the illicit import, export, or buying and selling of archaeological materials; (2) avoid and discourage statements that could encourage others to engage in activities that jeopardize the archaeological record.”

As such, the BCAPA condemns the commodification all heritage items and their use in for-profit enterprises. Despite the fact that historic bottles are not automatically protected under the current heritage legislation — the Heritage Conservation Act — the following statement by Simon Fraser University professor Ross Jamieson underlines the significance of all historic material culture in the safe, respectful and scientific understanding of the history of B.C.

“The law in British Columbia is unusual in comparison to other provinces in Canada, as we only legally protect archaeological materials that date to before 1846. This means that much of the material remains of settler societies, both urban and rural, are not protected by current laws.

“The foundations of old buildings, privies full of urban trash, and a whole lot of other materials of historic significance lie under our feet in urban areas all over B.C. In cities like Vancouver, where the boom in urban development means deep holes being dug all of the time, these historic resources are being impacted every day.

“We need to change our laws, and practices, to get better protection for these unique historic resources. Bottle collectors who dig “old dumps” can be one source of damage to these resources, digging through important evidence of past activities, and throwing most of it aside, to focus on getting whole bottles to keep or sell. Let’s go beyond the law, and all try to behave in an ethical manner. Digging holes on any property, public or private, at minimum needs the permission of the owners or managers of that land.

“Digging up ‘old dumps’ from the last hundred years may seem harmless, but this can damage earlier archaeological materials that may be present, and even resources from the last 100 years are an important part of our heritage that needs preserving. When any member of the public finds what they feel may be important archaeological resources, whether from First Nations or settler cultures, they should inform a professional archaeologist so that those resources can be protected and treated with respect.”

Despite the fact that historic bottles are not automatically protected by provincial legislation, the BCAPA would like to remind all members of the public that in B.C. certain types of archaeological sites are. These sites are protected whether they occur on public or private land. Protected sites include graves, shipwrecks, plane wrecks, First Nation rock art, sites which have been designated protected by the provincial government, and sites that predate 1846.

The majority of the province has not been surveyed for archaeological sites and thus most archaeological sites have not been recorded. The Heritage Conservation Act provides substantial penalties for destruction or unauthorized disturbance of archaeological sites, including imprisonment for up to two years and fines of up to $1 million. The BCAPA urges all citizens not to engage in the buying or selling of heritage materials and to report any such behaviour to the Archaeology Branch.

Erin Hannon is vice-president of the B.C. Association of Professional Archaeologists.

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