Archaeology: Not in my backyard!

B.C. property owners discovered Indian remains and artifacts while building a house. Who should foot the bill for digging up the site?
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The Vancouver Island property where $80-an-hour archeologists worked for two weeks.

B.C. property owners discovered Indian remains and artifacts while building a house. Who should foot the bill for digging up the site?

Bill Angelbeck, editor of The Midden, the quarterly publication of the Archaeological Society of British Columbia, drew my attention to a controversy in B.C.

The CBC reports that a property owner in Parksville on Vancouver Island discovered Indian remains and artifacts on a piece of land while building a house. Under B.C.'s Heritage Conservation Act, the owners were required to have a proper archaeological assessment done and have the artifacts removed.

The bill for the subsequent archaeological work swelled from a $4,000 estimate to $35,000. The family says the place swarmed with $80-per-hour professionals for two weeks. The owner, an elderly woman, has to pay. Failure to comply with the heritage law could result in up to a $50,000 fine and two years in jail if a site is damaged.

The story has stirred up discontent about how heritage sites are handled in the province. There are some 38,000 listed sites in B.C., with 2,000 more per year added, according to the CBC report. But property owners are responsible for what's found even if no one had been aware of a site before the discovery. And if a site is known by officials, there's no formal way property owners are informed before or after the fact.

Tribal response to the issue is described as: buyer beware. In this case, the family has owned the property for some 40 years and claims not to have known it was a heritage site. Others argue that anyone who wants a building permit had better do their due diligence. Why should heritage be any less of a permit issue or private responsibility than, say, a septic or electrical system?

The Midden's Angelbeck points out that this wasn't an ordinary relic site. Remains of at least four individuals (and a native dog) were discovered. In short, it was an intact grave site. One thing pretty much everyone agrees on: Building on burial sites, ancient or modern, is a bad idea. I certainly would want my grandparents to be carefully removed and reinterred if some future people decided to build 23rd-century condos at Lake View cemetery.

One question is who should pay. If Canada provides healthcare for its people and acknowledges that heritage is a public benefit, shouldn't taxpayers cover the tab for such archaeological bills? The Northwest Coast Archaeology website adds informed context, background and perspective and notes that while archaeologists might agree with the idea of public funding, many of those who howl about property rights are conservatives who would likely object to the taxes and fees to pay for it.

One proposed solution is a development tax that would create an archaeology fund to deal with these situations. According to the CBC, "The B.C. Real Estate Association has been pushing the government for years to compensate landowners for whatever losses they incur in such cases. 'If society is benefiting from whatever the government is doing, society should pay for it, not the landowner,' said CEO Robert Laing. 'The cost can be horrendous. And it isn't fair.' " It should be noted that most archeologists in the province are private and in the business to make a living.

In Washington, property owners would be similarly responsible for an archaeological find, according to Allyson Brooks, head of the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. However, in the case of human remains, the state's physical anthropologist, Guy Tasa, might do the removal work himself. If the job is too big or can't be scheduled, the state has a fund to help property owners with the cost of burial removal, she says. The state has recently strengthened its laws regarding human remains, and the tribes are now routinely consulted over "non-forensic" finds. The state also has fines and penalties for disturbing non-grave archaeological sites: a civil penalty of up to $5,000 plus the cost of mitigation or remediation.

Some people adopt an attitude that it's better to "make a mistake" and pay the fines than it is to get hit with a huge bill from private archaeologists. Others dread delays, permits and paperwork. A problem with private citizens having to bear full costs is that some heritage simply stays in the ground (not necessarily a bad thing), but a lot is damaged. And some property owners simply choose to not ever discuss what they know for fear of liability. If discovering things of archaeological value is "punished," it encourages silence, inaction, creates conflict with tribes, and can drive some heritage further underground.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.