Let's Talk Lithics
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
ABOVE: An artifact found by Sugar Cane Archaeology while surveying in the Bowron Lakes
A family walks through a park on an autumn day, enjoying the falling leaves, looking at different plants, and watching the birds flit about along the lake shore and in the shrubs.
A weak autumn sun warms their faces while a breeze over the lake whispers of the coming winter.
They reach the end of a trail and stop to drink in the view and explore the shoreline of a lake, rich with textures and the colours of nature.
The dad notices a stone with a shape that suggests it was made by someone; maybe it was part of an ancient tool, something perhaps he has seen before.
So he reaches down and picks it up to have a closer look.
He wants to know more. And he doesn’t want the object to be lost, if it is indeed some ancient tool.
So, he slips the stone into his pocket and takes it with him.
Maybe he’ll even display it on his mantle for people to see.
Makes sense, right?
It is actually illegal to do so.
"Except as authorized by a permit… a person must not damage, excavate, dig in or alter, or remove any heritage object from, a site that contains artifacts, features, materials, or other physical evidence of human habitation or use before 1846."
So what is an artifact? Why are they important? And what are you supposed to do if you think you've found one?
We are so glad you asked!
So made by people. Cool. That is pretty straightforward.
But artifacts can be made of bone, clay, plants, stone and other materials.
While clay, bone and plant-based artifacts can still be found, these materials are much softer and made of organic materials which usually break down over time much more quickly than stone.
Therefore, the likelihood of finding those types of articles is significantly less than the chances of coming across a stone artifact, which archaeologists call lithics.
Okay, so what about stone artifacts or lithics?
While people often think of stone artifacts as “arrowheads”, there are in fact, many different tools and artifacts made of stone which can help tell us about the people who left them behind, how they lived, and what they were doing.
So, a lithic is a stone artifact, but those are still pretty rare, aren’t they?
Surprisingly not around here!
What many people don’t realize, is that along the shores of Williams Lake, Sugar Cane reserve and the modern city of Williams Lake, there are more than 75 known archaeological sites.
Those are just the ones we know about and that have been documented. There are likely hundreds more; some of which have not been rediscovered, some of which have been damaged or erased from the landscape.
The T’exelcemc (WLFN) have lived here since time immemorial, and the archaeological record extends back a minimum of 8,000 years. Large complex societies lived in village sites around the lake and along the Fraser River, prior to the arrival of colonial settlers.
ABOVE: Drone footage of an archaeological excavation in progress, on the shores of Williams Lake before the alteration of an archaeological site.
Stone tools were in use prior to colonial contact, and some use extended into colonial times; until they were largely replaced by metal tools traded by Europeans. If you believe 'you found a stone tool, you know you are probably dealing with something that is protected under the Heritage Conservation Act.
The person in our story doesn’t know he is breaking the law.
His intentions are not bad, perhaps he is even trying to help.
What he doesn’t know is that he is taking something away from the land and the people it belongs to. The bond between cultural landscape and artifact is now broken, and this artifact has begun down a path which too often leads to a loss of culture and history for indigenous people.
The United Nations have also recognized the right of indigenous peoples to manage archaeological sites and materials, reinforcing some aspects of the Heritage Conservation Act.
Article 11 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states that:
"Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature."
This essentially means, the artifact is property of and belongs to the First Nation whose traditional territory the artifact was found in, according to the United Nations. In November of 2019, the Province of British Columbia ratified UNDRIP into provincial legislation, as the B.C. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. This Act mandates the provincial government to bring existing laws into harmony with the UN Declaration.
As a result, First Nations across the province of British Columbia are gearing up, and building capacity to regain control of, and access to, their cultural heritage.
As part of this process, Williams Lake First Nation is currently building a repository for cultural materials which have recovered from regional archaeological sites. Currently the repository holds only artifacts recovered from federal reserve land, but WLFN plans to begin repatriation of cultural materials which have been taken or stored by others over the years, but which are rightfully owned by the First Nation.
"As we continue to talk about reconciliation and the implementation of UNDRIP in Canada, as Indigenous rights continue to evolve and become a trending topic of discussion, one of the emerging issues is the repatriation of items that were left by the ancestors." said WLFN Cheif Willie Sellars.
"We’re all learning more about repatriation, we’re beginning to see traditional items such as stone tools make their way out of private collections, and back home to our communities.
This process is contributing to the healing of our nations. It’s important to understand that these items hold incredible cultural and traditional significance to the Nation and when they’re returned, it fills our heart in a good way and allows us to celebrate our history."
T’exelcemc elder Virginia Gilbert says she has visited a museum in Vancouver where she saw artifacts from her community on display, but would like to see local artifacts on display within the community instead.
"I hope that one day it will be returned to us," she said.
When an artifact is brought back to the community, she said: "It feels good, it belongs to us."
"People are starting to realize these are precious things."
She herself is grateful for what the study of the archaeological sites and artifacts can teach people and help illuminate the past cultural practices and traditions.
So the person’s intentions are good, but what should he do instead?
How should he find out if the stone is indeed an ancient tool or just a cool rock?
TIPS FOR IDENTIFYING LITHICS
Lithics, can be as simple as pieces of sharp stone, called debitage – the flakes from the making of a tool.
Sometimes they are complex, fine points with notches for attaching to a shaft or handle –what you might commonly refer to as an “arrowhead.”
Sometimes lithics can be rounded and worn from grinding or striking.
ABOVE: Some examples of lithics from the Williams Lake and Cariboo region.
Sometimes lithics are distinguishable because they are sharpened and often made of hard-glassy materials such as chert, obsidian or dacite.
But if you don’t know your geology, don’t worry. Think shiny and sharp.
Many of the most frequently recovered tools are what a person would need for day to day processes such as cutting or scraping.
Some tools are as small as thumbnails, and used as hard scrapers to remove scales from fish or flesh from hides. You can tell they were tools because of the evidence of “working” of the edge and the hardness of the material.
BUT WHY DO LITHICS EVEN MATTER?
Pieces of stone may seem insignificant, but lithics can actually tell us many things.
For instance, even debitage (essentially stone chips or the waste from making or reworking tools) tells us what type of material was being used make these tools. These flakes can be connected to a quarry source using a geochemical fingerprinting process; which tells researchers where the source rock was traded or transported from and to. This regional web of trade and travel is ever-growing, and important for discussions of boundaries and interrelations between Nations.
Debitage indicates a site was used to make or resharpen tools. These sites may have more layers containing additional artifacts beneath it, and could be associated with a viewpoint, a house pit or other more permanent use of the area.
Sometimes debitage can even be reconstructed in a way which can indicate what type of tool was being made.
Tool types indicate what of stone tool technology was being used by people at the time. The shape and attributes of artifacts can give detail as to who left it, what time period they lived in and whether people occupied the site over time.
For example, stone tools and lithic scatter at a site on the shores of Williams Lake have dated the site as having been continuously in use from 3,600 years BP (before present, which is set at 1950) and used up until 200 years BP.
So lithics potentially tell us a lot and much depends on them remaining in context.
So, what are the steps to take if you think you may have found a lithic?
Take photos, GPS coordinates, write down access (how to get there) and a description of everything you see (If you don’t know how to get your coordinates using a cell phone, try reading this article on four ways this can be done or search for some instructions yourself, it is surprisingly easy)
Sugar Cane Archaeology (In the Williams Lake area) 778-417-0196 or search for a local archaeology company who can help where you are.
It might seem tedious. But you are truly doing your part in saving cultural heritage information for future generations by taking these steps and protecting archaeological data.
Now, enjoy some cultural interest videos below, or take a deep dive on some of the concepts we’ve mentioned! See how else you can support your local First Nations community, and protect heritage for generations to come.