A construction crew digging a utility trench in the fall of 2016 unearthed the 12,500-year-old remains of a prehistoric bison, one of more significant archeological finds in the construction zone of B.C. Hydro’s Site C dam.

“This is one of the oldest bison ever found in northeastern B.C. and its discovery forms an important part of the region’s and our province’s paleontological history,” said Hydro spokeswoman Tanya Fish in an email exchange.

It is one of hundreds of thousands of artifacts that B.C. Hydro contract crews have uncovered as Site C has proceeded, as part of the utility’s heritage management plan for the project, Fish said.

Most of the work required under that management plan is complete, Fish said, but B.C. Hydro recently issued a request for proposals seeking contractors to complete the remainder of the project, mainly to do with realignment work along Highway 29 between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John.

Site C involves building a kilometre-long earth-filled dam across the Peace River near Fort St. John, which will flood an 83-kilometre-long reservoir along the river valley, sparking a race to preserve as much as possible of the archeological record.

The history of B.C.’s northeast, on the east side of the Rocky Mountains, includes European contact from the fur trade dating to the early 1800s, First Nations civilization for many thousands of years and a fossil record that stretches back to the dinosaurs.

Archeological surveys over the decades identified more than 450 spots within areas that will be disturbed by Site C’s construction that need to be investigated and artifacts preserved by archeologists before construction is complete.

However, construction crews are required to remain on the lookout for chance finds, which is what happened in 2016 as an excavator dug that trench adjacent to the main contractor’s site offices, and halted work after coming across what looked like an animal bone.

Fish said the remains, which were well preserved in soft, silty sand, turned out to be three metres long and the bison would have weighed about 900 kilograms when it roamed the prehistoric plains.

Paleontologists excavated the remains over 10 days in August of 2017, documented the find and carefully packaged them for transport to the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, where Fish said B.C. Hydro is attempting to get all of its finds included in that institution’s permanent collection.

The Site C heritage plan, which is entering its 10th year, is the largest such study that has been conducted in B.C., Fish said, at the cost of “millions of dollars.”

“The vast majority of (artifacts found) are what archeologists call flakes, or debitage — the chippings of rock that are left over from making stone tools,” Fish said

However, hundreds of stone tools — broken and complete — including arrow and spear points, knives, scrapers and drills that show evidence of how First Nations people of the Peace River Valley have also been found.

From an archeological perspective, the mitigation work involved in advance of such major infrastructure or resource developments is a race against the project’s clock to preserve and document what ever one can, said researcher Scott Hamilton.

“This kind of work, as you can imagine, is a little bit bittersweet,” said Hamilton, a professor in archeology and anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

As a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University in the 1980s, Hamilton spent two summers on archaeological digs at one of two historic fur trade posts that contributed to the inventory of official sites in need of attention under B.C. Hydro’s heritage plan.

Hamilton hasn’t done Site-C-related work since then, but has spent a considerable part of his career studying the impact of large-scale natural-resource developments on Indigenous communities in northern Ontario.

The task, he said, is “bearing witness to societies that are no more, which often means the salvage excavation of archeologically important sites or simply recovering artifacts and documenting as best as possible sites that are of lesser significance.

“You can never recover it all, particularly in this very hurried kind of applied-research, salvage context,” Hamilton said, which sometimes “leaves you kind of sad.”

The Site C heritage plan has been the source of controversy. In 2017, B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office ruled that B.C. Hydro’s plan was ‘non-compliant’ in mitigation measures related to a sweat lodge site.

The archaeological work spelled out in B.C. Hydro’s RFP includes additional geotechnical investigations, response to chance finds of artifacts, and disinterment and reinterment of up to five settler burials.

Respondents have until Feb. 6 to submit proposals.

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