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Digging up dirt on museum

2008 search for artifacts at The Forks 'a tragedy'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/6/2009 (2874 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A group of archeologists is accusing the Canadian Museum for Human Rights of not doing enough to recover and protect the wealth of artifacts beneath its future home at The Forks.

"They decided to do as little as possible, and do a serious injustice to that rich heritage, as far as I'm concerned," said Leigh Syms, the former curator of archeology for the Manitoba Museum, who is now retired.

Last year, the museum funded an excavation at the site, described as The Forks' largest dig ever.

But Syms, who has worked as an archeologist for 40 years, believes the work to date is "a nickel-and-dime effort" that recovered only a tiny fraction of what lies beneath.

He and others say the museum didn't put enough money into digging up and preserving the remains of aboriginal settlements dating back thousands of years.

They say Manitoba's law on archeological mitigation -- a term for work done to limit the effects of development on archeological remains -- is weak compared to other provinces.

"I think there's such an irony that a human rights museum is essentially treating this material so cavalierly and trying to distance themselves from it," Syms said. "I think there's an important principle here, in terms of rescuing the heritage and making it available."

"I think it's a tragedy," said Gary Wowchuk, a consultant with Western Heritage Services, a company whose work includes doing archeological impact assessments at sites where development is set to take place.

Wowchuk said he supports the museum but believes the site impact wasn't fully considered.

"What we have at The Forks is a really unique situation where you have excellent preservation of material," he said. "You have a lot of occupations, 6,000 years of human history basically represented there, Manitoba history."

Wowchuk is vice-president of the Association of Manitoba Archaeologists, but both he and Syms say they speak only for themselves. Wowchuk said he's tried to raise his concerns for two years, with no progress, and fears more loss of artifacts as construction continues.

"We are aware that there is a segment of the archeological community that's not satisfied," said Canadian Museum for Human Rights spokeswoman Angela Cassie.

Cassie said meetings with those archaeologists haven't been fruitful.

Last year's dig cost around $550,000, Cassie said. Items found over the 200-square-metre space include pottery shards, an 800-year-old human footprint and three palettes on which long-ago inhabitants prepared paint.

Cassie said all archeological material dug up with augers during construction is monitored.

The museum will not have a traditional basement, she said, using piles and caissons for structural support.

"We hope that in the future, technology will allow archeologists to do searches beneath the building."

Items found will be bagged, tagged and stored for future testing, she said.

The museum is in line with provincial standards, but some archeologists think those standards are too low. Syms said provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia require more thorough efforts.

"The Canadian Museum for Human Rights should exhibit and should follow a higher standard than the bare minimum," said University of Manitoba anthropology professor and archeologist Greg Monks, who's worried about artifacts that will be destroyed during construction.

Rules for archeological mitigation in Manitoba are set on a case-by-case basis, said Brian Smith, manager of archeological assessment services for the historic resources branch.

"I'm satisfied that the Museum (for) Human Rights is adhering to the requirements that we've set," said Smith. "I'm also satisfied that the communication between my office and the museum and the construction company are very, very good. They're doing everything that has been and is being required of them."

Smith said beliefs that the museum will cover an entire archeological site are wrong. Some parts of the site have no artifacts. "The actual impact area of the museum is quite small."

Archeologist Sid Kroeker, whose company, Quaternary Consultants Ltd., led the 2008 dig, could not be reached.

lindsey.wiebe@freepress.mb.ca

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