How is an archaeological expedition organized?


In the North, you won't find a Canadian Tire and a McDonald's on each corner. For that matter you won't find corners either. Muskeg, moose, and mosquitoes are the order of the day. If you don't plan well in advance, you may not know where you are, you may not have what you need, you may not like what you must eat, and you may not have the help you require. All of these factors must be taken into account before you proceed into the field.

Here are some of the things you should keep in mind as you set about organizing your expedition:

Permits and Permissions

In each provincial or territorial jurisdiction in Canada some form of archaeological permit or licence is required. Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources. Excavation, where we like it or not, results in their destruction. The permitting systems have been put in place in order to ensure that these resources are excavated for good reasons and that the information they contain is preserved through proper, accessible reports. They also see to the conservation and long-term storage of the artifacts, thereby providing access to the site information long after a particular researcher has done with it.

It's not difficult to image that anything bureaucratic would involve quite a few questions, some of which require serious thought to answer. So as not to keep you in the dark, have a look at a current permit application form from the Northwest Territories. Remember that this simply provides you with a governmental nod, assuming that your applications meets with their approval. You are still required to enter into communication with the nearest community and advise them of your plans. You may also need to obtain land use permits from a regional land use authority if you are intending to carry out your research on private lands as defined by a number of recently settled land claims. A camping permit may also be required.

Archaeologists at the Canadian Museum of Civilization are also required to obtain letters of instruction before undertaking field work. Essentially, our Director tells us where, when, how and why to go forth and find lots!! Actually, this step provides protection in the event of mishaps or situations where insurance claims may be questioned.

Field Party Personnel

In selecting the members of an archaeological crew in remote areas of the Canadian North, there are many factors that must be considered. None are absolutely essential, but all must be considered. If you make a wrong choice, the summer could be a long one!

Some Considerations


We must bring everything we need to live and work for a number of weeks. If anything is left out or left behind, the mistake can be expensive. Over the years we have put together seemingly endless lists of equipment and estimates or supplies for crews of certain sizes and expeditions of certain durations. Have a look at a sample list. Just think of what you would do if you left out some items. What good is a light weight tent without its poles? Better yet, who is going to sleep in it! Run out of gas for the outboard? No problem, we've got paddles! Not enough toilet paper??? Where's the bug dope???

Food and Supplies

Humans can put up with a lot. A leaky tent can be fixed or patched. Cold and miserable weather can provide a welcomed break from work and an opportunity to sleep-in. But bad food! That can't be tolerated for too long!

Our experience over the years has ranged from freeze-dried food that was oddly like expensive dried dog food (yet delicious when carefully prepared!!), through to a recent emphasis on anything that comes in a boilable bag (the array of boil-in-a-bag is ever-expanding!) to hauling in the fixings and spending the time putting decent meals together.

Our diets are often supplemented by the proceeds of the evening fishing expeditions. Most the lakes contain a number of prized game species including northern pike, lake trout and arctic grayling.

Inventiveness in our kitchens is definitely an asset. Although we cook on open fires bread and even cakes are not out of the question!


Just getting North is a major expense. Air fares between Ottawa and Edmonton are fairly reasonable, but it's hardly a joke between Edmonton and Inuvik. A full fare between Ottawa and Inuvik, return, is in the neighbourhood of $2400.00 Canadian. With some discounts the fare can be as low as $1400.00 or perhaps even less.

From Inuvik, our jumping off point, travel is either by helicopter or more often by floatplane. In Inuvik the most available aircraft is the Cessna 185 or 206. Although they are relatively small planes, they can hold a fair amount. Unfortunately much of what we have to bring out with us is bulky, not necessarily heavy. This requires a lot of trips to set up our camp. For example, a crew of 4 setting up at Vidiitshuu for a month might require 5 or more likely 6 return trips. At nearly $375.00 per round trip, you've spent from $1900 to $2300 before putting your feet up at the end of the first day. It will take at least that much to get you out as well.


Because we are working in isolated areas and travel can be difficult, good communications are an essential. Luckily, the Government of Canada operates a base of the Polar Continental Shelf Project in the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. The "Polar Shelf" is there to assist researchers in the Beaufort region and one of the many services they offer is the radio "sched". At predetermined times, usually early in the morning and early in the evening, XMH24 Tuk calls every one of the scientific camps in the area and checks things out. These are opportunities to have them set up a charter flight or make other arrangements which can only be done over the telephone. They also keep their SSB radio on 24 hours a day for emergencies.

There are times, however, when solar sun spot activity reduces or interferes with radio communications. In the last few years of the project, in addition to the SSBX radios, we brought along a radio-telephone. Although we had to find the right hill to call from, once we reached a Northwest Tel operator, we could call anywhere and use our calling cards at that! As technology races forward, satellite telephones will likely replace the daily "sched" with the "Shelf". It may prove much more reliable and safer, but it will never be the same as the daily "radio show".


Every northern crew has a ritual which it performs soon after setting up camp; firearm practice. Not everyone is familiar with the proper and safe manipulation of high caliber firearms. However, since we are living in natural environments where bears or rabid animals might be encountered, everyone must at least be familiar with the safe use of firearms, and most importantly, everyone must be prepared to use them if need be. Although we are the intruders and our camps may emit tantalizing aromas, everyone must be in a position to protect life and property. Such instances are far from frequent, but they do happen. To acquire or even to borrow a firearm in Canada, a person must first have a Firearms Acquisition Certificate which is obtain from the local police department following a background check. Although high caliber rifles are commonly brought along, 12 gauge shotguns firing rifled slugs or SSG are also widely used.

First Aid

No matter where the dig, a good knowledge of first aid is a must. It can just as easily make the difference between a quick recovery or a prolonged disability. In some cases, it's the difference between life and death. Along with a good knowledge of first aid, which should include Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), first aid manuals and a well-stocked first aid kit are essential.