Parks Canada Archaeological Recording Manual: Excavations and Surveys


Since the release of the last version of the manual (Parks Canada 1978), the field of archaeology has undergone considerable change, particularly in the domain of computer technology. The Parks Canada Agency, as an organization, has also evolved from a regionally based entity to an organization currently comprising Service Centres and Field Units located across the country. With decentralisation in the 1970s and the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s, the archaeological units or functions in each of the Service Centres have adapted and modified elements of the Parks Canada records system outlined in the 1978 manual. As a result, many of the formerly essential elements of the archaeological records system are now outdated or obsolete.

In the early years of Parks Canada archaeology, the focus was primarily on large-scale archaeological excavation projects involving primarily historic Euro-Canadian occupations such as forts and fortifications. Parks Canada now places much greater emphasis on pre-contact and Aboriginal archaeology, and conducts both large- and small-scale archaeological surveys, excavations, impact assessments, monitoring, and mitigation projects throughout the Parks Canada system.

The present Manual must necessarily keep pace with the profoundly evolving world of technology and archaeological advancements, particularly in the context of Parks Canada’s current archaeological focus. As a result, the Manual is designed to be dynamic and flexible, while ensuring that practitioners of archaeology for sites administered by Parks Canada record essential archaeological data as consistently and efficiently as possible. The current Manual encompasses new developments since the 1978 version, some elements of the previous versions (e.g., Parks Canada 1973), and recent advancements in the international archaeological communities.

One of the greatest challenges is to preserve the integrity of the provenience system as well as existing database systems, which are intricately linked with millions of archaeological objects, records, and digital data representing over 30 years of work across the country. This legacy of data must be managed in the context of the mandate of Parks Canada’s Cultural Resource Management Policy (Parks Canada 1994). At the same time, it must keep pace with technological advances in the discipline and in Cultural Resource Management (CRM), international standards of the archaeological community, and current Parks Canada initiatives on digital multimedia asset management, metadata standards, collection management, and long-term conservation of archaeological resources.

At the heart of the Parks Canada approach to excavation and surveys is the Parks Canada provenience system. Since the introduction of the system, much has evolved in archaeological practice, but the provenience system has endured as a flexible and integrating recording method for Parks Canada archaeologists. Though not without its problems and critics, its utility has been proven countless times. In addition, Parks Canada archaeologists are ethically obliged to implement the principles and practices outlined in Parks Canada’s CRM Policy (see Parks Canada 1994). We actively work with all our heritage assets in the context of the policy, which is one of the most compelling reasons for a uniform system of recording, rooted in a nationally consistent provenience system. Following is a brief history of the provenience system.

Since the early 1960s, Parks Canada has used an archaeological provenience system that is an adaptation of one developed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum for excavations at Tikal, Guatemala. Our method was largely based on archaeological practices that Parks Canada employed over the first two decades of Parks Canada archaeology, which focused primarily on excavations of Euro-Canadian military and urban sites. Similar to those of Tikal, these sites: 1) were, and are, characterised by complex stratigraphy; 2) require attention to topographical features; 3) yield an abundance of archaeological objects; and 4) encompass large areas excavated by a changing staff over a period of years. The provenience system, by nature of its inherent flexibility (and in concert with some of the modifications outlined in this manual), is able to accommodate more recent shifts in emphasis, encompassing pre-contact and Aboriginal excavations and surveys, both terrestrial and underwater.

Our adaptation of the Tikal system provides a standard provenience nomenclature for all persons excavating or surveying on lands, including lands under water, administered by Parks Canada. The provenience system is hierarchical in nature, integrating Site Number and information pertaining to excavation or survey units into a single alphanumeric code. Though the order and format of the Provenience Number elements are fixed, the archaeologist determines the meaning ascribed to them. The flexibility of the system gives the archaeologist latitude and discretion to use provenience designations that are best suited to the size and nature of the site, and to use preferred excavation and survey techniques and methods.

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