Hartley Odwak holds a 1,000-2,000-year-old stone projective point recovered from one of the sites on which he has worked. (photo from Hartley Odwak)
What is fascinating and striking is that it’s largely unknown to most Vancouverites and British Columbians that there is a plethora of documented archeological sites in and around the Lower Mainland and all over B.C. – quite literally, thousands,” said archeologist Hartley Odwak.
Odwak, 48, grew up in Winnipeg and earned his bachelor’s (with honors in anthropology) at the University of Winnipeg (U of W), before moving to Vancouver for graduate school at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and later moved to London, England, for his PhD. He now calls Vancouver home.
“All the houses at Locarno Beach and south, up the hill a block or so, are on top of one of the most important archeological sites in the province – the Locarno site – which dates to at least 3,300 years ago,” said Odwak. “There are 45 archeological sites in Stanley Park. I don’t believe any are marked by interpretive signage, which makes knowing about them all the more unlikely. The same is true for all of the major cities, towns, villages and Gulf Islands in B.C., from Victoria to Nanaimo, Saltspring Island, Pender Island, Sechelt and Campbell River.”
According to Odwak, there are many archeological consulting firms in British Columbia – 30 or more – some very large and some very small. As for what types of archeological sites exist in the province, he said they include everything from winter and summer villages to seasonal camps, fortification sites, hunting sites, sacred sites, resource-gathering sites and rock art sites. “All these sites document the traditional use of the lands and waters of B.C. by First Nations people back several thousands of years … and we keep finding older and older sites.”
Road to archeology
After completing his BA, Odwak sought a graduate program with a strong human evolution component for his master’s. Although he felt he had received excellent training from Chris Meiklejohn at the U of W, there was no U of W graduate program at the time and the University of Manitoba also did not have a strong human evolution component.
“At the time, SFU’s archeology department had one of the best programs in the country and, as I wanted to stay in Canada, I thought it would be an interesting place to live and study,” said Odwak. “I’m not sure of the exact moment I decided to become an archeologist or if it was entirely intentional.”
At U of W, Odwak was drawn to anthropology, particularly the very early prehistoric periods and human evolution. Anthropological training gives a broad background in many sub-areas, such as archeology, biological anthropology (prehistory and evolution), linguistics and cultural anthropology. Odwak focused on biological anthropology and archeology and, early in his academic career at U of W, held summer jobs with Parks Canada as an archeologist. This provided him with diverse experiences, including traveling to excavate in the Yukon and in Saskatchewan (at Batoche).
When Odwak moved to Burnaby for his MA in 1990, he specialized in human evolution. As part of his thesis, he went to Israel to conduct research and excavations. At SFU, he said he hoped to do what every student of human evolution dreams of – “excavate at an early human site in the old world … and, given [his] Jewish background, love of Israel and grasp of Hebrew, Israel was [his] obvious choice. Israel contains many famous prehistoric archeological sites and fossils critical to the story of human evolution.”
According to Odwak, the oldest sites in Israel are nearly 400,000 years old (before the appearance of modern humans) and several sites contain evidence critical to our understanding of the appearance and evolution of modern humans.
Starting up a firm
When Odwak was hired by B.C. archeological consulting companies, he began working with local First Nations to collect archeological information from their territories.
“I felt an instant connection with the First Nation communities,” said Odwak, who was on his way to becoming an academic biological anthropologist, specializing in prehistory and human evolution in Israel, before his consulting career took on a life of its own.
“It really almost happened by accident,” he said. “When I was doing my MA at SFU, I needed to make some money and was asked by a colleague to help him on a very small archeological project on the Gulf Islands of B.C.”
This led to another project, and another, and, eventually, Odwak was hired by other firms to do work around the province. In 1997, one of the First Nations on Vancouver Island, with whom Odwak had been in the field earlier, asked if they could retain him exclusively. He accepted and, with a partner, started up the firm Sources Archeological and Heritage Research Inc.
Most archeological consulting in Canada, including Odwak’s, involves assessing proposed development areas for the presence of archeological sites. The firms locate, record and map sites to protect them during construction and development.
Making a new home
Coming from a tight-knit community in Winnipeg, it took Odwak a little while to get rooted in Vancouver but, once he and his wife, Anthea Lee, settled down in the Commercial Drive area in the early 2000s, he started to feel more comfortable.
“It’s a very diverse, welcoming neighborhood where, in my experience, you get recognized by the ‘people in your neighborhood,’ as the Sesame Street saying goes, more than other places I’ve experienced here.”
When the couple had children they became more connected to the Jewish community and have since made some very good friends through their kids – sons Noah and Sam – being enrolled at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver day care.
Odwak’s sister, Mindy, moved to Vancouver shortly after he did and now lives a few blocks from them. She and her partner, Nina, are loving aunts to Noah and Sam.
Having outgrown day care, Noah, 6, is now active in after-school programs and classes at the JCCGV, while Sam, 2, has been at the day care for several months. “It’s an absolutely wonderful program,” said Odwak. “Noah and Sam’s growth, development and strength of character gained so much from the teachers, administrators and overall day-care philosophy. This has helped our children develop an early group of community-based friends who, including their parents, are becoming very much like extended family to us.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.