Kristin Catherwood, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer
Lately I have handled some ancient objects, things that are 65 million years old, things that are 10,000 years old. In the case of the latter, I was right there when they were being excavated from the ground. Though the 10,000 year old artifact is infinitely closer to us than the 65 million year old fossils, both feel so distant as to be almost incomprehensible. Both exist in a shadowy “prehistoric” era.
Prehistory is a term, now outdated, which was used to refer to time before written records, since the traditional definition of history is just that, the written record of the past. It is important to remember that it is not the only record of the past. In fact, even the terms we use to describe the past are subject to change. “History” is now being redefined to include more than just the written record of the past, but its material record, too.
Is there such a thing as “pre-heritage”? Heritage, like many other words, is complex, multi-faceted, and used so often that its meanings seems to become dull, like a well-used blade. Sometimes a qualifier helps – like our favourite here at Heritage Saskatchewan, living heritage, or intangible cultural heritage.
So, do ancient artifacts fall under the purview of heritage? I was running this through my head the other day while participating in the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society’s (SAS) Farr Site dig just outside of Ogema. The site, a Paleo Plains site, is dated to approximately 8000 BCE, making it the oldest in Saskatchewan at this time. What has been found there reflects the processing of bison meat, presumably following a successful hunt. The animal(s) was killed by projectile points, we can speculate, since several have been found in situ, amongst the bones. The people who made the points, threw or jabbed the spears that took down the bison, butchered it, processed, ate it, are so far removed from any person living today as to seem almost irrelevant.
Archaeology and also paleontology are scientific disciplines, subject to rigorous methodology and grounded in complex theory. Archaeologists and paleontologists are well-educated, skillful and usually passionate professionals. But archaeology and paleontology are just as subject to cultural biases as any other discipline or study. Each study, each artifact unearthed, is interpreted through a particular cultural lens, one which is influenced by our heritage. Furthermore, archaeology is often embroiled in political and cultural controversies. Its funding is subject to the whims and decisions of individuals and committees, whose own cultural biases and/or political agendas influence their choices.
But even the smallest, most mundane aspects of our own cultural heritage can influence how we interpret the ancient past. Tomasin Playford, the Executive Director of the SAS told me about the research for her Ph.D dissertation on seasonality and sustenance and bison. She told me she had decided to focus her research in one season, winter, since there were so many seasonal factors in bison hunting and processing. Then, one day, while on a tour, a Blackfoot elder mentioned that his people recognized two seasons. Tomasin realized she had been operating under her own cultural assumptions that there are four seasons. But not all cultures see the year as having four seasons. For some it’s two, others, six. And without the cultural context, often contained within oral tradition, she could not simply assume that the peoples who made use of the sites she studied recognized four seasons.
Our individual and collective heritage weaves in and out of our daily lives so seamlessly that we often don’t even notice it’s there. It’s just simply the way it is, to us. The folks who processed that bison 10,000 years ago on a knoll on a side of a hill that had been carved out by glaciers not so very long ago, had their own heritage, their own way of looking at and understanding the world and their place in it. Archaeologists, in Playford’s words, “aim to understand the people behind the artifacts.” Since their voices have been lost to time, archaeologists’ can make some well-informed and educated inferences about their lives based on the materials they have left behind. It is the closest we can come to some understanding of these people who lived and died so long ago. But I would go out on a limb and make the case that these ancient peoples had heritage, and it was living, just as ours is.