Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Britt Sean 01 feature

A man and his shovel

Archaeologist Sean Britt digs into the past, makes way for the future

Sean Britt ’00 got his first taste of archaeological field research working on a sugarcane plantation one summer while a junior at Wheaton.

His interest had already been piqued by “Anthropology 101,” his favorite class, and deepened as he pursued his major in history and minor in anthropology, just one course short of a double major. And then Jim Chiarelli, the father of James Chiarelli Jr. ’02, offered him a job at the Earthwatch Institute working on an archaeological dig examining a historic sugarcane plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

At the time, Jim Chiarelli was the program director for social sciences at Earthwatch. Two nights before he and Britt were set to leave for the field, Chiarelli had an accident and broke his arm and wrist. So it was left to Britt to direct and oversee the project.

“I was given some instructions on how to set up the project, a few thousand dollars and a bag of equipment,” Britt recalls. “I ended up, literally, being thrown in the mix of things and learning ‘trial by fire.’”

Luckily, Wheaton had prepared him: “A lesson I was given at a young age but that Wheaton solidified in a life-changing way for me is that you can do anything you put your mind to,” he says. “If you want to start an interest group, you can. If you want to create your own major, you can. I think society, in particular, popular media, is constantly bombarding people with negativity. Whether it’s a gloomy news story or a colleague telling you it can never be done, we always seem to be pointed to our limits and not our potential. Wheaton not only helps you see your potential, but also provides the tools and support you need to get there.”

The lesson has served Britt well over the years, as he has quickly built a career as an archaeologist—from the Caribbean islands to Canada. His Wheaton education, combined with that summer experience, not only led to the basis of his master’s thesis, but also to the permanent job at Earthwatch right out of college that sent him on his successful way.

Currently, he is a full-time archaeologist with Bison Historical Services Ltd., in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. There, he travels the province conducting projects that help public and private developers comply with provincial and federal regulations designed to protect historical resources. His challenge each day is to facilitate a balance between preserving the fragile archaeological records of the past while making way for the future.

“The dominant type of archaeology conducted today is known as cultural resources management,” says Britt. “This is archaeology that is done by private firms like Bison on behalf of clients (oil and gas companies, government agencies, housing developers) in order to meet state, provincial and federal regulations.”

The mandate of regulations, for the most part, is to preserve the heritage resources that are discovered on sites. However, government officials try to avoid standing in the way of development, so sometimes projects go forward regardless of whether historical resources are involved, as long as there is proper documentation of what is there, says Britt.

He investigates areas slated for development through a combination of a visual surface reconnaissance, strategically placed shovel tests, and full-scale excavations to assess for any historical resources. Those resources can include items such as stone tools; ceramic and glass fragments; ethnobotanical items such as seeds and pollen; soil features (old fire pits known as hearths); landscapes modified by humans (rock quarries, mounds); and historic structures. On one project in northern Alberta, Britt and his crew uncovered a projectile point that dated to between 9,000 and 10,000 B.P. (Before Present).

The goal is to “preserve” history by extracting as much information as possible. In the end, many of the resources are preserved because the client chooses to relocate the project rather than invest in the work necessary to properly document the site, which involves excavation of up to about 5 percent of the site.

Joe Moravetz, a senior project archaeologist at Bison Historical Services Ltd., and one of four partners who own the company, notes that, in Alberta, there are thousands of culturally significant areas.

“Sean has discovered and recorded many new historical resource sites,” says Moravetz. “On most occasions, his recommendations have ensured preservation of heritage resource sites because of changes to the development footprint. On some occasions, when the development footprint cannot be altered, Sean undertakes a mitigation strategy consisting of an archaeological excavation with the main goal being to collect archaeological information.

“While development cannot be avoided, the recovery of artifacts and the interpretation of those finds provide the story, in effect, answering the basic questions of when the site was used, who was there, what they did, and how they did it. Sean’s contribution to archaeological knowledge through recommendations of avoidance or mitigation of archaeological sites within the path of proposed developments is invaluable to the preservation of our record to be enjoyed by future generations.”

A project that Britt conducted not long ago at a location known to have historical resources illustrates both the challenging as well as rewarding nature of his work. When he arrived at the site last year, development was already under way. Part of the site had been destroyed without a proper assessment. He got the client to give a stop-work order so he could examine the area. His investigation uncovered the fact that the location had been a quarry where stone tools were made during prehistoric times.

“The interesting part of the site was that the material they used was quartzite from a glacial erratic. A glacial erratic is a stone that is moved from one location to another via glaciers thousands of years ago. The government is interested in this project, as it could provide insight into how First Nations peoples used glacial erratics, and specifically, the southern Alberta glacial chain. The project is currently in review and, if the developer cannot avoid the site, we will hopefully get a chance to excavate it and uncover a little more information about our past.”

The joy of digging into this kind of information is exactly why he became an archaeologist in the first place.

Britt has a master’s degree in historical archaeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where he wrote his thesis, “Fueling the Fire: An Examination of Inter-relationships between Humans and the Environment through Colonial Caribbean Fuel Sources.” He presented the paper at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology’s Annual Conference in 2005, and it was published last spring in the Journal for Historical Archaeology.

For an archaeologist, having excellent writing skills is just as important as having a good shovel. Britt credits Associate Professor of History John Bezis-Selfa for helping him develop his writing.

“He was certainly a tough grader—I have the papers with his famous multicolored pen marks to prove it—but his creative criticism made me a much better writer,” says Britt, who calls him his favorite professor to this day.

Bezis-Selfa remembers him well, too. Britt was in the first First-Year Seminar that the professor taught at Wheaton, and he went on to take a number of courses from Bezis-Selfa, including an independent study on the history of plantation societies in the Caribbean. A small clay pot that Britt brought back from that summer on Nevis sits on display in Bezis-Selfa’s office.

“Sean is one of the most curious, adventurous, risk-taking students whom I have had the privilege to teach,” Bezis-Selfa says. “I recall attending the celebration of Sean’s graduation at his home, where his mother exclaimed, mostly in amusement but with a tinge of befuddlement, that she had sent two children (including Sean’s older sister, who also studied archaeology) to college, where they learned to dig in dirt.”

After Wheaton, Britt started work at Earthwatch full time as an expedition coordinator. Within six months, he was promoted to assistant to the chief science officer, who coincidentally was Marie “Scooter” Studer ’83.

In 2005, he began working at the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative in Canada, where he previously had helped foster a memorandum of understanding with Earthwatch. He started as a coordinator at Yellowstone, and, again within six months, was promoted to director of conservation, where he was responsible for a budget of more than $800,000, developing a vision and the work plan for a U.S.–Canada transboundary conservation program and managing a staff of five. In 2009, he started at Bison.

When he’s not getting the scoop on history there, he’s still outdoors, indulging his other passion—fly-fishing.

His interest in fly-fishing began when he was 15 years old and blossomed when he moved to Calgary, where he lives within eight  minutes of a world-famous blue-ribbon trout stream (the Bow River). “When I moved here,  my fishing went from a few days a year to a hundred a year. Now, I’ve expanded my fly-fishing résumé to include Mexico and Cuba.”

For fun (and extra money) he works part time for the local Fish Tales Fly Shop. He’s become quite the expert at it. He’s written a manual on custom rod-building, will be rewriting the shop’s manual on fly-fishing, and is planning to lead a fly-fishing trip to Mexico this year. He’s also started his own company, Tightlines Productions Ltd., which makes fly-fishing maps of local rivers. Later this year, the Canadian fly-fishing championships come to his hometown and he hopes to put together a team to compete in tournaments.

He has even found a way to combine his interests. Last April, he presented a talk titled “Archaeology for Anglers,” recognizing the fact that the majority of archaeological sites are found in and around river drainage systems, with hundreds of them in Calgary alone. He talked about the nature of archaeological sites, what to look for, and what to do if you encounter something while in or around the water. His hope is that his fellow anglers can help preserve the past while enjoying their time on the water.

History is always on his mind, even while fishing, because it’s so important, he says. “I’ve always been interested in history and the role it could play in our present and future. We as humans think we know everything, but if you look at history, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, especially regarding the depletion of our natural resources. My only hope is that we can learn from some of our past mistakes.”

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.