Field notes

The Alberta Historical Resources Act – 50th Anniversary

Written by: Trevor Peck

Indiana Jones may have you believe that archaeologists roam the world and answering to no one! In reality, we operate within a set of provincially governed mandates; in Alberta, this is known as the Historical Resources Act. In this blog, we are reflecting on the beginnings and the influence of this important Act.

(Historical Resource Act.)

The enactment of the Alberta Heritage Act occurred in 1973. Subsequently, it was amended to the that we are familiar with today (Figure 1). Thus, 2023 is the 50th anniversary of the enactment of this important piece of legislation. At the time, the new Act allowed the Province of Alberta to establish several agencies to deal with specific provisions falling under the legislation. Of significance to archaeology was the formation of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta (Byrne 1981).


Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Of course, the Act did not appear out of thin air. As documented by Byrne (1981), Forbis (1981), Nix (1960), and many others, in the mid-20th century, there was a growing interest by Albertans about Alberta’s past. Some key moments in the development of interest in Alberta archaeology included:

  • the establishment of the Glenbow Foundation by Dr. E. L. Harvie in the mid-1950s
  • the appointment of the first resident archaeologist – Dr. Richard Forbis – in 1957
  • the formal formation of the Archaeological Society of Alberta in 1960
  • the appointment of Dr. Richard Forbis to the University of Alberta, Calgary, and Dr. Alan Bryan and Dr. Ruth Gruhn to the University of Alberta, Edmonton, in 1963, and
  • the establishment of a Department of Archaeology at the University of Alberta, Calgary, in 1964.

(Byrne 1981:10-11)

(The Conservation of Historical and Archaeological Resources in Alberta.)

Ultimately, the increased interest in Alberta’s past, and the ever-increasing land development in the province, lead the Premier to authorize a Public Advisory Committee on the Conservation of Historical and Archaeological Resources in 1971. The Conservation of Historical and Archaeological Resources in Alberta, Report and Recommendations (1972) reported (Figure 2):

That the need for future programs may be stated in simple terms. They are to protect, preserve and restore the heritage of Alberta as reflected in its historical and archaeological remains. The specific programs will depend upon the extent of effective legislative, the availability of funds, and the degree of public support. Alberta’s past is in the hands of the present generation which must decide what it intends to preserve for the future.

This Report directly informed the writing of The Alberta Heritage Act (subsequently amended to the Alberta Historical Resources Act). Importantly, the well-written Act provided a template for several other Provinces to write similar legislation.

The Act provides legislative tools to create agencies assigned to both the conservation and management of archaeological resources, amongst other heritage concerns. Thus, the Archaeological Survey focuses on 1) research that informs management of resources and 2) the actual management of archaeological resources. Interestingly, after initially ‘rising to national pre-eminence in accepting responsibility for historical resource concerns’ (Byrne 1981:17), it is fair to state the current Archaeological Survey (Figure 3) has fallen behind the times as judication after judication address the issues of Indigenous rights, the improvement of their capacity to deal with increased development, the movement from mitigation to conservation, the promotion of preservation/conservation over process/bureaucracy, and the movement away from the legislative destruction of the past.

(Old St. Stephen’s College, 1974 (Historic Resources Management Branch, 70-R30L-01-M))

Still, the legacy of the Alberta Historical Resources Act is substantial. To date, about 45,000 archaeological sites have been recorded with many of these preserved in situ. As well, hundreds of developer-driven reports have documented sites and/or recorded mitigative excavations prior to impact to sites. Similarly, hundreds of research papers and publications have been written about Alberta Archaeology based on these same reports. The well written Act has withstood the test of time and, when properly implemented, is powerful legislation in protecting Alberta’s past.


Byrne, W.J.

1981 The Archaeological Survey of Alberta: Prospects for the Future. In Alberta Archaeology: Prospect and Retrospect, edited by T.A. Moore, pp. 9-13. The Archaeological Society of Alberta, Lethbridge.

Forbis, R.G.

1981 Introduction. In Alberta Archaeology: Prospect and Retrospect, edited by T.A. Moore, pp. 15-20. The Archaeological Society of Alberta, Lethbridge.

Nix, J.E.

1960 Mission among the Buffalo. The Ryserson Press, Toronto.

Public Advisory Committee for the Conservation of Historical and Archaeological Resources

1972 Report: The Conservation of Historical and Archaeological Resources in Alberta. Environment Conservation Authority, Edmonton.





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