John Dormaar Acceptance of the Margaret and James F. Pendergast Award

Award recipient: 

The Margaret and James F. Pendergast Award for Avocational Archaeology recognises a more or less life time stint as an Avocational Archaeologist. I feel deeply honoured that the Award Committee of the Canadian Archaeological Association saw fit to recognise a wonderful avocational career in archaeology. I wish to thank the Canadian Archaeological Association for the recognition and the Pendergast family for making this award possible. But my ultimate thanks must go to Lesley Nicholls and Brian Kooyman for not only thinking about forwarding the nomination, but actually doing it.

The landscape is really the soil scientist's living laboratory. On a macro-scale, people affected that landscape via the use of fire, confined grazing after free-roaming bison were eliminated, and "upside down" farming. On a micro-scale, by arranging cobbles in circles, alignments, and cairns, people would probably affect soil transformations beneath these arranged cobbles. These effects can be studied and measured. However, that leaves the question as to why petroforms, such as groups of stone circles, ceremonial circles on hills, and prayer seat structures, were here, but not there in the landscape. After all, when keeping soil genesis in mind, position in the landscape, being it a soil or a petroform, is important. Could this be studied and measured as well?

How did I get into Avocational Archaeology? My cradle stood in a military hospital in Batavia (now Djakarta), Indonesia. A highschool classmate of my Dad had been in the Dutch East Indies Civil Service and managed to establish the arrival route of Hinduism from India via the various islands to the building of the Borobudur on Java. This was always a major piece of conversation in our family. After we arrived in The Netherlands in 1937 following the retirement of my Dad from the military, other pieces of conversation supported by hiking trips were the Hansa League's trade routes and the mysteries of all the megalithic structures present in northwest Europe. With the tactician's eye of my Dad we were always taught to look at landscape and how it affected people's behaviour, how people moved in it, or how people could use it. What was the relationship between heather fields and podzolic soils? What was the genesis of the deep, black, 'plaggen' or anthropogenic topsoils? As a teenager I volunteered a week one summer to help with excavations in the flint mines in the south of The Netherlands. Also, I joined workshops given by the local Archaeological Survey over the Christmas holidays, where we were shown how to 'see', so we could be watch dogs at building sites and alert the Survey when things started to show up that may have archaeological/historical significance.

Since it was the Canadian Army that liberated The Netherlands, the choice for coming to Canada was not difficult. Although as a trained soil chemist, I found employment with Agriculture Canada, it soon became clear that other disciplines could use what soil chemistry had to offer. After a colleague and I visited the excavations of what is now the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump to see if phytoliths could add to the story of diet, I became interested in palaeosols to see if, based on the chemistry of soil organic matter, inferences could be made on the climate at the time of the soil having been formed. This led me into the excavations of and discussions with Dick Forbis, Barney Reeves, Bill Byrne, Jack Brink, Michael Quigg, John Brumley, Oli Christianson, Les Davies, Andy Grasspointner, Laurie Milne, Michael Wilson, and Jonathan Driver and, more recently, Brian Kooyman, Gerald Oetelaar, Gary Adams, and Margaret Kennedy. It also brought me in contact with Archie Stalker, Rufus Churcher, Charlie Schweger, Nat Rutter, John Westgate: indeed a wonderful mix of disciplines.

A variety of research questions presented themselves: how can past soil genesis be identified, were soils formed sub-aqueously or sub-aerially, or is it even a soil? This latter question then led into the whole realm of what is a soil and what analyses can be developed to separate soil from soil-material. The study of palaeosols has always been a step-child in the Soil Science family. Soil Science was usually offered through Faculties of Agriculture. Palaeosols are not part of agriculture. Yet, to study palaeosols one needs a solid soil genesis background with skills, such as soil chemistry, soil morphology, and soil physics. In addition, graduate students are really the next best thing to sliced bread for professors, i.e., nothing is sacred. For years I had a sign in the laboratory that said "Each laboratory needs someone who doesn't know yet what you can't do."

Petroforms are a great medium for an Avocational Archaeologist, particularly when this could be coupled with a love for landscape, be it prairie or mountains. One interesting looking oval-shaped stone feature at Dinosaur Park north of Brooks led to discovering others. It turned out that southern Alberta and northern Montana were great landscapes for seeking visions. This then brought me into seeing, once again, the larger landscape picture, such as in this case ceremonial behaviour within that landscape.

Via my vocational and avocational activities it was easy to get involved with the local Chapter of the Alberta Archaeological Society. As amateurs we were able to start an active mapping programme of a variety of petroforms, such as tipi circles, medicine wheels, and boulder effigies. Over the last 40 years I have been able to work in and wander, both professionally and avocationally, through many landscapes, such as the Milk River Canyon, Sweetgrass Hills, Glacier and Waterton National Parks, the Rocky, Vosges, and Harz mountains, and the Australian Outback. All offered a wonderful smorgasbord of pedological, geological, geographical, botanical, faunal, historical, and archaeological features. What a rich and abundant feast.

Again, I feel deeply honoured. Thank you.

John F. Dormaar
September 18, 2002, monthly meeting of the Archaeological Society of Alberta, Calgary Chapter.