Charles Borden- one of British Columbia’s archaeological legends

One of the first things I read after about archaeology in BC was a Master’s Thesis in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia.  In it interviews with Charles Borden, “founding father” of BC archaeology, were transcribed.


Carl Borden, 1905-1978 (

I read about the early days of archaeology at UBC- where Borden, a German Language professor, crawled through windows with UBC’s president in order to find suitable space for an archaeology lab.

I learned of his exasperated wonderment that no one worked with First Nations people to learn about the history of the place we all live in.

I also laughed to learn of his first archaeological expedition, where his inexperience resulted in BOTH the sinking of the expedition boat AND a truck on fire.  His constant complaints that his student field crews either, “worked too little!” or “ate too much!”


Prof. Borden, Marpole, 1957. Photo by John Askew, Vancouver Sun (

When I started volunteering at the Museum of Anthropology, some of these Borden stories were retold during my initial orientation.  Nevertheless, I was intrigued- who was this rather foolhardy man?

I might have initially rolled my eyes- after all, “founding father” does sound a bit paternalistic.  But regardless of how I might cringe at the notion, his impact on the archaeology of BC is clear.  Without him, there might still be archaeology in BC, but it would have been lost to development and/or pothunters.

Borden led the professionalization of BC archaeology, and was instrumental in getting legislation passed to protect our archaeological resources.

His meticulous fieldwork is also evident at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology– I attend the weekly Archaeology Lab Night and Borden is a legend!

However, I didn’t understand just how central he still is to Canadian Archaeology until I started working as an archaeologist in Canada.

Canada is one of the few countries in the world that uses a national system to create unique identifying numbers for archaeological sites. And, guess what, its called the Borden System!


Grid Your Loins!  (

The Borden System was developed by yours truly in the 1950’s.  Based on the NTS Grid system “Borden numbers” are ascertained using a system of upper and lower case letters that divide Canada into units based on latitude and longitude.  I haven’t found an easy explanation for it yet (Wikipedia gives it a good try).  But the best explanation I’ve found is from a BC Heritage website:

“Canada was divided into a grid of main map units of 2° (degrees) latitude (high) by 4° longitude (wide). Latitudinal co-ordinates are assigned capital letters from A through U from south to north and longitude is designated by capital letters A through V from east to west. Each 2° x 4° main unit (192 km x 300 km) is further sub-divided into 10 minute (‘) sub-units designated by lower case letters from south to north (latitude) and east to west (longitude). For example, in DcRu4, the first two letters indicate the site is in one of the 16km wide grid squares in the latitudinal ‘D’ square, and the last 2 letters likewise show the grid position on the longitude. The number ‘4’ after the four letters means it was the fourth site found within a 16 km x 16 km unit.”


It takes me a good 10 minutes of head scratching to figure out exactly which Borden Block a site is in- there is much map consultation and consternation…

The Borden System is messy, crazy making, but it does make sense- Borden must have been a genius to  figure it out!

I am new at it however, and eventually I hope the Borden System will yield up its mysteries.  Until then I get to read maps like I am on a super secret spy mission! Borden decoder ring- YES PLEASE!


Move over Captain Midnight, there’s a new hero in town!


One response to “Charles Borden- one of British Columbia’s archaeological legends

  1. Pingback: Carl Borden and Archaeology in British Columbia | Field of Work·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s