Convocation ‘20: Liam Wadsworth

Weaving Stories from the Past

Donna McKinnon - 1 June 2020

From a fascination with science and history to the discovery that the real world was “far more beautifully complex” than he imagined, William (Liam) Wadsworth has been driven by story for as long as he can remember.

Throughout his master’s program in Anthropology under the supervision of Kisha Supernant, Liam has partnered with Indigenous communities (both Métis and First Nations) in western Canada to help locate archaeological sites and unmarked grave locations using non-destructive, remote sensing technology. It is an honour, he says, to share these stories, and to build the community connections through which these stories are given life.

In 2019, Liam received the Canada Graduate Scholarship to Honour Nelson Mandela, awarded to outstanding students whose research aligns with the ideas championed by Mandela during his lifetime. This fall, Liam will begin his PhD in Anthropology at the U of A, conducting more extensive projects for and with Indigenous communities in Alberta and Western Canada.

What drew you to this area of study?

From an early age I was fascinated by history. Although I didn’t know or understand it at the time, I was interested in stories of identity, the stories people told and the stories that were told about them. I have always had this passion and appreciated it when people share their stories with me. It was in high school that I began to really appreciate science. Although I had a specialist in Archaeology from the University of Toronto, my semesters were loaded with geography, earth science and biology classes. I felt limited however by what science could and could not answer, and I knew the real world was far more beautifully complex than just solving arbitrary or theoretical problems. Starting with my undergraduate thesis research, but more significantly when I came out west [to the University of Alberta], I started realizing that science tells us only part of the story. Although I still get to play with expensive toys like drones and geophysical equipment, I now recognize their limits and seek to combine these techniques with other forms of knowledge, namely, Indigenous knowledge. This really excites me as it combines all my interests, stories, history, science, and really cool tech.

I believe archaeology has many implications for our society, but for me its value is both practical and intangible. In a practical sense, archaeology is political and active in the everyday lives of modern people and communities. More and more archaeologists are also being called upon to be expert witnesses in courtrooms. My supervisor [Kisha Supernant] and I had firsthand experience with the practical implications of archaeology and remote sensing for communities. We had the privilege to be asked by communities to use our techniques to non-destructively locate and help protect unmarked graves and endangered archaeological sites.

While archaeology is a science, it is also an art. It’s significance can never be summed up by its practical implications, because, ultimately, we weave stories. The power of stories has become well known in recent years, but the stories archaeologists tell are often not ours. Archaeological stories are a part of past and modern people’s identities and lives. It is an incredible honour when we are able to share these stories, as they are stories that connect us to each other, our own histories, and the world around us. This is why I love archaeology.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

Oftentimes we are told that doing research for communities is the most ethical and responsible way to conduct research...and it is. That being said, this message often gets morphed into a mechanical/transactional idea…something like “I have to do this because it is the right thing for me to do.” I had a brief exposure to community work in my undergrad, but you really don’t understand/ cannot develop an appreciation for how much research can impact people until you are actively involved in community-work. For my master’s research, I worked with Indigenous communities across Alberta, BC, and Saskatchewan. You really don't understand the gravity of how much this work means to people until you are there living it with them. The emotional heaviness is hard, especially on unmarked grave projects where tears are common. On the flip side, you also don't understand the joy and the excitement this work means to people, the happiness that is expressed in a successful project or a special find. The moments when someone holds a piece of their past and how their face changes from shock to sheer joy. Both the highs and the lows, these are the moments I live for.

Did you face any significant challenges during your program?

I suppose my most significant challenge was related to dealing with uncertainty. I am, by nature, an anxious extrovert. Prior to beginning my masters, I had never been out west. In fact, I don’t believe I had ever been west of Algonquin Park (Ontario)! It was also a time of many significant personal changes and starting my life in Edmonton actively took me away from my family and friends who I relied on for support. The number of people we knew from Edmonton could be counted on one hand! Looking back, it was a scary time! I remember really focusing my efforts on dealing with my anxiety, creating routine, calling home, distracting myself, and trying to land on two feet. By Christmas of my first year, I had strong connections here, a welcoming supervisor and awesome friends, and I became more and more comfortable and confident as the weeks went on. So much so, it is weird for me to reminisce about those early days! I’m not unique, and I think many people initially struggle with transitions such as this, but it is interesting that during the COVID-19 pandemic we are struggling with similar anxieties and disconnects from our support groups.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

The biggest things are self-discipline and community. Self-discipline has always been an important quality for graduate students, being able to put down the video game controller and pick up your laptop with your thesis document open is a big deal, but this became even more important during the pandemic. Most people in my cohort live modestly in apartments where your office is often beside your bed which is beside your kitchen. Space is limited. Maintaining a strict schedule takes discipline and that’s how I kept from getting stir crazy. The next thing is maintaining your community. I think graduate students are pretty solitary animals even if some of us are extroverts. Taking the time to ‘zoom’ your friends or pick up the phone can make a significant impact for them and you. If nothing else, hearing that inherent joy in somebody’s voice when they pick up your spontaneous call is an unforgettably awesome feeling.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

Usually advice is short and catchy…but that mural in downtown Edmonton really resonated with me and summarizes it the best. I don’t live downtown, so I did not see it until about a year into my degree…

“Take a risk, it’s the most Edmonton thing you can do”

Give Edmonton and UAlberta everything you got and don’t look back…you won’t be disappointed!


The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.