The Royal BC Museum began acquiring archaeological material in 1886, under the Provincial Museum Act. The Archaeology collection currently comprises over 215,000 catalogued artifacts representing over 10,000 years of history. Artifacts include objects of First Nation, Euro-American, European and Asian manufacture, but 99% are related to First Nations cultures. Collections include mostly stone, bone and shell artifacts as well as other smaller categories such as wood, minerals and metals. The vast majority of lithic artifacts include waste material discarded in the production of artifacts (cores and flakes) and pieces of broken artifacts. More complete flaked stone artifacts are mostly related to the procurement and processing of food and include what archaeologists call retouched flakes, bifaces and projectile points. Ground stone artifacts are much less frequent and are dominated by abrading or sharpening stones, artifacts used in woodworking such as hand mauls and adze blades and slate projectile points used in procuring animals. Stone artifacts used for both ritual and utilitarian purposes such as stone bowls are not common in the collection.
Over 95% of the bone and antler artifacts are from coastal shell-midden sites and include large amounts of fragmentary bone items of unknown use, worked waste material or mostly fragments of tools used in fishing, hunting and the fabrication of plant or fur materials. Social artifacts include mostly items such as stone and shell beads with rarer items of body adornment or carved items of artistic interest.
There are also hundreds of cloth petroglyph rubbings and about 350 linear feet of associated excavation and survey materials in the form of artifact catalogue records, archaeological site records, field records, maps and research data. Thousands of associated photographs exist in colour and black and white prints and colour slides. Most of these have not been digitized. Thousands of boxes of non-artifactual material are stored at an off-site warehouse. This includes animal bone and shell samples, charcoal samples for radio-carbon dating, and various types of matrix and soil column samples from archaeological excavations.
Archaeological material usually cannot be readily linked to representatives of living populations. However, over 70% of the artifacts in the collection are from those areas of the southern province occupied historically by speakers of those different but related languages classified by linguists as part of a Salish language family. In terms of geographical area, the archaeology collection is the strongest on the southern coast and in the southern interior of British Columbia. This is largely because most of the development that results in disturbance to the landscape occurs in areas where the highest populations occur today, and because these are the areas where most archaeological work has been undertaken. Over 90,000 artifacts are from the southern two thirds of Vancouver Island and the lower Fraser River region (below Lytton).
There is a distinct south-to-north decline in the number of artifacts represented in the provincial collection. Over 128,000 artifacts (about 45% of the collection) come from below the 50th degree of latitude North, or within the southern 1/11 of the province. The number drops to around 75,000 artifacts between 50 to 52 degrees latitude and to 15,000 between 52 and 54 degrees. Around 7,000 artifacts, or about 3% of the collection, represent the entire northern half of the province between 54 degrees and 60 degrees north.