Sourcing with pXRF (portable X-Ray Fluorescence)

“Sourcing” is the study of associating artifacts with their geologic origin in order to infer human transport of materials. This field of research has revealed networks of trade and exchange among indigenous peoples in pre-contact times. But how do researchers figure out the actual source?

One method is with Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. These instruments are used by geologists, archaeologists, and other specialists to gather chemical data of materials in a non-destructive manner. When the results are compared to known sample locations, archaeologists can infer how far the material an artifact was made from has traveled from its geological source. Take obsidian, for example. Obsidian has been found at archaeological sites thousands of kilometers from any volcano. Since there are several volcanoes in North America, identifying which artifact comes from which source affects the interpretation of trade networks.

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A pXRF analyzer

The analyzers themselves are a very intricate piece of technology that use radiation to gather chemical data of samples. The two main components are the X-Ray tube and the detector. Radiation is emitted down the X-Ray tube towards the sample object and interacts with its surface atoms. This interaction consists of radiation knocking an electron from the atom out of place, creating a vacancy in the electron cloud. This vacancy is filled by other electrons in the atom. The electrons shed energy in the form of X-Rays as they fill that vacancy, which is emitted out and collected by the detector.

The spacing between the orbital shells of electrons in the atom is unique to that element. An atom of potassium for instance, has different spacing between the electron shells than gold or iron. So, when an electron fills the vacancy and emits X-Rays, the emitted X-Rays are equivalent to the distance that is unique to that element. The detector collects these x-rays which are diagnostic of the elements present in the sample. Internal software then calibrates the readings into proportions of all elements in the sample.

How XRF works
Simplified diagram of an XRF. Left, an X-Ray tube emits radiation onto a sample, which interacts with the surface. The emitted X-Ray data is collected by a detector. Right, The radiation ejects an inner electron from the atom. This vacancy is filled by a 2nd (a) or 3rd (b) layer electron. This movement of the electrons emits X-Rays.

pXRF analyzers are useful tools for archaeologists since we study culturally significant objects, and do not want to alter or destroy the artifacts we wish to analyze. They are also relatively easy to use. Although users require a certification, they are safe when operated correctly, and the data can be downloaded and interpreted quickly.

A recent study of 750 obsidian artifacts has showed that indigenous trading networks spanned thousands of kilometers. Archaeological sites in Alberta contain obsidian which originated from north, central, and coastal British Columbia, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, spanning a trade network almost 2,000 km across.

Harriet Boyd Hawes

To celebrate International Women’s Week, I present Harriet Boyd Hawes (1871 to 1945), a pioneer in the field of classical Greek archaeology. Her anthropological approach to fieldwork and the understanding of past lives were well ahead of the times and helped the discipline move away from arm-chair studies focused on high status artifacts and museum exhibits. You can read more about her in Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and Their Search for Adventure, by Amanda Adams. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in learning more about early women archaeologists and their contributions to the field.

Harriet Boyd Hawes was born Harriet Ann Boyd in Boston, Massachusetts on October 11, 1871. She was raised by her father and brothers, since her mother died when she was a child. Her brother Alex, was instrumental to her career in archaeology, encouraging her to explore Classical studies. In 1892, she received her B.A. in the study of Classics from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Harriet taking notes (Notorious Women Podcast)

Early in her career, Hawes was drawn to Greece and furthered her education at the American School in Athens. She found it quite difficult to break into the male-dominated field and was excluded from the prestigious excavations around Athens, since digging in the dirt was not a woman’s place. Frustrated by this, she decided to move her academic pursuits to the island of Crete. This was not an easy task, as at this time Crete was war-torn and considered quite hostile. Despite this, Harriet Boyd Hawes, discovered and excavated many sites, and was the first woman ever to direct a major field project in Greece. She was also the first woman to ever speak before the Archaeological Institute of America, where she reported findings from her discovery and excavation of the Minoan (Bronze Age) town at Gournia, Crete.

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Map of Minoan Crete (Wikapedia)

Eventually Harriet began teaching Archaeology, epigraphy, and modern Greek at Smith College, while working on, and receiving, her M.A. She also taught at Wellesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harriet married Charles Henry Hawes, an English archaeologist in 1906, and had two children together. And although studying the people of the past was her passion, she did not neglect those of the present. Several times throughout her life, Harriet put aside her archaeological endeavours and worked as a war nurse. She treated sick and injured soldiers during the Greco-Turkish War, the Spanish-American War and World War I. Later the couple moved to Washington D.C. where she continued teaching and eventually died at age 73 on March 31, 1945.

Hawes differed from many of her contemporaries in that she was more interested in the daily lives of the people she studied, rather than the gold, jewels and palaces of the higher classes. Her publications and discussions concerning her work are technical, and not filled with romance and stories like those of many of her contemporaries. She was well published and received an honorary doctorate from Smith College in 1910. Harriet not only made major contributions to archaeology study, but she also broke down the barriers of her male-dominated field and paved the path for future generations of women in academia. She was truly a pioneer of modern archaeological investigations.

Gear Guide – Knives

If you take a survival coarse, read outdoor living manuals like Northern Bush-craft, or talk to people who spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, one of the first items they suggest always having is a good knife. A good bush knife can be the difference between life and death in a survival scenario, much like a means of water purification and starting a fire (multiple BIC lighters is king!). When surveying the Boreal forest most of what we find are the remnants of First Nations Peoples making cutting implements out of stone. Unless you are an expert flint knapper, I would not recommend making stone tools in a survival situation and instead just follow the experts advice. However, with so many different types of knives on the market today, choosing which knife is best for you may be very daunting. So I asked the archaeological staff at Tree Time Services Inc. what type of knife they carry, why they carry that knife, and what they like/dislike about it? With this information, and my own personal experience, I wrote this guide on knives to share with our followers. Keep in mind, that not all clients allow knives on projects, so occasionally we have to leave them at home.

Folding Knives

Although I would not a consider a folding knife (a.k.a. pocket knife) the best choice for bush-craft, they do have certain qualities that make them quite useful when compared to other options. They key aspect that make folding knives a decent option is right in the name: they fold. Folding knives are the best type of knife for every day carry (EDC) because they are portable, usually lightweight, pack-able and easy to deploy like a Spyderco Paramilitary II. I would not buy a heavy or bulky folding knife. I want to put the knife in my pocket or pack and forget that it is there until I need it. I also would not buy a folding knife that cannot be operated with only one hand. Folding knife technology has advanced enough that knives that require two hands to open (or close) are now obsolete, but some people just fancy the more traditional style and aesthetic of a Buck 55 or Opinal #8. However, when buying any knife, especially folding knives, it is important to buy one that has a comfortable handle. While they may be aesthetically pleasing, many folding knives are very uncomfortable to hold and will cause hotspots and blisters during extended use.

The major downside to folding knives is that the fold is an inherent weak spot, which makes them far less durable than fixed blades, although perfectly adequate for small cutting tasks. Many people would choose lightweight and easy to carry over heavy and bulky. When doing archaeological survey, we have multiple means of communication (cellphone, radio, and In-Reach), and it is extremely unlikely that we would spend any longer than 24 hours stuck in the bush. Both Reid and Elenore think a pocket knife is perfectly adequate for what we do and don’t bother carrying a fixed blade knife. In my 10+ years of forest life, I have never been in a true survival situation, but I carry a fixed blade knife nonetheless, because I want to have it if I need it and I find it useful for tasks unsuited for a folding knife.

Fixed Blade Knives

When choosing a fixed blade over a folding knife, you need to decide whether you want portability or durability. Fixed-blade knives don’t fold, and therefore they need to be carried in a sheath on your belt or attached to a pack. While both types of knives are very proficient at cutting things (provided the edge is well maintained), fixed blade knives are much more versatile. They are universal tools that can be used for many things that would break a less durable folding knife. Digging holes, chopping down trees and cutting firewood, can all be done with a good fixed-blade knife, but would quickly destroy a folding knife. However, keep in mind that not all fixed blade knives are created equal, and a good bush-craft knife should have a full tang (the metal of the blade extends all the way to the base of the handle). This makes the knife substantially stronger than a knife that only has partial tang, or no tang at all, like those “Rambo”-style knives that have a hollow handle. Sure it may seem nice to be able to store matches and snare wire inside your knife, but that hollow-handle knife will break long before a full-tang knife will.

Before choosing which fixed-blade knife to buy, you need to decide what you will be using the knife for, and how much weight are you willing to carry? For instance, Tim carries a Gerber Vertebrae, which is small 3 inch, lightweight blade. In contrast, I carry a Ka-Bar, which is not small (7 inch blade) or lightweight, but I can use it as a small machete to clear helipads, cut roots out of test pits, and baton it through firewood with ease. However, when it comes to fine jobs requiring manual dexterity, the Gerber Vertebrae shines, while the Ka-Bar is just too big for precision cuts. Jay carries an older Gerber knife similar to the Gerber LMF-2 Infantry, which is probably a happy medium between what Tim and I carry. With a 5 inch blade, Jay’s knife is still light enough to be dexterous, while still being large enough to chop and baton.

Morakniv Companion

Vince carries the now discontinued Gerber Guardian, which is a double edged knife that is extremely cool, but not the most useful for anything other than Tactical Forest Operations. Vince admits that while two edges do not dull out as fast as one, his knife cannot baton through wood and is somewhat awkward to use since you can’t put your thumb on the spine while whittling. If price is a concern, but you still would like a good fixed-blade knife then look no further than the Morakniv Companion. These knives are very durable and come highly recommended by many outdoor and survival enthusiasts. Not to mention that you could buy 10 of them for the price I paid for my Spyderco Paramilitary II! Brittany lost her Morakniv Light My Fire this year and doesn’t seem to feel too bad about it.

Multi-tools

The usefulness of multi-tools is undeniable and most of the archaeologists at Tree Time carry one into the bush. Swiss Army knives are great, but Leatherman’s addition of pliers to the “boy scout knife” in the 1980’s changed the multi-tool forever. Since then the multi-tool market has exploded and many different variations with different types of tools are produced by many different manufactures. When buying a multi-tool it is important to keep in mind that when carrying gear through the forest all day “ounces become pounds”. Like other knives, you need to balance weight with usefulness. Ask yourself “do I really need that tiny pair of scissors when I am already carrying a multi-tool with two knife blades and a fixed-blade on my belt?”. Do this for every tool, and soon you will realize that a lightweight multi-tool with 10 functions is likely better. Sure it may seem like a good idea to get the Leatherman Surge with 21 different tools, but it also weighs in at a whopping 12.5 ounces, which is nearly a pound. Luckily many multi-tool manufactures have realized that weight is a concern for many people and have designed tools, such as the Leatherman Signal, with backpacking in mind.

Personally, I would refrain from getting a micro multi-tool like the Gerber Dime or Leatherman Micra. While these are extremely lightweight, I’ve always found that the pliers just don’t generate enough force and the knives just aren’t big enough. If force generation is a must, SOG recently designed the “Power-” line of multi-tools that have a mechanism the doubles the force applied to the pliers. Another important thing to consider when buying a multi-tool is whether you can access the tools with the pliers in the closed position and whether it can be operated one-handed. Like knives, not all multi-tools are created equal and it is important to do a bit of research before you buy a product to ensure you made the right choice.

Digging Knives

While I like to carry a knife that I can use for digging if need be, Kurt likes to carry a knife that was especially designed for the task. When conducting archaeological survey, Kurt carries a folding knife, a multi-tool and a Hori Hori Knife. The Hori Hori knife is a Japanese knife that is part trowel, part knife and is traditionally used for gardening. The dished shaped knife features a serrated blade on one side and a straight blade on the other, although Kurt wishes these were reversed so that the straight blade faced down when held in the right hand. The Hori Hori knife is large enough to be used as a small machete, and is very useful for cutting sod, removing roots from test pits and troweling through tree throws. According to Kurt, the major downfall of the Hori Hori knife is that it does not have a full tang, and the blade becomes loose with heavy use. Since the handle is riveted, there is no way to tighten the handle once it slacks off. Kurt says he may replace the rivets with screws so that he can periodically tighten it up.

In the past, Kurt has also carried a Lesche knife, which is another knife designed primarily for digging and loved by the metal detector community. Although Kurt was fond of this knife, he says that he gave it up for the Hori Hori, due to the offset handle making it awkward to carry. Like trying to carry a trowel on your belt, the offset handle sticks out from your body and gets caught on branches and trees while navigating dense forests. However, he was very fond of the sheath and it fit his Hori Hori knife perfectly.

Folding Saw

I will mention one other tool that is extremely useful and hard to do without. Folding saws are an excellent tool that are a necessity for anyone doing archaeology in the Boreal forest. There have been countless times where a tree or large branch is totally blocking a cutline that we need to quad down to access our work area. Instead of walking for an extra 3 km, we simple deploy a folding saw and cut the tree out of the way. If I know there will be lots of deadfall, I bring a chainsaw, but sometimes one small tree can mean the difference between a 200 m or a 2000 m hike if you can’t get your quad around it.

The two main types of folding saws we use are the “folding” type and the “collapsible” type. Both of these saws work, but a folding saws is more portable and easy to deploy, whereas a collapsible saw is better at actual cutting. Madeline uses her Kershaw folding saw so much she actually keeps it in her vest. She uses it to clear trails and get those pesky roots out of her test pits. Last year Tree Time bought 4 of the collapsible Agawa Boreal 21 Saws for people to take with them on the quads. We found that these saws were extremely useful, and cut through fairly large trees with ease.

Closing Remarks

When purchasing knives, multi-tools or saws for work, or pleasure, remember to ask yourself “do I actually need this?”, and better yet “do I really want to carry this around all day?”. This is what you have to remember when buying a folding-knife versus a fixed-blade knife, a 7 inch blade versus a 4 inch blade, a 21 function versus 12 function multi-tool or a folding versus collapsible saw. Weight adds up very fast when you have to carry it around for 12 hrs a day, every day, so it is these small choices that make all the difference. You cannot leave your food, water, GPS or first aid kit at home, but you can choose a multi-tool that is 5 ounces lighter, or a knife that fits in your pocket. However, always remember that outdoor living is always a trade off, and conscious well thought out decisions should always guide you when choosing your kit.

Edible Plant Series – Wild Mint

For this installment of the Edible Plant Series we will showcase wild mint. Mentha arvensis is a fairly common flowering plant that is found all over the world. It likes to grow in low-lying poorly drained areas, and will commonly be found along creeks and rivers, or in grassy areas bordering muskegs. It can be hard to spot as it may be hiding amongst taller grasses and weeds. You will usually smell it long before you see it, as it gives off a distinct, pungent, but pleasant aroma.

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Water Hemlock

A quick cautionary note: Always be sure to correctly identify wild plants before you ingest them. There are plants, such as water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Like wild mint, water hemlock grows in poorly drained areas and they are often found in the same locations. I was raised in cattle country in northern Alberta, and I remember a couple instances when local cows died from accidentally ingesting water hemlock. Mature plants vary greatly in size, with water hemlock reaching heights of 2.5 m tall, but all plants start off small. So when it comes to eating wild plants, it is best to just assume everything will kill you, unless you know for certain that it won’t.

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Wild Mint

I was first introduced to this fragrant little plant by my friend Jonah while we were conducting an HRIA south of Kinuso, AB. We were quading through a muskeg and Jonah caught a wiff of wild mint. We stopped for lunch, and Jonah showed me the source of the smell. We then proceeded to pick as much as we could find during our break. After work we dried the mint by hanging it in bunches around our hotel rooms. I don’t know what the hotel staff thought when they cleaned our rooms the next morning, but Jonah said his grandma would be super happy when he brought her a bounty of her favourite tea. My girlfriend, now wife, didn’t seem very impressed when I brought her a container of dried weeds from the field, but she does enjoy the tea.

Wild mint is mainly prepared as a tea, and is traditionally used by First Nations people as a delicious hot beverage and a herbal remedy. The tea was used to treat a variety of ailments such as digestive issues and coughs, and an ointment made of mint could alleviate aches and pains. Northern Bush Craft, suggests that it can be used to flavour other food, and sprinkling powdered leaves on berries and drying meat will repel insects. Jonah said that if you are out of bug spray, you can rub mint on yourself to keep the mosquitoes away (I’ve actually heard the same about juniper berries).Varieties of mint are still used today to produce a variety of chemicals, like menthol, which has many pharmaceutical applications.

I appreciate this knowledge that Jonah shared with me, as I now know the source of this mysterious forest odour. I generally pick a bit each year to keep our supply topped up and while working, fresh wild mint provides a nice treat to refresh your mouth when you’ve been drinking tepid water that tastes like dirt all day.

Edible Plants Series – Wild Berries Part 1

If you follow our blog, or have read any of the other installments of the Edible Plant Series, you will notice some repetition in the following cautionary note. Do not eat any wild plants that you can not identify with 100% certainty! Berries are generally safer than plants like mushrooms, since most edible berries do not have poisonous look-alikes. However, there are still some berries that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Black nightshade (Solanum americanum, Solanum nigrum) and Baneberry (Actaea rubra) both have toxic berries that can be extremely harmful if eaten, especially to small children. Luckily, the two berries I will discuss in this post are both fairly common and easily recognizable.

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Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries – (Fragaria virginiana)

In my opinion, these little gems are one of the most delicious naturally occurring foods in Alberta. While not being super easy to spot, they are immediately recognizable due to the fact that they look exactly like a strawberry, but tiny. Wild strawberries are much smaller than their cultivated counter-parts, but both the plant, the flower, and the fruit, closely resemble the garden variety. They look like strawberries, and they taste like strawberries, yet I find that the little wild variety has much more flavour. Strawberries grow in varied environments and seem to like open, well-drained areas. I rarely see more than a few berries at a time under the dense forest canopies, but cutblocks that are a few years old are usually ripe with them (pun completely intended).

If you’re stranded in the bush, don’t plan on surviving off wild strawberries. They are delicious, but individual plants will only produce a few berries at a time. They do not grow in clumps like many other berries, and you will spend an hour trying to get a handful of them. But what a handful!

Prior to my parents doing some landscaping on the farm, the southern edge of their lawn next to the creek had a substantial wild strawberry patch. It really was a large patch, but it would still take my grandma almost an entire day to pick enough wild strawberries to fill a small bucket. Out of this, she would make about four small jars of jam, three of which my dad would quickly hide so that us ‘damn kids’ didn’t eat it all up in a week. This coveted preserve would slowly be brought out of its hiding place throughout the winter, usually when company was over for breakfast. Worth the work and perfect for a special occasion, but definitely not to be wasted on PB&J sandwiches!

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Wild Blueberries

Wild Blueberries – (Vaccinium spp.)

According to Northern Bush Craft, several different species of wild blueberry are prevalent across Canada. I’ve never really noticed a difference between the species, but this is probably because I’m too busy filling my face with them! They grow on a small, low lying, woody shrub that somewhat resembles bear berry or kinnikinnick. Similar to strawberries, wild blueberries look similar to, but are generally much smaller than their cultivated counterpart. However, wild blueberry plants are generally very productive and you can gather a large quantity relatively quickly. Be careful how many blueberries you consume in one sitting, as they have an extremely laxative effect when eaten in large quantities. I’ve seen them growing in a variety of environments, but they seem to be most abundant in well drained, open, coniferous forests. As a kid I remember picking blueberries with my grandma in the muskeg, but it is quite possible that these were the ‘bog’ variety (V. uliginosum), which prefer wet, acidic soils.

I will end this blog post with another cautionary note. Bears love blueberries, and they can be extremely protective of a productive patch. Bears in a blueberry patch may be too busy chowing down to even notice you’re there, yet they may also see you as competition for their prized berries and act very aggressive. It is not uncommon in the late summer to see bear scat that is almost entirely composed of blueberries. Bears need to eat an obscene amount of calories per day to ensure that they have enough fat stores to make it through winter hibernation, and a good berry patch is a very cost-effective means for them to get these calories. Picking a bucket of blueberries is extremely gratifying, but never forget that there are much bigger, faster, and stronger things in nature that also find them delicious, and they may be terrible at sharing!

Wind Storm in the Slave Lake Region Aids in the Discovery of Giant Archaeological Site.

In July of 2017, some forests in the vicinity of Slave Lake experienced catastrophic blow down when a fast moving storm swept through central Alberta. The large storm system caused high winds and localized flooding in many areas, including Slave Lake and Edmonton. It also dropped golf ball sized hail on Drayton Valley and spawned a tornado near Breton. Whole sections of forest were devastated by winds in excess of 100 km/hr. It was speculated that the severe wind and heavy rainfall may have resulted in a reduced number of juvenile birds, from both ground and tree nesting species, in the Slave Lake region.

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Severe blowdown observed in the forest

The archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. conduct Historic Resources Impact Assessments (HRIA) for many of the forest product companies that operate in the Slave Lake region. Prior to the commencement of any harvest activities, these companies must ensure that their operations are not going to adversely impact any archaeological, historic or cultural sites.

A few of the cutblocks that Vanderwell Contractors (1971) Ltd. had scheduled for harvest in 2017, were completely flattened by the storm. Although archaeological survey is usually conducted prior to harvest, the heavy blow down caused by the storm made it extremely hazardous to work in these areas. Pre-impact survey allow forest companies to avoid the historic resources identified by archaeologists and ensure that they are not disturbed by harvest activities. However, the chance of the archaeologists being injured by falling trees and ‘widow makers’ was much too high. The archaeologists had to wait till the timber was salvaged. Even though many of the trees were broken, Vanderwell Contractors was still obligated to complete the HRIA. In some rare circumstances such as this, or salvaging timber from forest fires, archaeologists may have to conduct their survey post-impact, or after the harvest is complete.

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Tim documenting exposure in the cutblock

The timber was salvaged during the winter by Vanderwell Contractors, and Tree Time’s archaeologists returned in the summer of 2018 to conduct their search for historic resources. The timber salvage had slightly impacted the area, but it was apparent that many of the trees had been uprooted by the wind storm. Usually cutblocks are full of stumps, which are still rooted in the ground, but these cutblocks were filled with stump piles. Instead of cutting down the trees, the harvesters were simply picking them up and cutting off the ends. To access the salvaged timber, Vanderwell Contractors had to build a small temporary road. The tree throws created by the blow down, as well as harvest operations, led to a substantial amount of exposed sediment, which allowed archaeologists to quickly identify a very large archaeological site: GgPm-7.

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Flake found in exposure
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Stump piles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

GgPm-7 is a large pre-historic campsite that occupies a long north to south trending sand ridge next to the Athabasca River. The archaeologists found the site while looking for artifacts in the surface exposures created by tree throws on the south end of the ridge. They found four stone flakes (debitage) in the second tree throw they inspected. As they worked their way down the ridge, they continuously examined the surface exposures as they went. They did not stop finding artifacts until they reached the north end of the ridge. The archaeologists then used shovel tests to investigate areas along the ridge that did not have many surface exposures, or where no artifacts were found during the initial sweep. When the delineation was complete, GgPm-7 measured approximately 800 meters in length and 128 artifacts had been collected.

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GgPm-7 Site map

This site is designated as a prehistoric camp based on the variety of artifacts found. A campsite is a somewhat encompassing term given to archaeological sites that display evidence of a variety of different activities including a hearth or other evidence of fire. Stone flakes, or debitage, are found at almost a pre-contact archaeological sites and provide evidence that tool production, or re-sharpening. The presence of stone cores suggest that early stage stone tool production, or the production of flakes that could be turned into tools at a later time, had occurred.

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Core found during assessment
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Projectile point found during assessment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The discovery and delineation of GgPm-7 highlights an important issue facing CRM archaeologists working in the forestry sector. Although pre-impact survey allows for sites to be identified before they have been disturbed, the work at GgPm-7 clearly indicates that not only are sites much easier to find post-impact, but they are also much easier to delineate. Of the 27 surface inspections that were conducted by the archaeologists, artifacts were observed in 22. In contrast, of the 22 shovel tests that were dug, artifacts were only recovered from 3. There is little doubt that a pre-impact survey of this landform would have identified an archaeological site. However, there is a very good chance that shovel tests alone would have failed to display the extensive size of the site. Although surface exposures can compromise site integrity, they allow archaeologists to quickly assess an area without conducting labour intensive shovel tests.

Edible Plant Series – Wild Mushrooms

For this installment of the Edible Plant Series I decided to take a bite out of mushrooms. Before I get into the bread and butter of this topic, I must first do what everyone must do when they are discussing eating wild mushrooms. I must state: DO NOT EAT ANY MUSHROOMS THAT YOU CAN NOT CORRECTLY IDENTIFY WITH 100% CONFIDENCE. This is not mere cautionary note, and yes, I did mean to use ALL CAPS and BOLD when I wrote it.

Death Cap
Death Cap

Mushrooms are not something to mess around with. There are literally thousands of different species of mushrooms in Alberta, yet the list of mushrooms that are edible and have no poisonous look-alikes is actually quite short. In North America, a few people die each year by incorrectly identifying and ingesting poisonous mushrooms. The main culprits are usually members of the genus Amanita and have super ominous names like the Destroying Angel (A. bisporigera, A. ocreata, A. virosa), Death Cap (A. phalloides) or the little less scary, Fool’s mushroom (A. verna). These unassuming looking mushrooms have a toxin that does not show symptoms until its already too late. By the time you feel ill, you may already need a liver transplant, and death will shortly follow without intense medical treatment.

Even some edible mushrooms have toxins that are destroyed by cooking so unless you know for sure, it is always best to cook wild mushrooms. Some varieties of edible mushrooms have a toxin that interferes with alcohol metabolism. So again, unless you know for sure that the edible mushroom you picked does not do this, it is best to abstain from that bottle of wine with supper.

The surest way to avoid being poisoned is not to eat mushrooms unless you are completely sure they are edible. The best way to do this is to learn from those with the experience and knowledge, not to try to identify a mushroom by comparing to a picture on the internet. Mushrooms are abundant, and wild mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but you must put in your time and learn what is edible while assuming everything else will kill you. If you’re interested in learning this skill, mushroom picking classes are offered by the Alberta Mycological Society.

So now that you’re thoroughly scared (as I intended), lets discuss two of the mushrooms that I personally feel confident picking and eating. I grew up on a farm and have spent an obscene amount of time in the forest. I know of a few mushrooms you can eat because I learned from my dad and my grandma. This knowledge was supplemented by taking survival courses and reading Northern Bush Craft several times. Even with this knowledge, I only feel completely confident identifying and eating four types of mushrooms. In this blog post I will share two of them with you. I chose the first, because it is very common, has easily identifiable characteristics and no close look-alikes. The second I will share because they are damn delicious, and one of the most sought after mushrooms in the world.

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King Bolete

Boletus edulis – King Bolete aka. Porcini, Penny Bun, Cepe

The King Bolete (Boletus edulis) is a very common mushroom in the boreal forests of Alberta, or basically any wooded area in the northern hemisphere. The mushroom forms a symbiotic relationship with trees, which makes it difficult to cultivate, but abundant in forested regions. These mushrooms grow all summer starting in the spring, but they spoil and get infested with worms as they age. The mushroom varies greatly in size, but will grow fairly large, with its red to brownish-yellow cap reaching up to a foot (30-35 cm) in diameter.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of this mushroom, is that it does not have gills under the cap. Instead, there are tiny spore tubes that give the underside a spongy appearance. This will be white when the mushroom is young, darkening to an olive or brown color as the mushroom ages. My family always removed the sponge on larger mushrooms before cooking them, but the sponge is perfectly edible and we wouldn’t bother removing it on the smaller ones.

The stem is usually white to light brown and the lack of a sock, or volva, is an important characteristic. When we pick these mushrooms we always bring a knife and cut the bottom of the stem. This not only removes the dirt, but also allows you to check if the mushroom has worms. The stem should be completely solid and white. If you see small brown holes when you cut the stem you know that the mushroom is infested and should not be eaten.

Our favorite way to eat these mushrooms is to cook them with butter, garlic and a little salt and pepper, as an accompaniment with steak, but they dry quite nicely and are good in soup, gravy and stock. These mushrooms have no toxin so they can be eaten raw and you don’t have to set aside the beer.

True Morel
True Morel

Morchella spp. – True Morels aka. Black Morels

The True Morels (I believe Morchella elata is the most common in Alberta) have a very short growing season and like forests that have been opened up in some way. They can be found from May to early June in old forest fire burns and cutblocks, but we mainly looked for them in bush around the farm where the cows reside.

They are an odd looking mushroom that has a ribbed or honeycomb cap that varies from light yellowish-brown to dark brown. They are small, which makes them difficult to spot. True Morels will only have a single, somewhat uniform, conical cap, which in my mind, makes them resemble little spruce trees from an alien planet.

These little mushrooms have a hollow stem that is light brown. The stem and the cap form a continuous hollow chamber. This is the easiest way to tell them from their look-alikes, the False Morels. Not all False Morels are poisonous if properly prepared, but many have a toxin that accumulates in your body and can be fatal at high doses. The stem and cap of False Morels do not form a single hollow chamber, so this characteristics can help discern True from False. I personally know a few people who have mistaken False Morels for the True ones. No one died, but a couple of them got fairly sick.

Technically, True Morels are still a poisonous mushroom, but the toxin is broken down by heat, so they should always be cooked before consumption. The toxin, even when cooked, can react with alcohol leading to an upset stomach and increased impairment. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect, but Morels are rare, and I have only ever consumed a small amount of them in one sitting.

Although any mushroom is delicious fried in butter and garlic and served on steak, my family usually only ate Morels this way on the day we picked them. Because Morels have a very short growing season, we would pick as many as we could find, as fast as we could find them. We would eat a small amount of them on steak, and dry the rest. They dry very well and keep for a very long time. Dried Morels are an excellent flavour base for soup, stew and gravy. They are highly sought after worldwide and fetch an extremely high price if you can find them.

Mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to get proper guidance before partaking. Take a course and learn from others, and remember not to rely on visually comparing mushrooms to pictures. Good hunting!