Lightning Trees

Last year, while conducting survey with Brittany in a remote region of northern Alberta, I noticed some unusual scarring on a large spruce tree. Upon closer examination I realized the tree had been struck by lightning.

Usually when lightning hits a tree, one of three things may happen:

  • If the tree is wet on the outside, the electrical discharge may travel down the outside of the bark to ground and have little effect on the tree itself.
  • If the tree is not wet, the discharge may travel down the tree on the inside of the bark, which will result in scarring. In my experience, this will usually be one or more scars that revolve around the trunk of the tree as the discharge travels downwards.
  • If the tree is not wet, but is full of moisture, the moisture may be super heated and instantly turn into gas that quickly expands and causes an explosion. This may blow the bark off the tree, blow the top off the tree, or in some circumstances completely destroy the tree.

The tree that Brittany and I stumbled across had a considerable amount of damage due to the lightning strike. Yet, even though the tree had substantial bark scarring and its top blown completely off, it did not die and seemed to be in pretty good shape.

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The top of the tree exploded from the lightening.

As rare as finding a lightning tree may seem, trees are actually struck by lightning very frequently. The Government of Canada reports that there is an average of 2 million cloud to ground lightning strikes per year in Canada, igniting approximately 45% of all our forest fires. These fires account for nearly 80% of the total forests burned annually. Although I wasn’t aware of these statistics until recently, my time working as a Forest Fire Fighter made me very aware of the frequency, since many of the fires we were called to fight were started by lightning. Even during a torrential downpour, lightning may still strike a spruce tree, causing a small fire to start at the base where it is sheltered by the branches. Days or even weeks later, when the temperature rises and the vegetation dries out, the fire may grow substantially in size. Suppression of these fires cost Canadian taxpayers a substantial amount of money. The Government of Canada has a whole section of their website dedicated to severe weather.

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Lightening scar at  the base of the tree.

Taking refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm is very unwise. It may seem like a good place to keep dry during a sudden downpour, but it is actually one of the most unsafe places you could be. Indoors is always the safest place to be. However, if you are caught without shelter in a thunderstorm, the best place to be is in a low lying area such as a ditch. You might not stay dry, but you will be safe from lightning. Just make sure you watch out for flooding!

If you do happen to stumble across a lightning tree like Brittany and I did, you may want to take a little token for yourself (as long as it doesn’t harm the tree if it is still alive). Many people believe that the wood from a lightning tree will bring you good luck. Others believe that the power passed from the lightning to the tree, can then be passed on to whoever possesses its wood. Even if you are all full up on power and luck, you could always just keep the wood as a souvenir and reminder of the raw and devastating power of nature.

Tree Time Gals!

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to talk about women in our past that have paved the way in some fashion. Without the Famous Five women would not have been recognized as persons in Canada as early as we were. Women like Zelia Nuttal, challenged the norm and pursued something she truly loved, expanding our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures in the process. Thanadelthur and Flores LaDue showed everyone just how strong, creative, and persevering women can be!

To end our posts this week, however, I would like to give a shout out to all the women archaeological consultants in Alberta today. On a daily basis in the field they face the elements, wildlife, and the unknown of what they may or may not find during survey. Those of us that work in the boreal forest have the added challenge of remote access, long hikes with 30-40 lbs of gear, no trails, exhaustion, and the sheer joy of being places people have rarely visited in the recent past. Many of these women lead archaeological survey projects large and small, while others conduct the surveys and are gaining the experience they need to become permit holders. Our permit holders manage the crews, budgets, research designs, safety, data analysis, reporting, and outreach.

In 2017, 62 people applied for a permit in Alberta in order to complete an Historic Resource Impact Assessment (HRIA), of which 23 were women. In Edmonton we have three major forestry CRM companies (Circle CRM, Western Heritage Services, and Tree Time Services) that currently employ 16 permit holders, 8 of which are women, in addition to seasonal and annual archaeologists. At Tree Time, we currently have 4 women (3 permit holders) on a 9 person team: Teresa Tremblay, Brittany Romano, Elenore Hood, and me (Madeline Coleman). We work side by side with our other team members improving our survey techniques, increasing our site identification rates (who doesn’t want to find more?), and annually increasing our understanding of where sites are in our project areas. All of these ladies have inspired me!

Teresa has really improved our understanding of site locations in the High Level area, which typically has very hard access, often needing helicopters. With helicopter access there are so many additional planning and safety considerations to take into account, creating a very challenging project, which she tackles with enthusiasm. In the Sundre area she works with developers on predicting where sites will be, allowing them to avoid areas. That doesn’t stop her from identifying over 30 sites a year in the planned harvest areas, though! She is one of our fastest diggers, and out-tests me on a regular basis. She also has several years teaching experience, preparing our next archaeological generation. She’s worked extensively in Ontario before moving to Alberta, and is working on expanding Tree Time into BC.

Brittany Romano has started to specialize in the Fort Vermilion area but has worked all over the province. Her problem solving skills for access, stuck quads, or site evaluations are excellent. She has recently been heavily involved with developing our outreach programs, which includes school visits. She’s put together our activity stations and worksheets to get young kids really involved and interested in archaeology. She keeps everyone at Tree Time on their toes with light-hearted practical jokes!

Elenore is one of the toughest field archaeologists I have ever met. No holds barred but at the same time the nicest person you could ever hope to work with. She takes no guff from bears, either. She built her career in BC and Alberta and has a keen sense of where on the landforms sites are located. She often finds artifacts in spots I would not have thought to test. She has been the lead of our blog series, and has kept a great balance with articles and featured artifacts. She has recently taken leave to work on a Master’s Degree. The next step is a Permit Archaeologist!

I’ve spent most of my career here, specializing in the Slave Lake region. Over the last few years I’ve been working on better understanding where we find sites in muskeggy regions. I love field archaeology but also really love the analysis part and outreach with First Nations groups. I’ve been working on improving our artifact analysis process, including its photography. I’ve also started working in the realm of public archaeology, which provides everyone with an opportunity to give archaeology a try.

And of course, there are so many other women archaeologists in the province. These include employees at the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, professors, students, volunteers at all our organizations around the province, and even the people who started out as archaeologists but have stepped away (you never really stop being one!). Women are a part of archaeology at every level in Alberta, and they are passionate about what they do.

Keep digging and researching, ladies!!

Mary Townsend Sharpless Schäffer

Have you been to Maligne Lake? If so, you’ve seen some of Mary Schäffer’s work, for her survey of Maligne Lake was used when the area was incorporated into the Jasper National Park.

In 1911, Mary was asked to survey Maligne Lake by the Geographical Board and Geological Survey of Canada. This was incredibly unusual as Mary wasn’t a trained surveyor and government policy at the time prevented women from accompanying survey parties, let alone leading one.i However, Mary’s position was unique; she and her friend Mollie Adams had been the first non-Aboriginal women to see the lake and had already completed several exploratory expeditions in the Rockies by the time of the government’s request.

An American by birth, Mary got her start in the Rockies after she and her husband took a rail trip to the west in 1889. Afterwards, the couple decided to spend their summers undertaking botanical studies in the Canadian Rockies. Mary’s husband, Charles, suffered poor health and this kept them close to the railway line for their research. After Charles’ death in 1903, Mary began to travel further into the Rockies in order to complete the illustrations for the guidebook she and her husband had planned on creating. Along the way, she got much help from guides, outfitters, and Aboriginal people and developed friendships there. By the time she finished collecting specimens in 1906, she was hooked on exploration.

Mary had developed a friendship with a geography teacher from New York named Mollie Adams. The women spent two summers exploring the valleys and lakes north of Lake Louise. The goal of their 1907 expedition was to explore the headwaters of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers, but they were also hoping to find a hidden lake known only to the local Stoney Nakoda First Nations and called Chaba Imne (beaver lake).ii Mary and Mollie had no luck in locating the lake that year, but when they were returning to the railway at the end of their field season, they met a group of local First Nations people and joined them for dinner at the cabin of Elliot Barnes in the Saskatchewan River Valley. One of the men recalled visiting Chaba Imne with his father around 20 years earlier. This man’s name was Samson (also written Sampson) Beaver and from his decades old memories he was able to draw Mary a map outlining the route. The following year, Mary was able to use the map to make her way to the lake, which she named Maligne Lake.

Mary wrote about her 1907 and 1908 expeditions in Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies. This is her most famous book. It is an important work because it contributed to the protection of the Maligne Lake area through raising its public profile, but it’s also important because it reflects the social standards of the time and part of what life was like for women and First Nations in Canada at that time. For example, it wasn’t proper for women to be leading such adventurous and dangerous expeditions, especially with men who were not their direct relatives, and so you’ll see that very little is said of her male guides and companions, especially in comparison to her horses. The book also illustrates the colonial practice of changing Indigenous place names and the idea that areas already known to local people were “discovered” by Euro-Canadians.

Mary took many photographs during her explorations. Many can be found at the Whyte Museum in Banff. Here you can see photos Mary took and hand-coloured of Sampson Beaver and his family, nature scenes, and shots of the expedition, as well as some of her possessions.

Zelia Nuttall

Zelia Nuttall was a prominent anthropologist specializing in Mexican archaeology during the Victorian Era. This was a time when archaeology wasn’t as firmly established as a discipline and it definitely wasn’t considered as a suitable career choice for women. ‘Appropriate’ work for women was typically connected to the domestic realm and included jobs like serving, sewing, washing, shoe-making, cleaning, etc. Archaeology, which might require leading large crews of men, attending university, physical labor, and traveling to remote locations, was squarely in the realm of ‘masculine’ work. Nuttall would often face the challenges of these conceptions, but she persevered and helped advance archaeology as a discipline.

Nuttall’s interest in Mexican archeology began at a very young age. She was born in San Franciso on September 6, 1857 to Dr. Robert Kennedy Nuttall and Magdalena Parrott. Magdalena was born in Mexico and, perhaps to connect her young daughter with her heritage, she gave her the book Antiquities of Mexico. This book helped awaken Nuttall’s interest in Mexican archeology.

Nuttall first visited Mexico in 1884. During this trip, she studied and wrote a paper on terra-cotta heads that she had collected from Teotihuacán. Her article was published in the American Journal of Archeology and she immediately started to gain recognition for her work. Before the age of 30, she was elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Special Assistant in Mexican Archeology at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard.

Nuttall was an expert in pre-columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts. One of her more famous discoveries was the Zouche-Nuttall codex. The codex is made out of 14 sections of animals skins that fold together like a screen. It is covered with a thin coat of fine lime plaster and painted with bright colors. She located the codex in England in private location after tracing it from the San Marco Monastery in Florence. Prior to this, its existence had been forgotten and lost. Her research on the codex demonstrated codices were not merely pictures as many assumed. Instead, the codex was an account of the historic events of the Mixtec. Another famous archival discovery was locating the Drake manuscripts which chronicled Sir Francis Drake’s journey on the Golden Hind.

Photo Source: Michal Wal – Wikapedia

Her accomplishments would not stop there. She was given an Honorary Professorship of Archeology at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico and she helped set up the International School of American Archeology and Anthropology in Mexico. However, she would eventually resign in anger from her Honorary Professorship of Archeology as a result of her unfair treatment. In 1909, Nuttall visited the Island of Sacrificios. Observing the potsherds on the beach, she returned to take a closer look at the island. She soon discovered a large painting of Quetzalocatl (an important feathered serpent deity) on an ancient wall. Recognizing the importance of the deity, she made plans to return to document the site. She became an expert on the island’s history, finding accounts of the island from 1510 detailing the structures and the sacrifices that occurred there. She created plans to excavate the ruins and applied to the government for financial support. She was dismayed to learn that her funding for the project was less than half of what she had been assured she would receive and that she had to limit the exploration to a small section of the island. She was further outraged when she was told she had to be supervised by Salvador Batres because she was a woman. To add salt to the wound, Batres had a reputation of smuggling artifacts and she did not think he was a competent or ethical archaeologist. She resigned in protest. When Batres tried to claim the discovery of the island, she wrote an article outlining her research and methods, and harshly criticizing Batres and his work using specific examples for the American Anthropologist. Although she had lost the project, her article restored her reputation while destroying Batres.

This is just some of the highlights of Nuttall’s work. If you wish to read more about her accomplishments and her personal life, read Ladies of the Field by Amanda Adams. Not only does this book have more information about Nuttall and other Victorian Era female archaeologists, but it is an entertaining and informing book.

Sources for this article:

Ladies of the Field by Amanda Adams.

Projectile Point

Projectile points come in many shapes and sizes ranging from large paleolithic spear points to small protohistoric arrow heads to even smaller “toy arrow heads”. This artifact type is a stone that has been shaped using flint knapping techniques to create a sharp triangular and aerodynamic tip that is attached to a wooden shaft that can be propelled through the air by throwing by hand, atlatl, or bow, to hunt game. This is an important artifact type as over time the styles of points changed allowing us to use the style to estimate the time period a site was occupied.  This particular point is a Besant style dart point, which dates to approximately 2,500 -1,350 BP.


The context of an artifact is extremely important to archaeologists. The context of an artifact means the precise location of the artifact and it’s association with other artifacts and landscape features. This helps us determine such things as the relationships between artifacts on a site, it’s position in time and space, and even how it is related to different archaeological sites.

Below is a picture from a site near the Brazeau Reservoir, Alberta. The lithic scatter pictured below shows the flakes in their original context. The whole scatter is in a semi circle shape outlined in red. The positions of the flakes indicate that someone likely sat near the red circle. They then flint knapped purple quartzite which went in the direction of the purple arrow. They then shifted their body and began to flint knap a grey-blue quartzite that went in the direction of the blue arrow.

This is just a small portion of the site, so when we start to put together this information with other information about the site we begin to get a greater understanding of what happened, such as where specific activities took place and even what was going on in the area at that time.


An atlatl is a throwing stick with a small hook used to throw darts (projectiles). It allowed the hunter or warrior to create more leverage to increase the speed and distance of the dart. This weapon was used throughout North America including Alberta, approximately between 7,500 and 1,350 B.P.

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Atlatl in action!
atlatl throwing
Note the size of the atlatl to the size of the throwing dart