Where does the Obsidian we find come from?

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was used by pre-European contact people all over North America. Known for its natural sharpness, ancient peoples sought the material for making tools for cutting and slicing. Additionally, it is easier to flintknap than the harder and more readily available materials local to Alberta.

As many of our readers know, there are no volcanoes in Alberta, so the obsidian is getting here either by trade or by the movement of people. Luckily for archaeologists, each source of obsidian in North America has a unique chemical signature, allowing us to trace where the material is coming from.

Finding obsidian in Alberta is rare, but over the past few years we have recovered three pieces (Figures 1-3) while working for Sundre Forest Products and Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands Ltd. in the foothills region of the province. These artifacts were lent to Todd Kristensen at Alberta Culture and Tourism as part of the ongoing Alberta Obsidian Project. The artifacts we found were analysed using a technique called portable X-ray fluorescence.

FbPx-10_2
FbPx-10
FaPr-6_14
FaPr-6
FePr-4_7_ventral_dorsal---
FePr-4

The results show that two of the flakes (FbPX-10 and FaPr-6) track well with Yellowstone and one flakes tracks to Bear Gulch which is just outside of Yellowstone to the west. The source within Yellowstone is unknown, but it is assumed that it is the Cougar Creek source, which is the most wide used source.

FbPx-10_FaPr-6_FePr-4
Obsidian Sourcing Results

When we input the distance from FbPx-10 to Yellowstone National Park, we can see this artifact traveled 1,136 km and would take 231 hours to travel that distance by foot. Similarly, FaPr-6 was 1,033 km from Yellowstone National Park and FePr-4 was 979 km from Bear Gulch. This reinforces how valuable this material was for the First Nations of Alberta.

Distance
Distance between Yellowstone Park and FbPx-10

 

Author: Corey Cookson

I have been working in cultural heritage management for five years and have also worked in academic institutions. I am a permit-status archaeologist in Alberta but also have extensive experience in British Columbia. I have undertaken all stages of assessment on a variety of site types and for a range of development projects (forestry, rail, roads, and research). In addition to my experience in the field, I have a background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) which was the main source of analysis for my thesis "An Analysis of Site Selection Behaviours in the Prince Rupert Harbour Area." This is one of the strengths I bring to the Tree Time Services team as I have contributed to the development of archaeological predictive models for our clients.

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