We Know How Old Stone Points Are, Right?

Back in September of 2017, I found what would probably be one of the coolest artifacts that I will ever find in my field survey career. My coworker Vince and I got up one fateful morning and set out on our four hour quad ride into one of the most beautiful areas in Northern Alberta: the Swan Hills. I have been working in the Swan Hills area for a few years now and every time I come back, I am always amazed by the broad vistas and pristine valleys that cut through this segment of the Alberta Foothills.

IMG_20170930_134727 - Copy
On the trail near Goose Tower, Swan Hills, AB.

We were checking out a cutblock on the edge of a broad muskeg flat with a small stream. It was pretty swampy on the way in, but once we got closer to the stream, the land rose up into a nice, narrow little ridge that gave a good view over the stream. After walking around for a bit, Vince and I settled on a place to start digging. Normally, it takes a bit of time going through the screen before you can find the small stone flakes that we typically find. This time, I only had to flip over the root mat to see the top half of a stone blade stuck in the rootlets. A few seconds later, I pulled out the base of the same blade from the loose sediment, revealing a complete spear point buried only a few centimeters below the surface.

Point_in_hand - Copy
The point seconds after I pulled it from the ground.

You can only imagine my excitement once I pulled this beautiful specimen out of the ground (I think I was making noises akin to Homer Simpson drooling over a doughnut). It is hard enough to find artifacts in the Boreal Forest, let alone to find a tool! My first thought as soon as I pulled it out was that I had found an Alberta Point. This is a type of projectile point that dates to around 9500 and 8000 years ago and is part of what is known as the Cody Complex. Alberta Points commonly have square stems that would have been hafted into a spear shaft, along with broad distinct shoulders and wider tapered blades. It seemed to be a good fit for the style of the point that I had found so I put Alberta Point in my notes and went about my day.

Reid with Point - Copy
The two pieces fit perfectly together, but it’s a bit awkward holding it like this!

Back at the lab, I started flipping through my reference books. I began to realize that what I had found didn’t really fit with what we know about Alberta Points. The shoulders weren’t as square as other Alberta Points and the blade was a little too broad and less lance-like. I also noticed that the shape of the point closely resemble ones found at Hell Gap sites, dating to between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago (before the Alberta points and the Cody Complex). During this period, we see that First Nations ancestors were making similar large spear heads, but with a broader blade and slight, indistinct shoulders. So the spearhead that I found could also belong to this time period. However, the story doesn’t end there. To complicate matters more, there are also similar kinds of projectile points being made around Lake Athabasca in the northeast corner of the province. During the Early Taltheilei Phase (2600 to 1800 years ago), the caribou hunting people living on the shores of Lake Athabasca were making similar looking large spear and atlatl dart points. The point I found could fit into any one of these three possibilities.

So what kind of projectile point had I found? If we can identify the style, we can make inferences on the age and archaeological culture that was present at the site. Being able to place an age on a site is often difficult to do for Alberta sites, especially sites in the Boreal Forest. The lack of organic preservation at many sites means that radiocarbon dating is often not possible. Also, most archaeological sites in northern Alberta have very little stratigraphy, meaning that you will find 13,000 years of history in about 20 cm of soil. Even this artifact, which may be anywhere from over 10,000 to 2000 years old, was found only 5 cm below the surface. So if I were to determine how old this site was, I would need to be able to positively identify the type of projectile point that I had found. So what did I find? How was it made? Where did it come from? The answers to these questions can tell us about the people who made the artifact.

GfQa-5-1_plate_white
Both sides of the spear point.

First off, the material. The point is made of fine-grained quartzite, a lithic raw material that was frequently used in Alberta all throughout history. There are a lot of advantages to working with quartzite. As a material it is very strong and durable, which means that the edge of the blade will hold longer than other materials like obsidian. This also means that it is extremely difficult to work with. When we try our hand at flintknapping today, we often start with obsidian, chert, or flint because these materials will fracture more easily and predictably than others. Pick up a raw quartzite cobble, and you’ll find that you be bruised from trying to crack it open.

Quartzite is also very common. Almost every stream, creek, and river valley is filled with a variety of quartzite cobbles. You don’t need to import it thousands of kilometers, unlike Knife River Flint or obsidian. Not all quartzite is the same quality, but there are well documented sources of high quality quartzite and sandstone throughout the province, like the top of the Grizzly Ridge by Swan Hills or in the Oil Sands around Fort McMurray.

IMG_20170903_161304 - Copy
Corey standing on a stream bed full of quartzite cobbles.

In fact, this point is made from a type of quartzite that is commonly known as ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ because of the small black specks in the largely white stone. This material has been found all over Northern Alberta, but it is most commonly reported around Fort McMurray. While no source has been officially documented, archaeologists who work in the Oil Sands region often report seeing raw cobbles and boulders of ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ quartzite in the creeks flowing into the Athabasca River. It is very likely then that this point was made from a cobble that came from the Fort McMurray region. Whether the person who made the point carried from Northeastern Alberta or if it made its way by trade, we don’t know. However, it does show us the vast ancient networks that connected the First Nations across Alberta.

Salt and pepper map
Possible pathway for Salt and Pepper quartzite from Fort McMurray.

So we know where the raw material for the point came from, what about how it was made? What can the shape and design tell us about the people who made it? One way to study this is to look at the flake scars, the ridges and concavities left when pieces of quartzite were struck from the point. Most of the time with finished projectile point, or those that have reached the end of their life as a usable tool, we will see that the edges will be very uniform and straight, with small flake scars along the blade where the tool was resharpened. However, this artifact is very rough, the edges are irregular and chipped and the blade has large long flake scars covering the surface. Based on these traits, it appears that this point was unfinished, and looking at where the break is, it was likely broken when they were trying to make the blade thinner. This point is what would be called a ‘Preform’, a roughly worked projectile point that has not been attached to a haft yet. Preforms can take a variety of shapes and forms, but they often resemble the final point style.

So now that we understand that we are looking at an unfinished point, it better explains why the shape of the artifact does not perfectly match other Alberta points. However, that doesn’t help us to determine if it is an Alberta, Hell Gap, or Taltheilei projectile point. The implications of assigning the point one of these time periods is significant, because it would move the occupation of the site from a period where Giant Bison and Ice Age mammals roamed Alberta during the Hell Gap Phase, to an environment more similar to what we see today during the Taltheilei Phase. Personally, I think that the point from GfQa-5 is more similar to projectile points and preforms that have been dated to the Hell Gap period. The shape of the shoulders, base, and the blade all seem to better match the style of these points than Alberta Points, and the points found at Taltheilei sites tend to be smaller and narrower. A cache of similar looking spear points were found near Eaglesham in northwestern Alberta, and the archaeologists who studied these points concluded that they were likely unfinished Hell Gap points. It seems likely then that the spear point I found would fall into this time period. However, this is still based on very general characteristics, and it could still easily fit within all three of these categories. Until we have more information, and we excavate more archaeological sites, we are often left with our best guess.

Wedge

This little guy is a wedge, or sometime as it is sometimes known as its french name, pieces esquilles. These tools are thought to have been used to split organic materials like wood and bone, much like an ancient stone chisel. One of the sharp sides of the wedge would be placed against the material that you wanted to split, and you would hammer the other end with a stone to drive the wedge through it. Since this little tool would literally be caught between a rock and a hard place, using a wedge would often create bipolar flake scars. You will also often see crushing and lots of hinge fractures on the tops and bottoms of these tools, where the edges are being crushed against the hammerstone and the material being split. As a result, wedges often have a short and squat rectangular body shape.

This particular specimen is made from a very coarse grained quartzite. Based on the reddish hue of the stone, it may have even been heat treated to improve the quality of the material. It was found near Wabasca-Desmarais, on a high ridge that overlooked a broad stream valley.

The One That Got Away

In this blog series, we will be reviewing and summarizing recent archaeological research occurring in the province and around the world. To see the original article, and others like it check out the Blue Book Series presented by the Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

When we find animal bone in an archaeological site, we can usually tell whether that animal died of natural causes, or if they were hunted and butchered by people. Evidence of butchery is sometimes obvious. We can see cut marks on the bone that are left behind when a sharp metal or stone knife cut into the outer layer of tissue that makes up bone. We can also see different fracture patterns in how the bone breaks. You can butcher an animal with an axe, leaving behind deep gouges in the bones, or using a saw which leaves distinct striations in the cuts.

Telling how an animal was hunted is more difficult. We often have to infer how the animal died based on the surrounding evidence. If we are looking a site like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, we can make a pretty good guess that the animals died from falling off the cliff. If we find a bison skeleton surrounded by stone arrowheads, it likely was shot using a bow. Very rarely do we ever see “the smoking gun” in archaeology. However, in the case of the Pibroch Vertebra we have a unique specimen that provides an insight into how people were hunting in the past. In an article published in the Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper Series, Dr. Jack Ives at the University of Alberta and Bob Dawe at the Royal Alberta Museum reviewed their findings from the Pibroch Vertebra.

Continue reading “The One That Got Away”

Can you spot the archaeologist?

It’s always important to stay highly visible and safe out there. While overhead hazards are not a concern at most archaeological sites, we often do work in places where banging your head and falling debris are a serious risk. One also needs to be careful when exploring historic sites, like this root cellar here. Often times, historic structures such as this can have pieces of metal farm equipment hidden in the tall grass. If you are not careful, you can run the risk of stepping on a rusty nail or the spikes on a set of harrows.

Spruce Grouse

Can you see them? I almost didn’t! These spruce grouse chicks were hanging out on a trail we were walking on near Wabasca-Desmarais, Alberta, nested in the woody debris on the trail. The only reason we stopped was because we saw the mother hen making short flights down the trail and making a lot of noise. Often, the grouse mothers will fake an injury and make a lot of noise to draw predators away from their chicks. Luckily for her, we weren’t hungry that day!

Atlatl Point

This little quartzite projectile point comes from a small site near Wabasca-Desmarais, Alberta. We found it on a small hill that was next to a lake, along with several chert and quartzite flakes. This point likely was fitted to an atlatl dart, a type of feathered throwing spear that uses a hooked throwing stick to help propel the projectile.

It is difficult to tell how old this particular projectile point is. It has a straight base and broad side-notches, which is similar to the Besant Phase (2500 to 1000 years ago on the northern plains), but it is also similar to some of the early side-notched points from the Middle Precontact (8000 to 5000 years ago). Looking further to the north, this stone point also has some similarities to the kind of projectile points found in the Taltheilei tradition in the Northwest Territories. Unfortunately, we do not have a clear understanding of projectile point typologies in the boreal forest of northern Alberta, as this region is lacking deeply stratified archaeological sites with material that we can radiocarbon date.

Antique Car?

Do you think she’ll start? While surveying harvest blocks in the Marten Hills by Slave Lake, we found an old car parked on the side of an old overgrown road. While not as unique an old plane crash, it does show how much an area can change. What used to be a road is now an overgrown trail through the forest.