Cabin in the Woods

One day last fall, Vince and I went to revisit an old cabin that had been found deep in the Swan Hills. This cabin had been found during an historic resource impact assessment back in 2009, and we just need to check to make sure that the new harvest block was going to avoid the site. The cabin, GfQa-2, was located on the tip of a narrow point along the East Prairie River valley, approximately 60 km south of Driftpile, Alberta.

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Looking out over the Swan Hills

After a long hike through dense fir, we finally reached the recorded spot for the cabin. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a structure to see on the surface. It took us a few minutes to find the 5 by 5 meter square outline of the cabin foundations, right on the river valley edge. It was hard to see as there was only one course of saw-cut logs remaining from the walls and even these were covered in a thick layer of moss and lichen. The cabin had been collapsed for so long that even a large white spruce tree was growing over one of the corners.

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Remnants of the cabin walls at GfQa-2, with a white spruce tree growing over the corner
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Hand-cut logs used in the construction of the cabin

We also noticed two small pits near the cabin walls. The smaller of the two pit features (roughly 1 m in diameter and 60 cm deep) was about 15 meters southeast of the cabin. The second larger pit (2 by 1 m and 60 cm deep) was location a few meters northeast of the cabin wall. We couldn’t find any artifacts in these pits, but we concluded that the smaller pit was likely the privy and that the bigger one may have been some type of root cellar.

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The smaller pit, right up against a small white spruce tree

In contrast to the cabin itself, it was much easier to find the piles of historic artifact around the cabin entrance. Lying on the mossy surface of the site were a number of a metal buckets, glass mason jars, and several rusted metal cans. Artifacts like these are fairly common at historic cabin sites, and at first glance, these artifacts might seem like rusted bits of garbage. However, Vince and I were actually able to find out a lot about the site by looking at these artifacts. For example, one of these cans found a second life as a strainer. The label had long since rusted off of this can so we can’t tell what it originally held, but the bottom of the can had been repeatedly punched with a square nail or metal punch. I suspect that the people living at the cabin weren’t cooking up pasta, instead this can may have been used to wash berries or any number of small food items.

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Can with perforated bottom at GfQa-2

The three artifacts that revealed the most about the people who lived at the site were a set of cans with the labels still preserved. With these labels, we can identify what kinds of food products were brought to the site, and the time period when they were purchased. Certain important changes to labeling laws, like the introduction of the metric system in 1976, can help us to determine age brackets for an artifact (Must be younger or older than X date). Certain styles of labels can also help us to isolate a time period (like a ‘Phantom Menace’ commemorative Pepsi Can that could only date to 1999). By comparing the artifacts to preserved examples of different branded products, we can begin to isolate when this historic cabin was occupied. Unfortunately, the labeling style of different brands that were used in the past has not been well documented, so it is difficult to precisely date a can, even when there is a label.

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On the left a can from GfQa-2, on the right a can of Roger’s Golden Syrup from the BC Sugary Refinery (Kneehill Museum, Three Hills AB).  The details on the building are slightly different, but the company name is still largely preserved along with the red strip around the top.

The first can we identified was a 20 lb can of Roger’s Golden Syrup from the BC Sugary Refinery. This company began the production a variety of sugar-based products in 1891 and we still buy Roger’s Sugar products today in our grocery stores. There is no date listed on the can but the style of the label seems to match examples of preserved cans from the 1940’s and 50’s.

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On the left an artifact from GfQa-2, on the right a preserved Borden Company Klim can. Note the similar type font and printing at the bottom and the similar corners on the label background. One difference is that the preserved label was green as opposed to brown, but it might just represent a different manufacturing period or that the colour has faded from brown to green over time.

The second can that we were able to identify was a tin of Klim from the Borden Company. Klim is a brand of powdered or condensed milk, that was extremely popular throughout the 1900’s. Originally produced by the Merrell-Soule Company in New York, Klim was marketed with the slogan, “Spell it Backwards’. In 1927, the brand was purchased by the Borden Company and remarketed as a Borden Company product. We can only see part of the label on the artifact preserved at the cabin, but the type font and labeling matches other examples of Borden Company Brand Klim. The Klim brand now belongs to Nestle, who continue to produce Klim powdered milk products around the world.

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Unidentifiable can

The third can was the most difficult to identify, as most of the label has been covered with rust and the company name was not preserved. It does seems, however, that this is another can of Borden Company Klim. This is largely based on the shape of the label border and the colour of the can, which is similar to the front of the other preserved label. There was a fair bit of interesting material to read on this label. There is a seal of approval from the American Medical Association (bottom left of label). In 1929, the American Medical Association started a committee to approve the quality and safety of infant formula and other food products. Similarly, one portion of the label reports that the product adheres to the 1937 standards for caloric values. Throughout the 1930’s in Canada and the United States, there was a large push to create a framework for people to maintain optimal health, as well as to combat false or inaccurate claims for food products. The instructions printed on the can also list how to best mix the Klim with water or coffee, as well as a set of special information for physicians to make the equivalent of whole milk. So based on this, it seems likely that this was a can of Klim, produced some time after 1937.

Looking around at the other type of cans we found at the site, a number of them have a similar size and design to the Rogers Golden Syrup container, as well tins of Klim. It seems then that the owner of the cabin had a bit of sweet tooth when it came to their meals. Another intriguing possibility is that the Klim and syrup were used for baby formula, as these are common ingredients in early 20th century baby formulas. During the 1930’s through 1960’s, it was common for mothers to mix powdered milk with honey or syrup to used as infant formula. This was a practice that was recommended by many doctors at the time as the mixture was fattening, even though earlier condense milk products during this period lacked any significant amount of nutrients or minerals (These were added later once doctors realized that we need them to survive). So we might be seeing evidence that a family was living at this cabin, but it is hard to say conclusively that this was the case.

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Examples of other cans found at the site. Most are similar in size to the syrup and Klim cans. We also found a broken tape measure from the archaeologists who found the site, circa 2009!

Based on the kinds of artifacts we were able to identified, we can reasonably guess that the cabin was built some time after 1937 and probably used during the 1940’s or 50’s. But how long did people continue to live at the cabin? The structure is largely gone, so we know that it has been left for some time. However, it is hard to know how long a place has been abandoned. Historic structures can often go through different phases of use, from a permanent residence to a seasonal home or travelers rest stop. One way to determine this is to look at the local vegetation and see how much has grown over the site. At this site, there is a dense growth of balsam fir and white spruce over the site, so it appears to be abandoned for some time. There was also one particularly large white spruce with a diameter of about 30 cm, growing over the south corner of the cabin. This is the perfect situation to determine the amount of time since the cabin was abandoned, because that tree could only start growing after the roof and walls of the cabin had collapsed. Tree growth rates vary considerably based on local conditions, but it would likely take approximately 40 to 60 years for a white spruce to reach that diameter and height. So, given what we know from the artifacts at the site, we can conclude then that this cabin was occupied some time between 1937 and abandoned some time after the 1960’s.
From a few cans in the middle of the forest, deep in the Swan Hills, we can get a snap shot of life from almost 70 years ago. We can see the kind of food that people were eating and what they considered important enough to carry 60 kilometers into the bush with them. Even though this little neck of the woods might seem secluded, so remote that you’d think nobody would visit, but just over 2 kilometers away from this cabin, on a little ridge, we found a 10,000 year old spear point. From the Ice Age to the Modern Age, it goes to show how even the most remote places can have the deepest history.

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Authors Note: If you feel like you can better identify these cans, or if you feel like you know who could have lived at this cabin, please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly about it. Any information that you share will be greatly appreciate and will also help us to tell the stories of the areas we visit.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.


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.