Archaeology Around the Wabasca-Desmarais Area

The Wabasca-Desmarais region is rich in heritage of all types, such as archaeological, palaeontological and historic sites and trails. In addition, there are unexplored landscapes that have the potential to contain countless unrecorded sites. Early archaeological research in the area was conducted through government surveys or University funded projects. Over the last 10 to 15 years most of the sites in the area were recorded by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies, like Tree Time Services Inc., working for industry, primarily the forestry sector.

At least 300 First Nations historic and archaeological sites have been identified within 100 km of Wabasca-Desmarais, AB, and 13 sites within 10 km. These sites are located throughout the landscape and shed light on indigenous life over at least 4,500 years.

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Most of the archaeological sites in the region have only had limited excavation done, usually less than 20 “shovel tests”. These are 1 foot square holes dug and screened for artifacts. The most common artifacts are stone chips or flakes, called debitage, that are left behind by someone making or sharpening stone tools. Sometimes stone tools, like scrapers, knives or projectile points (arrow or spear-heads) are found, which let us say more about the site. Rarely, animal bone or charcoal is found that will let us do radiocarbon dating to find out how old a site is.

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A sample of tools found at sites in 2017 located southwest of Wabasca.

Until recently, the Wabasca-Desmarais was considered to be low in archaeological potential due to the abundance of low lying areas and muskeg. Although this type of terrain is difficult to survey, and therefore it may appear to have been largely uninhabited in the past, recent efforts have discovered that there was actually a substantial amount of past activity throughout this region. In the vast muskeg, archaeological sites can be found on elevated areas within the low lying terrain, showing that small water courses and lakes were also extensively inhabited. Many of these small water courses were likely used as transportation corridors between the more productive lakes, and elevated areas within wet lands would make ideal camping locations during resource gathering. In addition, many medicinal plants grow in the muskeg, making this environment invaluable for resource gathering.

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View of a beaver pond on our way to a site in 2017, southwest of Wabasca.

The most-studied site in the region is the Alook Site (HaPl-1), named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. It is located on the north shore of North Wabasca Lake and was excavated by teams from the University of Alberta in the 1960’s and 70’s. These excavations determined that the site was likely a 4200 – 3500 year old indigenous campsite. Archaeologists were able to recover a multitude of stone tools, including McKean atlatl dart points, Side-Notched arrow points and hide scrapers. The excavation also identified a midden feature which contained a concentration of broken bone, stone artifacts and charcoal. Stay tuned for our next post to read more about this site!

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A few artifacts from HaPl-1 Alook Site (Sims  1981.   Archaeologicla Investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site.  In: Archaeology in Alberta, 1981, pp. 12-16.  Occasional Paper No. 19, Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

With the limited archaeological research conducted in the Wabasca-Desmarais region to date, we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of past life-ways and traditional land use in this diverse landscape. It is important to note that even though people have lived in this area for several millennia, very little research has been done in the last 40 years. Further archaeological investigation is this area would be a great opportunity to bring together local communities, educators, academics and industry to further our understanding of its past inhabitants in an inclusive environment in the spirit reconciliation. There is definitely more work to be done!

Albertus Magnus – Patron Saint of Archaeology

The religious tradition of designating a patron saint to a profession or activity is a long standing one, and it is of no surprise that a heavenly protector, or advocate, has been claimed by archaeologists. When it comes to patron saints, archaeologists, like many other professions have claimed more than one patron. Some consider St. Helena of Constantinople (Emperor Constantine the Great’s mother) to be the patron saint of archaeology, since she was attributed to finding and excavating the True Cross. However, other archaeologists feel that they are more than mere excavators of history and are a part of the larger scientific community. Such archaeologist may chose to claim the patron of the natural sciences as their own. It just so happens that Kurt (our TTSI division manager) lives in a town that chose the same patron saint as its namesake, St. Albert.  So who was St. Albert and why was he chosen from amongst hundreds of saints to be the heavenly guardian of those who chose to practice the natural sciences, and thus, archaeologists.

Albertus Magnus (c. 1200 – November 15, 1280), also known as Saint Albert the Great, Albert of Cologne or Albert of Lauingen, was a German Catholic Dominican friar and bishop, who spent his life teaching, writing and investigating the natural world. Early in his life, Albert attended university in Padua, Italy and joined the Order of St. Dominic. He gained his Doctorate while in Paris and taught theology at several universities. He was appointed to many positions within the Catholic Church, including the Master of the Sacred Place (the Pope’s theologian) and the Bishop of Ratisbon. However, Albert never remained in these positions for long as he did not wish to be away from teaching and his work. He is most well known as the mentor of St. Thomas Aquinas  and for the wealth of knowledge that he provided for future generations, most of which is considered to be very accurate even by modern standards.

Although Albertus Magnus was known during his lifetime as a Doctor universalis, he was not beatified until 1622 and was not canonized as a saint until 1931. In 1931 he was also distinguished as one of 36 Doctors of the Catholic Church, which is one of the highest post-humus honors that may be bestowed upon a saint, and was declared to be the patron of the natural sciences in 1941. St. Albert’s feast day is on November the 15, which commemorates his death and the end of his inspiring career.

The reason why he is chosen as the patron saint of the natural sciences is simple: he dedicated his life to investigating the natural world. St. Albert was avid reader of philosophy and extensively studied the works of Aristotle. He is attributed with preserving much of Aristotles writings, and in an age mostly governed by mysticism, he utilized the teachings of the ancient philosophers to study the natural world and critically examine the assumptions of others. His prolific writings were collected in 1899 and placed into 38 volumes, which range in topics from zoology and chemistry to love and friendship. He stated that “the aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature”

St. Albert was truly a great man, and considered by some to be one of the greatest minds in history. Since excavating the past is only a small part of the profession, and the modern archaeologist must have at least a working knowledge of many different disciplines within the natural sciences, I find Albertus Magnus to be a very fitting patron. Whether you are a religious person or not, I believe that his contributions to philosophy, science, and humanity deserve a toast from all us archaeologists on his next feast day!

 

Field School in Southern Italy: Vulture Project

While working on my Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Alberta, I had the privilege of being a member of the Vulture Archaeological Project. During the summers of 2009 to 2012, in the town of Rionero, Italy, I was part of an international team of academics and students attempting to gain a better understanding of this region’s past. The project is named after the dormant volcano, Monte Vulture, at the base of which lies the beautiful town of Rionero.

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This archaeological endeavor was conducted under the direction of Dr. Richard Fletcher, aimed to investigate the Vulture zone of the Lucanian Frontier as a sphere of pre-Roman cultural interaction and Late Roman Stability. The project consisted of an archaeological survey of the region around the volcano and the excavation of a Roman villa (large industrial farm) and its associated cemetery. While the survey aimed to identify important sites in the surrounding area and collect data on land use and settlement patterns from the Early Iron Age to the Late Roman period, the excavation attempted to determine when the site was used, its economic importance, and gain a glimpse into the lives of the people that inhabited it. The project is responsible for recording numerous new sites in the area, and excavating approximately half of the villa (80×40 m). The project was funded through contributions from the Comune of Rionero in Vultur, the Comunità Montana Vultur and from the instruction fees paid by the students attending the field school.

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Although I am not a Classical Archaeologist by training, I was able to apply my skills in a variety of ways.  My pre-archaeological career involved a substantial amount of time in a supervisory role so I started my time at the Vulture Project as a Field Supervisor.  My training in Human Osteology was an asset and I was not only responsible for overseeing cemetery excavations, but also conducting skeletal inventories and primary analysis of the human remains that were recovered. Since archaeological regulations in Italy state that excavated sites must be preserved, I was also in charge of the restoration and preservation of the site’s integrity.  This involved applying mortar and concrete to unearthed structures, and generally making the site presentable by Italian standards.

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My time with the Vulture Project still remains one of the highlights of my archaeological career.  Although it was no vacation, and excavating in 40°C with no shade will discourage even the most seasoned shovel bum, I feel fortunate and grateful that I was able to experience the beautiful southern Italian countryside and touch its past.  Due to this project, I have friends from all corners of the globe and memories that will last a lifetime.

If you ever want to have a similar experience, I highly suggest that you become involved in an archaeological dig either where you live, or abroad.  Many field schools do not require any previous training, and at many digs, volunteering will only cost the price of room and board.  While traveling, it is actually a very cost effective way to become intimately familiar with a region and become submerged in the local culture.

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.