Field School in Belize – Trent University

One of the most common questions that I get asked is what is the coolest thing I have ever found.  My default answer is this censer fragment that my excavation team unearthed back in 2009 as part of the Trent University field school in Belize, at the Minanha site.

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Censer fragment

My team was working on the excavation of a house platform.  The house platform was part of a small complex of households near a ceremonial and political centre.  the site was abandoned around 1000 years ago at the end of the Classic era of the Maya civilization.

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Our excavation unit

One of the first things found during the excavation was a small cylinder seal next to the large tree root (pictured above).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the artifact but I still have my notes from the field school and a quick sketch that I did.

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Sketch of cylinder seal

As we continued to excavate through different occupation layers, we came upon an assemblage of broken pottery sherds.  We were careful to map each artifact before we removed them from their context (as indicated by the nails at each corner of the artifacts).  We could see there were holes in the ceramics but had no idea of what was waiting once we turned it over.

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A young Corey Cookson excavating the house platform (left).  The censer fragment in situ (right).

When the sherd with the holes was turned over, the entire team got really excited and gathered around while the professor, Gyles Iannone, explained what we found.  The artifact was part of a large incense burner.  When incense was burned within the vessel, the smoke would come out the holes in the censer.  The smoke flowing out of the mouth likely created a very stunning effect.  After the field school was completed, the graduate students catalogued the artifacts and re-assembled the censer (pictured below).

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Reassembled Censer (left – front view; right – side view). Photo Credit: Melissa Jeffrey

Find the Flake (Part 2!)

While we always prefer to survey areas prior to any impacts, the identification of artifacts in post-impact contexts can be easier because of large areas of exposed sediments. Instead of targeted shovel tests that excavate a very small percentage of a high potential area, we can potentially see everything that is under the ground. However, the context of anything we find must be taken into account because heavy equipment can break cobbles and create things that look very similar to lithic debitage. If we find an artifact in the track of heavy machinery we need to be careful we are not misidentifying what we call a “tractorfact.”

In spring of 2017, we surveyed a proposed Associated Aggregates gravel pit that was being planned in a recently harvested cutblock . We identified several sites that were within the proposed gravel pit boundary, most of which were first identified by spotting artifacts on the ground.  It’s not always easy, as vegetation can trick you into thinking you’ve found something, only to realize it was just a leaf.

If you want to try your eye, try to spot the flakes in the above picture!

How many did you find? Give up?

Keep scrolling for the answer…

It can be pretty difficult to spot because of the leaves on the ground but when you really take the time to look you can see five pieces of quartzite debitage.

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Conch Shell

At our Archaeology Roadshow event in Lac La Biche, in fall 2015 Allan and Juanita Gaudreault brought in several conch shell fossils. These shell fossils were heavily worn and most were down to the central spiral. This made them difficult to identify at first. These are very unusual specimens because these type of marine shells are not found in Alberta. They are native to the Gulf of Mexico. Our initial interpretation (as archaeologists, not palaeontologists) was that this could possibly be a discarded souvenir or a fossil from the Cretaceous period when an ancient seaway stretched from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Shell fossils from Gaudreault collection

Tree Time Services reached out to Alwynne Beaudoin, Curator of Earth Sciences and Quaternary Environments at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), for an answer. The RAM had a conch shell, also found in the Lac La Biche region, donated to the museum in 2011. She has been researching this conch shell and “has not been able to find another record of a conch in prehistoric context from Alberta, though there are records of other marine shells (and) they are unlikely to be Cretaceous.”
Furthermore, the specimen in the Royal Alberta collection was radiocarbon dated to “slightly more than 1000 years before present.” That specimen’s age debunks the discarded tourist souvenir theory. The most likely explanation for the RAM’s shell is prehistoric trade from the Caribbean to Alberta 1000 years ago. There are some artifacts found in Southwestern Manitoba, such as this shell gorget, made from a species of shellfish native to the Gulf of Mexico. However, evidence of prehistoric trade networks between the Canadian Plains and the Gulf of Mexico is extremely rare in Alberta and this would be an artifact of significant information potential.

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The Gaudreault collection of shell fossils and ancient bone fragments.

The potential that the 2015 shells represented trade or travel 1000 years ago, rather than palaeontology from millions of years ago, was pretty exciting. On September 7, 2016 Corey Cookson, Project Archaeologist at Tree Time Services, and Christina Barron-Ortiz, Assistant Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, made the trip up to the Gaudreault’s home to view the rest of their collection. Upon another viewing of the conch fossils it was clear that our first interpretation was right, and these are remains from the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago. With permission from the Gaudreaults, a representative sample of the shells were taken by Christina Barron-Ortiz for further study. We will post a future blog once we receive confirmation of the age of the shell fossils. Also stay tuned for another post about some other interesting fossils from the Gaudreault collection.

Maul

This week we feature an artifact that was found on a farm near Canora, Saskatchewan. A friend of mine sent the pictures of artifact that her father’s uncle found in a field during the mid-20th century. The artifact is known as a maul which is a large stone with a groove that would be used to haft a handle onto the stone. There were two types of mauls: a heavier one with a short handle and a smaller one with a longer and more limber handle. The heavier one was used as by women for many purposes such as: driving in tent pins, killing disabled animals, breaking up bones for marrow, pounding chokecherries, and pounding dried meat to make pemmican. The smaller one would have been used as a war club by men.

This maul was found out of context but even when found in situ mauls are difficult to date. They were often re-used by people who found them at old campsites and could have be used over thousands of years. For information about recent residue analysis on mauls found throughout Alberta read “More than meat: Residue analysis results of mauls in Alberta” by Kristine Fedyniak and Karen L. Giering in the most recent Blue Book: Back on the Horse: Recent Developments in Archaeological and Palaeontological Research in Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 36 (2016).

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Photo Credits: Kathryn Dutchak

Alberta Top 10 Archaeological Sites

As Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation it is important to remember that the history of the land we call home goes back thousands of years. Tree Time Services staff discussed some of the most important archaeological sites in Alberta and created a top ten list. Several of these sites can be visited by the general public and a few have public excavation programs that allow volunteers to participate in the digs!

1. Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

A UNESCO World Heritage site, interpretive centre, and museum located near Fort MacLeod, AB. For thousands of years the Blackfoot and other First Nations guided bison down drive lanes to the jump where they would plunge to their death or be rendered immobile from the fall and weight of the herd. At the base of the cliff these animal carcasses were butchered and distributed between the members of the hunt.

Did you know the name “Head Smashed In” does not refer to the skull crushing demise many of the bison suffered at the site but rather a Blackfoot legend? According to the story a young man wanted to watch the bison fall off the cliff from below but was unfortunately buried by the falling animals. He was later found with his head smashed in (Jack Brink pers comm).

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Figure 1: The cliffs at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (Madeline Coleman).

 

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Figure 2: Interpretive Centre and Jump (Madeline Coleman)

2. Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

The Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is located near Milk River, AB, almost on the Montana border. Many rock carvings (petroglyphs) and rock paintings (pictographs) can be found as one wanders through the sandstone valleys and hoodoos. These rock art sites were created by Aboriginal groups visiting the area, telling stories of battles, hunts, and great deeds of individuals. There are also many images of ceremonial nature that depict spirits and the spiritual world.

These images were likely created over thousands of years by the Blackfoot people and other native groups that travelled through the southeastern plains of Alberta. While rock art cannot be directly dated some of the images can be positively dated to after 1700 AD due to the depiction of horses and items introduced by Europeans, like muskets.

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Figure 3: Petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone Park (Vincent Jankunis)

 

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Figure 4: View of Writing-On-Stone Park (Vincent Jankunis)

3. Quarry of the Ancestors

Located north of Fort McMurray near the community of Fort McKay, the Quarry of the Ancestors is a quarry site and the primary source of Beaver River Silicified Sandstone (BRSS), a highly valued material for making stone tools. The principal use of the site for quarrying BRSS and making stone tools was between 9800-5500 years ago.

Beaver River Sandstone is found throughout the Alberta Oilsands region which was once thought to be sparsely occupied. However, due to the ongoing work occurring in advance of oil sands extraction the region is now considered one of the most densely occupied in Northern Alberta during the thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans.

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Figure 5: Reid Graham assisting in the excavations at Quarry of the Ancestors (Robin Woywitka)
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Figure 6: Profile of excavation unit, natural ice heave visible (Robin Woywitka)

4. Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel

The Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel is an ancient Blackfoot ritual centre that shows evidence of use as early as roughly 4500 years ago, and continues to be used today. The site consists of a 9 m wide central cairn (rock pile) which is connected to a surrounding 27 m wide stone circle by 28 spokes. The site is located on a large hill west of the Bow River in southern Alberta near Bassano, AB.

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Figure 7: The Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel (Alberta Environment and Parks)
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Figure 8: Aerial view (Alberta Enviornment and Parks)

5. Bodo Bison Skulls site

Located in the town of Bodo, on the Saskatchewan boundary half an hour south of Provost, this seven square km site is one of the largest pre-European contact archaeological sites in Canada. The site contains several repeat occupations of the area, with large intact bison pounds and campsites. Tens of thousands of bison bones have been recovered from the site as well as projectile points, scrapers, and pottery sherds.

Unlike many of the other sites on this list, this site encourages visitors to get down and dirty and help uncover Alberta’s past. The Bodo Archaeological Society allows the general public to dig at the site under the supervision of professional archaeologists. The site was also the subject of Tree Time’s own Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt’s Masters research!

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Figure 9: Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt discussing the excavations at Bodo during a visit to the site by the Archaeological Society of Alberta in 2014 (Corey Cookson)
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Figure 10: Volunteers excavating at Bodo (Christie Grekul)

6. Wallys Beach

This ice age kill and butchering site is located in southern Alberta at the St. Mary’s Reservoir near Cardston, AB. The site contains the bones and footprints of extinct animals, including the North American horse and camel, as well as mammoth and caribou. Wally’s Beach was one of the first sites in North America containing evidence of hunting horses.

Originally thought to date to the beginnings of the Clovis era (ca. 13,000 ya), advanced radiocarbon dating techniques now dates the site to approximately 13,300 years ago.

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Figure 11: Butchered camel remains at Wally’s Beach (Brian Kooyman / University of Calgary)
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Figure 12: Mammoth tracks at Wally’s Beach (Brian Kooyman / University of Calgary)

7. Viking Ribstone

Located approximately 11 miles east of Viking (southeast of Edmonton) are the Viking Ribstones, two large quartzite boulders on top of a high hill. The boulders are carved with a series of grooves interpreted as a representation of a bison vertebrae and rib cage. There are also several circular pits grooved into the boulder which may represent arrow or bullet holes. The pits have also been interpreted as an attempt to recreate the pock-marked surface of the Iron Creek Meteorite, another revered monument.

The bison were extremely important for many First Nations of central and southern Alberta and these rock carvings may have served as a shrine or ceremonial location. Hunters would visit the ribstones to leave offerings of sweetgrass, tobacco, beads, or coins prior to and/or after a successful hunt. There are other ribstone sites in Alberta but all other ribstone sites have been disturbed or removed entirely from their original context.

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Figure 13: View of Viking Ribstone and offerings (Corey Cookson)
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Figure 14: View of Viking Ribstone and offerings (Corey Cookson)

8. Banff Pithouses

The Banff Pithouses were located along the Bow River and are now lost to the expansion of the Banff Springs golf course in 1928. Documented in 1913 by Harlan Smith, an early archaeologist in the province, the site is one of the first pre-European contact sites to be preserved in Canada. The site contained 14 large (8-10 feet across) circular depressions (1-2 feet deep) with nine of the depressions arranged in an irregular line.

These semi-subterranean houses are common in the British Columbia interior plateau region but are rare in Alberta. The group that built these homes likely crossed the continental divide to hunt bison. For a period of time this was the only site of this type identified in Alberta. Fortunately, several other housepit sites have now been identified in Banff National Park and are currently being researched.

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Figure 15: Notice announcing the semi-subterranean house sites located between Mount Rundle and Bow River, Banff, Harlan I. Smith, 1913 Canadian History Museum, 24014
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Figure 16: 1913 Blueprint of housepits on golf course (LAC RG 84, Vol. 2073, File A4128-1, Vol. 1 Redrawn by R. Lalonde)

9. Cluny Site earthlodge village

An unusual site for the Southern Plains, the Cluny fortified village is located in the valley of the Bow River on the Siksika First Nation Reserve south of Calgary and is part of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. At the site, dwellings made from logs and earth were surrounded by defensive features including a palisade wall and trenches.

The Cluny Fortified Village site dates to the Late Pre-contact period (Mid 1700s) where the First Nations of the Canadian Plains had not yet had direct contact with explorers of European descent but had access to European goods through trade with other First Nations groups. It is believed that the group that constructed the village migrated to the region from the Dakotas, due to similarities of artifacts with those of the Middle Missouri region. The University of Calgary will be hosting a public archaeology program from May 23rd to June 23rd, 2017 where people can volunteer to excavate at the site. Contact their administrative staff by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at 1-403-220-8537 for more details.

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Figure 17: Aerial view of the Cluny earthlodge village (Harrison Boss)
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Figure 18: Volunteers and students excavating at the site in 2012 (University of Calgary)

10. Fincastle Kill Site

Recently named one of the top discoveries of 2015 by Western Digs, the Fincastle site is located in the sand dunes of southern Alberta, near Lethbridge. The 2,500 year old bison kill site contains over 200,000 fragments of bone along with hundreds of stone projectile points representing two cultural groups: the Besant and Sonota.

The most interesting aspect of the site is the discovery of 8 upright arrangements of bison bones placed in sculptural patterns. These are unusual and rare in archaeological sites and the purpose of the upright features remains a mystery. Dr. Shawn Bubel of the University of Lethbridge notes that the bone arrangements are not utilitarian but were intentionally placed in patterns with unique examples of one upright, for example, features a tibia, or lower leg bone, surrounded by four jaw bones, all set on end with the teeth facing outward.

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Figure 19: Students excavate a small section of Fincastle bison-kill site (Shawn Bubel)
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Figure 20: One of the eight arrangements of bison bones standing on end (Shawn Bubel)

Expedient Tool

An expedient tool is an object that can be made quickly and easily with little or no production effort. This is a retouched flake we collected during the summer of 2016. The red arrow is pointing to where the flake has been retouched.

Bison Jaw and Horse Tooth

At our Archaeological Roadshow event in Lac La Biche, AB Allan and Juanita Gaudreault brought in a collection of fossils. The fossils were fragments of a darkly stained bison jaw and a set of blueish grey horse teeth. Mr. Gaudreault told us the specimens were found in a low area near a lake. We came up with two possible interpretations of these specimens: they may have been permineralized due to being in a place with very hard groundwater; or could be dated to the early Holocene.

It is quite rare to find animal remains in the boreal forest in central and northern Alberta. The acidic soils of the boreal forest make for very poor preservation conditions. Animal bone is therefore rare, and these finds could help teach us about past environments in the region.

Tree Time Services reached out to Chris Jass, Curator of Quaternary Palaeontology at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), for more information on determining a possible age for the specimens. Jass confirms that “you can get fairly dark staining and mineralization fairly quickly depending on the depositional environment. However, if there’s a horse there, (the Gaudreaults) may be finding some older material.” Horses were native to North America, but went extinct sometime between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago (North American horse teeth were also recently found at the Brazeau Archaeological Survey project ). The horses that are ubiquitous in North America today were introduced by the Spanish in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Due to the fossilized nature of the specimen and the recovery of the teeth from a possible relic lake bed, these horse teeth may be from the extinct North American horse.
Chris Jass goes on to state that he has “been working with a diver who has been pulling bones out of Cold Lake, and we’ve got Pleistocene dates (>11,700 years ago) on a bison that he’s recovered from the lake. I think there is considerable potential for recovery of late Pleistocene/early Holocene (ca. 11,700 years ago) material in many of the lakes in Alberta.”horse

On September 7, 2016 Corey Cookson, Project Archaeologist at Tree Time Services, and Christina Barron-Ortiz, Assistant Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, made the trip up to the Gaudreault’s home to view the rest of their collection. Christina Barron-Ortiz is a specialist in horse and bison teeth. She confirmed that the horse tooth has the characteristics of several specimens the Royal Alberta Museum recovered from the lake bed near Cold Lake, AB. She also suspected that the bison jaw bone represented ancient bison but could not be as sure as the horse. With permission from the Gaudreaults, the bison jaw and horse tooth were collected and results from carbon dating are expected in the Spring.