Birgitta Wallace

In honour of International Women’s day we will explore the life and studies of Birgitta Wallace. She is a Swedish-Canadian female archaeologist and expert on Norse archaeology in North America.

Born in 1944, Birgitta Wallace studied and received her degree in her home country, Sweden. She studied at Uppsala University and underwent field training in Sweden and Norway. In 1975, after receiving her masters degree in Pittsburg, Wallace moved to Canada and started her work with Parks Canada. She would continue to work with Parks Canada until retirement and she is best known for her work on the archaeological site L’anse aux Meadows.

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Figure 1: Recreated Sod House at L’anse aux Meadows (Wikimedia Commons)

 

While it was long accepted that Christopher Columbus was the first non-aboriginal to set foot in the Americas, the Viking settlement of L’anse aux Meadows predates the landing of Christopher Columbus in North America by almost 500 years (dated around the year 1000 CE). L’anse aux Meadows was established as a Norse site due to definitive similarities between it and settlement structures found in Iceland and Greenland. While there are other suspected Norse sites in the New World, it si currently the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America south of Greenland. The area that the Vikings settled along the Atlantic coast is referred to as “Vinland” in Norse lore by explorer Leif Erikson. The exact locations and reach of Norse settlement remains a mystery. In particular, the location of a lost settlement referenced in Erik the Red’s saga continues to elude researchers. The story of this settlement, referred to as Hop, captured Wallace’s attention and, even after her retirement, she continues to theorize about Hop.

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Figure 2: Birgitta Wallace in Greenland (National Post)

In 2018, Wallace claimed only a particular area of New Brunswick can accommodate all the criteria found in the saga writings. Wallace theorized that due to the “(abundant) lumber, masses of salmon, halibut, and grapes” referenced in Erik the Red’s Saga, New Brunswick is the most likely candidate for the location of Hop. Other areas theorized as possible locations – New York, Maine, New England – lack one or more of these resources. Perhaps her most compelling argument, was that she identified a species of plant at the site of L’anse aux Meadows which is exclusively native to New Brunswick.

While we may never know the true locations of Vinland or Hop, rest assured Birgitta Wallace will continue to search for us. Her story is one of a career archaeologist who continues to stoke the fires of our curiosity well after retirement. If you would like to know more about the adventures of Women in Archaeology you can read “Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and their search for Adventure.

If you share Wallace’s insatiable interest in Vikings, you can read her many works on the topic and make sure to visit the Vikings exhibit at the new Royal Alberta Museum in April.

Ground Penetrating Radar

Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) is the process of sending radiowaves through the ground. As these radiowaves pass through the ground, any change in the subsurface materials will cause some energy to be reflected back to towards the surface while the remaining energy continues deeper. This information is recorded by a receiver which records the time it takes the wave to travel from the source, reflect off the buried object or disturbance, and travel back to the surface. The receiver converts this signal into a depth for the disturbance or object under the ground.

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Figure 1: Brian Leslie walking a transect with the GPR

The ability to map and record information below the earth’s surface without excavating is a valuable tool to an archaeologist. The excavation of archaeological sites is a destructive process, so having a non-invasive way to analyze and interpret sites is sometimes necessary. This is particularly important when dealing with sensitive cultural remains and unmarked graves.

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Figure 2: Corey Cookson and Liam Wadsworth surveying for unmarked graves

As part of an Archaeological Society of Alberta project, Tree Time Services Archaeologists, Corey Cookson and Brian Leslie, and University of Alberta Graduate Student, Liam Wadsworth, completed a GPR scan of an area identified by a local community as having possible unmarked graves. The team spent the afternoon surveying a grid to identify possible grave-shaped anomalies. The data was analyzed and the GPR scans revealed several clear grave-shaped anomalies 1.5 m beneath the surface. Some of the grave-shafts were narrow and may have contained a single individual (Figure 3, #1), while others were wider and may represent a burial pit with multiple individuals (Figure 3 #2, at least 5 m wide). This larger internment may have been the result of mass burial. It was speculated that these graves were dug around the time of the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

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Figure 3: Radargram with pit-shaped anomalies

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Figure 4: Same Radar gram with interpretation of pit-shaped anomalies

Purple Glass = Pre World War I

When we find post-European contact sites in Alberta we find a variety of historic resources including: cabins, ceramics, metal, and glass. The style of each of these can be a good indication of age and, in particular, glass has several features we look for. This includes molds, pontil marks (Figure 2), lip forms (Figure 1), and colour.

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Figure 1: Bottle lips crudely applied by hand prior to 1880s when lipping tools invented (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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Figure 2: Pontil mark on the bottom of glass bottle on all bottles dated before 1860 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This year, while assessing a gravel pit along the North Saskatchewan River, we found a multi-component site (FcPs-14) with both a pre-European contact First Nations campsite and a post-European contact dwelling. In addition to the typical lithic debitage, we found a cabin depression, ceramics (Figure 3), metal (Figure 4), and glass artifacts. One shard of glass caught my eye because of the purple tint to the glass (Figure 5).

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Figure 3: Ceramic recovered from FcPs-14

M1182_modifiedFigure 4: Nail recovered from FcPs-14

 

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Figure 5: Purple glass recovered from FcPs-14

From 1885 to 1914, manganese dioxide was used as a clearing agent by glass makers to make sure the glass remained clear. However, when exposed to the sun over time, the manganese dioxide in the glass will cause the glass to turn a purple tint. The main source of this clearing agent was Germany. This supply was cut off with the outbreak of World War I. After World War I, selenium became the preferred clearing agent. When exposed to the sun’s rays, selenium will turn glass yellow.

By recovering this piece of glass, we can make a reasonable interpretation that this component of the site dates to before, or shortly after, 1914. Even a seemingly commonplace artifact like a shard of glass can tell us a lot about a site.

Rat’s Nest Cave – Pictographs

Last year I visited a very interesting site located near Canmore, AB. The Rat’s Nest Cave is accessible through the touring company, Canmore Cave Tours, and can be visited all year round. With the help of my guide, Brent, I rappelled 18 m into the cave and squeezed through many tight water carved gaps and tunnels. Eventually you reach “the grotto” where you can hang out by a crystal clear pool and several beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

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Left: Repelling into the cave.  Right: One of the many squeezes you will experience!

Also in the cave are many animal bones dating to approximately 7000 years ago and, although I didn’t see any while on the tour, several stone tools dating to 3000 years ago. One of the most fascinating aspects of the cave are the pictographs located at the entrance of the cave. Inside the cave, are several small rock paintings that indicate the cave was of cultural significance for the First Nations people possibly for thousands of years. My guide also informed me that there are several pictographs on the outside of the cave above the entrance but due to years of weathering they are not visible to the naked eye.

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Assemblage of animal bones found in the cave
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One of the rock art images inside the entrance to the cave

Luckily, recent advances in technology allow us to digitally enhance rock art paintings. A process called Decorrelation Stretch or simply D-Stretch is currently being used by archaeologists and rock art researchers to enhance even the faintest of pictographs. The process works by increasing differences in hue and stretching the contrast for each colour variance. When D-stretch is used to enhance the image of the entrance of the Rat’s Nest Cave, a series of handprints can be seen going up the wall.

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Left: Normal image of the wall above entrance.  Right: D-Stretch image of wall above entrance
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One of the handprints isolated (Photo Credit: Jack Brink)

Continuity – Buffalo and Sucker Lake Region

Before 2013, archaeological survey in the Sucker and Buffalo Lake regions only identified three sites.  In contrast, just 5 km east, in the Logan and Clyde River systems, around 25 sites had been found. This is likely due to the location of developments being surveyed, but it may also reflect older archaeological survey methods.  The dense river systems and the sandy sediments typical to these two areas really increase the archaeological potential.  This means there are numerous sites that have yet been identified by archaeological survey.

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When Millar Western Boyle and Alberta-Pacific submitted new forest plans for this region, we knew we could improve the archaeological understanding of the area. Over two field seasons we put in 477 shovel tests and surface inspections. We increased the sites in the area by 14 sites!

Not only did we find sites, but we found two artifacts that really help us understand the people who used this area by helping us determine a date and possible trade connections. Two artifacts, one projectile point and one knife, were the most interesting finds of the survey.

  • The projectile point is the base of a dart thrown by an atlatl. This is an older technology than the bow and arrow, used prior to 2000 years ago. The point is likely Scottsbluff style which is dated up to 8,000 years ago. This atlatl dart point is also made of Knife River Flint. Knife River Flint is a very significant material that only comes from a quarry site in North Dakota (over 1300 km away!).
  • The knife is an asymmetrical corner notched siltstone knife. The only known knife typologies in Alberta belong to the Cody Complex; however, unlike this knife, the stems of Cody knives are usually straight and have a flat base. Further research at this site and about this artifact may significantly alter our knowledge about knife manufacture and technology in Alberta. The style may also be representative of a knife style found in other regions of North America which would suggest travel or trade.

Cabins and historic trails were also identified during the assessment. These are from late 19th to early 20th century occupation of the area, possibly associated with First Nation or Metis use and of cultural significance. At site GgOw-10, two cabins were present, one older than the other. We know this because of the way the two cabins were constructed: one with chainsawn logs and the other with an axe. This is indicative of significant, long-term land use in the Buffalo Lake area. At this site, many metal and glass artifacts were also observed, including a wagon wheel hoop, cans, pots, pans, and a cast iron stove. In addition, we identified wagon trails used to travel along between Buffalo Lake and other nearby settlements such as Philomena.

The area is still being used today and remains an area of importance to local First Nations. A prayer tree was identified while surveying a cutblock along a tributary stream. The cutblock was dropped from the harvest plan due to the presence of the prayer tree. The tree was a jackpine with a red and white pieces of fabric tied to the trunk. The prayer tree can indicate an area where a ceremony took place or an area with medicinal plants. A photo of the tree was not included out of respect for Indigenous traditions.

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Reid documenting an area near the prayer tree

We always look forward to returning to areas we have surveyed in the past.  Continuous archaeological survey helps us better predict where other sites are likely to be and fills out our understanding of how landscapes were used over time.

Fort Edmonton Park Expansion

As part of the upcoming expansion of Fort Edmonton Park, an Indigenous Peoples Experience exhibit is being added. The multimedia exhibit will educate visitors about the Indigenous histories and cultures of the Edmonton region in an engaging and interactive way. The exhibit will include an outdoor amphitheatre, teepees, campsite recreations, and an indoor arena show.

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Conceptual Design of Indigenous People’s Exhibit (subject to change). Photo Credit: Sandra Green.  Featured Image above – Bird’s Eye view of Indigenous People’s Exhibit (subject to change. Photo Credit : Brittany Cherweniuk.

For the purposes of authenticity, the park contracted Corey and Brittany, with another independent contractor, Alexandra Burchill, to do historical research on the Edmonton region during the period of 1600-1850 AD. Their research will be used to inform the exhibit content and educate the interpretive staff. The team analyzed several different source materials including: primary sources, secondary sources, archaeological reports, archival records, and recorded oral histories.

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The Research Team presenting at Fort Edmonton

The team also took part in a training program for the interpretative staff. Corey, Brittany, and Alex spent two evenings with the Fort Edmonton Park interpreters presenting their research. They also had several artifact reproductions for the staff to touch and ask questions about. Several staff took the opportunity to try ancient tool technologies such as the bow drill and atlatl throwing.

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Corey demonstrating tool use for the Fort Edmonton Interpretive Staff

As part of the research process, Treaty Six Elders were consulted and collaborated with to ensure the accuracy of research and identify areas that conflict with Indigenous knowledge, oral traditions, and culturally sensitive topics. Several stories told to us by the Elders were incorporated into the synthesis report including a story of an Elder that remembered his mother using a sharp obsidian flake to make small incisions on his temples to relieve headaches. We found this story to be an interesting addition to our discussion of the persistence of stone tool technologies after the introduction of European goods.

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Conceptual image of the Treaty Lodge (subject to change). Photo credit: Brittany Cherweniuk.

The project was a very educational experience for the research team learning a lot about the history of the Edmonton river valley. But more importantly, the project brought us together with many different people, all united by a love of history and respect for the Indigenous past of the place we all call home.

What Makes a Site Significant?

During our field seasons we find 100+ archaeological sites every year; however, not every site we find is flagged for avoidance. The decision of whether a site is avoided or approved for impact ultimately comes down to the Historic Resource Management Branch at Alberta Culture and Tourism’s approval of our recommendations. Our recommendations are based on the following criteria of site significance:

Multiple Component: The continued use of a landform throughout time increases the site significance. This can be represented by stone artifacts from different, distinct depths or in different layers. The most obvious multi-component sites are historic period sites (Post-European Contact) with an earlier Pre-European contact component. For example, we have found stone tools in tests conducted around the outside of a collapsed cabins.

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Matt digging at an historic site in 2012, looking for pre-contact components

Integrity: Sometimes we assess areas after they have been disturbed. We do this either to assess the level of impacts from the disturbance or protect sites from any further impacts (site preparation for tree planting, gravel pits, etc.). If we believe the site has been completely disturbed and the artifacts have lost their context, we will collect a representative sample of artifacts and recommend approval for the impacted area.

Datable Materials: The presence of organic material is necessary to determine how old the site is. This is quite rare in the boreal forests of Alberta because the acidic soils do not preserve things such as bone or wood. Often, the only datable material we find is charcoal which can be used for Carbon dating. The ability to date the site is important as archaeologists are still figuring out the evolution of tool use and the spread of people throughout Alberta.

Exotic Materials: The sites we find are typically scatters of tool stone such as quartzite and chert. These materials were local to the area, collected from stream beds by the past flintknappers. When we find something not native to Alberta, we consider the site to be of high significance. The presence of obsidian suggests trade or travel from areas with volcanoes. The presence of Knife River Flint suggests trade or travel from North Dakota.

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Knife River Flint dart base found in 2013
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Distance from point to KRF quarry in North Dakota

Presence of tools or diagnostic materials: The majority of sites we find are simply areas where a stone tool was made. To find a tool is significant because it tells us what activities were happening at the site. These tools can include things such as: scrapers for scraping hides; knives for butchering animals; wedges or adzes for woodworking; or projectile points (e.g. arrowheads) used for hunting. Projectile points can also be diagnostic of certain groups (e.g. Clovis) or certain time periods (e.g. spears>darts>arrowheads).

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Common Alberta point typologies and timeline

Distinct intra-site activity areas or features: Sometimes we can find things that suggest a certain activity happened at a specific area of a site. This can be represented by what we call features which are non-portable representations of human activity. These can be such things as: post holes, hearths, or walls. We can also find distinct activity areas such as the flake scatter identified at the Brazeau Reservoir.

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Flintknapping area identified during the ASA-EC Brazeau Reservoir survey

Uniqueness of the site in the surrounding area: We often find ourselves in areas of the province that have never had an archaeological survey before. I’ve found sites in areas of the province that we would describe as “the middle of nowhere.” Basically areas that are from major rivers or known travel corridors that were used by people in the past. To find a small scatter of flakes in an area without another site for another 20 km in any direction is more significant than finding another site in densely occupied areas such as the Fort McMurray region.

Site size: Our work is primarily concerned with determining how large the site is for purposes of avoidance by our clients. When we find very large sites these are considered of high significance due to the increased potential of finding anything listed above.