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.

Tree Time’s 2017 Top Five Sites

Now that all the reporting is done, we thought it was a good time to look back on some of the exciting sites we worked on from the past year. We usually find over 100 sites every year but these sites stand out either because we found interesting artifacts or the site is unique compared to the sites we generally find. It doesn’t matter how many points an archaeologist has found throughout their career, they will still get really excited when they pull a projectile point out of the their screen! In fact, compiling this list got me really excited to get out of the office and back into the field where an archaeologist belongs.

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ElPs-56: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for Sundre Forest Products near the South James River. It’s located on a distinct corner, so we couldn’t miss the landform. What makes this site exciting is that Brian found a Beasant point! We don’t often find these during a shovel test program (compared to excavations). It was likely dropped there by a past hunter while looking out over the valley below. We also found several flakes and a hammerstone which suggests people were also making tools at this location.

FePr-4: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands. The site was located on terrace edge overlooking an old oxbow of Wolf Creek. The site has a very diverse artifact assemblage consisting of various materials including mudstone, petrified wood, chalcedony, and quartzite. The most interesting find was a piece of obsidian. Obsidian is volcanic glass and only comes from areas with volcanic activity. The presence of obsidian suggests either long distance trade outside of Alberta, or long distance movement of people.

GfQa-5: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for North Central Woodlands. At this site we found a salt-and-pepper quartzite spear point preform on a small ridge in the Swan Hills. The point likely broke in half during the manufacture of the tool. The site is interesting because spear points such as Alberta or Hellgap points (which are similar to this point stylistically) are typically dated to approximately 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Also recovered at the site were the molars of an adult moose but unfortunately in a different context than the point. Further testing at the site may recovered datable materials that can be associated with the point.

GiPl-13: This site was found near Howard and Fawcett Lake by the layout crew of Tolko Slave Lake Industries. We visited the site to document and confirm what type of site the flagging crew found. Upon visiting the site we found six collapsed structures, five mounded rectangles, and lots of mechanical and other types of debris. Our initial interpretation was that the site was an old forestry camp. Further background research revealed that area was known to have a WWII prisoner of war camp, where POWs often worked for the forestry sector. It’s possible this camp may have been related to the work they did. We analyzed the artifacts identified at the site and found one of the pieces of ceramic had a makers mark that read “Medalta Made In Canada.” This ceramic seal dates to between 1937 and 1943. Further research is needed at the site to confirm it is a POW camp from WWII. If it is, the site is very significant for learning how POW’s were treated, lived, and contributed to industry during WWII.

KkDo-1: Kurtis and Vince spent a week excavating a sod house on a remote part of Baffin Island in the Qaummaarviit Territorial Park last October. This was a unique opportunity for us because we typically only work in Alberta. However, Vince’s experience from his graduate research on a historic Inuit house in Newfoundland made him well suited to the project. While excavating the house they found spears, harpoons, and projectile points while working along side the local descendant community. In fact, one of the Inuit team members, Naulaq Inookie, is a direct descendant of the people who lived there. The sod house dates to between 1200-1800 AD and will be eventually reconstructed as a tourist attraction.

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Setting up the excavation units at the Sod House
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View of the camp at night!

Features of a Flake

Back in 2015 I was dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of a large muskeg to assess a cutblock for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. After trudging my way through the swamp to the cutblock, I found a very prominent but small hill. I put my shovel in the ground and I found one large, beautiful flake. I tested out the rest of the landform but found nothing else. I flagged the site for avoidance by harvesters and made my way back through the muskeg to be picked up by the helicopter.

When I got there I told the pilot that I found a site. He responded “Really? This is the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone be out here?” To which I replied, “People were everywhere, man.” The pilot was skeptical and asked to see what I found. He said, “That’s just a rock that was broken by your shovel.” I responded by saying, “I can give you eight reasons why this is a legitimate artifact…”


The above artifact is the “textbook flake” that I found that day. It has all the features that we typically look for in determining if it is natural or a rock that was broken by a human in the past. These features are:

1. Bulb of percussion: A bulb that forms directly below where the hammerstone struck the core. This is what causes the flake to be popped from the core. If a rock is broken by heating or freeze-thaw this bulb will not be present.

2. Platform: The flat area where the flintknapper would strike the core to pop the flake off. These areas are sometimes prepped to be struck by rubbing the hammerstone on the edge to strengthen the edge and remove any micro-fractures that may cause the rock to break in an unintended way.

3. Percussion waves: Caused by the force travelling through the flake.

4. Eraillure Scar: Small flake scar on the ventral surface of the flake which is the result of the rebounding force from the percussive force.

5. Termination: This flake has a feather termination. This is a perfect detachment of a flake from a core. Desirable because the end of the flake is sharp without need to resharpen or retouch. This means that the flake is a ready tool that can be used to cut or scrape. Other types of terminations include: hinge, step, and overshot terminations. These are usually an error by the knapper or flaws in the core.

6. Flake Scars: Areas on the dorsal surface of the flake where flakes were knocked off during earlier stages of tool making process. The coincidence of these being present on a naturally broken rock are impossible.

7. Material: The material of this flake is a fine grained chert. This is not a rock that would naturally be found in this immediate area. There were also no other rocks present in the shovel test or any of the other shovel tests that were dug that day.

8. Context: Sometimes when rocks are crushed by heavy equipment they can break in a similar fashion but this was found pre-disturbance. Additionally, the force from me putting my shovel into the ground could never possibly break a rock in this fashion. I am not that strong.

It is not often that we have all of these flake features present. Sometimes if a flake is broken we might not be able to see the bulb and platform or the termination. We usually try to find at least two of these features to call something an artifact. To convince a non-archaeologist a flake is genuine you might need all these features present. I feel like I convinced the pilot that this was a real artifact but I think he only responded by saying “interesting.”


Peace River Chert Biface

In the summer of 2016, this tool was identified while inspecting the exposures along an in-block road for Boucher Bros Lumber. It is likely the bottom portion of a biface that broke during manufacture or use. It is made from Peace River Chert, a material common to the Peace River region.

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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.

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).

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.

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.

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.