Ground Stone Artifact

At our Archaeology Roadshow in Lac La Biche, AB in fall 2015 a local resident brought in an interesting artifact that was found on a farm near Camrose, AB in the 1940s. The artifact is a 5 and 1/2” round stone with a wide, shallow depression on one side and a smaller lipped depression on the other side. These depressions were formed by grinding or pecking at the stone with a harder stone.

img_1577

img_1586

Initial interpretation of the artifact was that it was some sort of bowl or plate. However, there are some problems with this interpretation. First, it would not function well as a bowl due to the shallow depth on the “top” side of the artifact. Second, it also requires a lot of effort to grind these concave features into the stone for something as simple as a serving vessel. Traditionally it was thought that a vessel of this type would not serve much purpose to Native person prior to the arrival of Europeans. Before European contact, people were mobile hunters and it would not make sense to create a plate to be transported from location to location. However, this stereotype has been challenged by recent finds such as carved bison effigies and other robust tools, such as mauls, that were typical of the tool kit of North America’s First Nations.

The “base” of the artifact may be a clue to the age of the artifact. Upon viewing the artifact, Jack Brink, Curator of Archaeology at the Royal Alberta Museum, noted that “the bottom view (of the artifact) shows a ring or foot carved for the bowl to stand on. This is identical to a European bowl or plate. It would serve no purpose to a Native person who would be using a bowl on the ground. Makes me think this, if not made by a European, at least dates to the time after contact (with Europeans).”

The artifact could also be a grinding platform similar to a mortar and pestle or mano and metate popular in Mesoamerican cultures. These artifacts are used to grind down grains and seeds. A similar artifact was found by a farmer near Eaglesham, AB. However, This artifact differs greatly in size and shape from the artifact brought in to our Archaeology Roadshow.

img_4355
Mortar and Pestle from Eaglesham collection. Image courtesy of Todd Kristensen.

Another interpretation was suggested by Gabriel Yanicki, a PhD student at the University of Alberta. Yanicki, specializing in prehistoric gambling and games, suggests that the artifact may be a Chunkey Stone, typically associated with the Mississippi cultures in the eastern United States. The game of Chunkey involves the rolling of a stone disk while people attempt to hit the stone with spears or sticks. He went on discuss the aspects of the artifact that suggest it may be a Chunkey Stone, “at about 5 ½ inches you’re dead on for size (2-6” most common), and hard granitic or basaltic rocks aren’t unknown.” In terms of style, Yanicki states “the side where the concavity extends almost to the edge is typical of the Cahokia type, while the smaller raised concavity appears in the Salt River and Jersey Bluff types.” However, unlike typical Chunkey Stones this artifact is asymmetrical.

The artifact may also be some sort of ritual or offering platform that may have served a one time purpose. The owner of the artifact is currently talking to Augustana University in an effort to donate the artifact. The “plate” can then be tested for residue analysis to determine if there is evidence of burning or food processing. Megan Caldwell, of Augustana University is also interested in determining the origin of the rock as it appears to be similar to rocks from British Columbia.

Visiting the Terracotta Army Museum

In a continuation of our posts in honour of “Mysteries of China” playing at the Telus World of Science for the months of February and March, I decided to look back on my trip to the Terracotta Warrior museum just outside of Xi’an.

We visited the Terracotta Army Museum in the winter of 2014. This was a good time to visit because the crowds were minimal but it was bone-chillingly cold. The Terracotta Army is indoors but there are several large windows and the door is kept open so it is still pretty cold in there too. So bundle up!

1795697_10152367988867868_1139324092_n
Bell Tower in central Xi’an

We took a local bus that you can catch just east of the railway station located north of the city wall approximately 3.5 km north of the Bell Tower. There will be several buses that will take tourists directly to the museum. The ride takes about 45 minutes and will take you to a large parking lot.

There are number of signs that have been translated into English but if you have limited knowledge going into the site it might be a good idea to get a guidebook or hire a guide.

The terracotta sculptures were created to represent the armies of Qin Shi Huang and their purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife when he died in 210-209 BCE. The Terracotta army is located east of the large mausoleum for the emperor that is underneath a 76 m tall pyramid-like mound. Work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE (when Emperor Qin was 13 years old) and required 700,000 workers. This tomb has not been subjected to archaeological excavation as of 2017.

1024px-tomb_of_emperor_qin_shi_huang
Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
img_1487
Statue of Emperor Qin Shi Huang

From the parking lot, you will see a large statue of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, walk toward it and continue walking west (about 15 minutes) until you come Pit 1. When you first walk in to Pit 1 you will be blown away by the number of statues (over 6,000!). In this pit you can see the 11 corridors of warriors placed on pottery bricks separated by rammed earth walls. The corridors had wood roofs that were covered with reed and clay then covered with 2 to 3 m of soil.

img_1491
View of Terracotta Warriors from east side of Pit 1
img_1505
View of the Terracotta Warriors from south side of Pit 1

As you walk around the side of the vault you can get a little closer to some of the recently restored statues. You can also see a sign pointing to the location of well dug by a farmer that discovered the site back in 1974. The farmer was at the museum when I visited and he signed a nice book of photographs that I purchased.

img_1501
View of a close up of the Terracotta Warriors in Pit 1
img_1509
View of the well location in Pit 1

You can exit out of the back of Pit 1 and continue to Pit 3 which is a much smaller vault with one chariot and several high-ranking officers.

img_1558
View of a war chariot and warriors in Pit 3
img_1561
View of several high ranking officer statues in Pit 3

Exit to the east and continue to Pit 2. In pit 2 the soldiers have not been restored as in the other pits.

img_1553
View of Pit 2

Once you are done with the main excavation pits you can go two exhibits on either side of the main courtyard. These are the Exhibition of Ancient Weapons to the north and the Bronze Chariot Exhibition Room to the south. In these rooms you can get a little closer to the artifacts (but they are behind glass of course) to see the little details. You can see some pieces that still have the paint intact.

img_1521
Intact paint on Terracotta Warrior heads

I was also unaware of all the non-military types of statues that existed. There are more than just warriors and archers that have been found. The emperor also wanted his entertainment and servants in the afterlife. There are Terracotta statues of musicians, acrobats, and women as well.

img_1525
Musician statue
img_1523
Acrobat statue
img_1548
Statue of a woman

You can also see the Bronze Chariot at this exhibit.

1016354_10152367987427868_1861533487_n
Bronze chariot

They also have a really good exhibit that educates the public about the archaeological processes of excavating, conserving, and restoring the Terracotta statues.

img_1519
Two children learning about artifact illustration and photography
img_1527
Display about excavating and mapping features

After we were done exploring the museum and pits we headed back to our hostel (Xian Shuyuan International Youth Hostel) where we had some hot showers and then we headed down to the Terracotta Warrior themed bar in the basement and drank some China beers.

Check out our previous post about the Great Wall of China if you want to learn a bit more about visiting China’s famous archaeological sites.

Finding Archaeological Sites from the sky using high-tech advances in archaeology

In recent months, news feeds have been erupting with stories of “Lost Maya Cities discovered using LiDAR”, “revealing the secrets of Stonehenge using LiDAR”, “LiDAR uncovers ancient city near Angkor Wat”, and the popularity of “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, but this technology is not limited to finding the remnants of “lost civilizations” in far reaching corners of the globe. LiDAR is used by archaeologists in Alberta to assist in the locating of potential archaeological sites that are threatened by development.

Figure 1. Marching Bear Effigy Mounds Lidar Imagery (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 1. Marching Bear Effigy Mounds LiDAR Imagery (Wikimedia Commons)

Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) is the process of mounting a laser on an aircraft and bouncing light pulses off the ground and measuring the time it takes for the laser to return. The process can take 2000-5000 measurements per second and makes the surface appear treeless, revealing surface features that cannot be seen using simple satellite imagery or aerial photos (Figure 1). However, using LiDAR to find archaeological sites in northern Alberta is not as easy as it can be in other parts of the world. LiDAR is great for identifying building structures, walls, and other features common of archaeological sites in other parts of the world. In northern Alberta these features are absent from Indigenous archaeological sites. To study the human history of northern Alberta prior to European contact we have to look at the landscape and identify landforms that would have been suitable for camping and hunting activities.

satellite
Figure 2. Satellite imagery of ridge overlooking marsh
lidar
Figure 3. LiDAR hillshade of the same ridge

In the above images, the first image is a satellite image of a ridge where we found an archaeological site (Figure 2). With just satellite imagery the area appears to be predominantly flat which is not a good area to camp or hunt. This is because the area would be thought to be poorly drained and with limited visibility of the surrounding terrain. When using LiDAR imagery (Figure 3) we notice there is a complex of distinct hills and ridges that would be ideal for making camp.

This technology has revolutionized the process of finding archaeological sites in Alberta and is revealing more about the history of people in the boreal forest. The ability to pinpoint the best landforms without having to do extensive on-the-ground survey has greatly increased the inventory of sites found in northern Alberta. This benefits our clients who will pay less money for the survey of their developments and we can make more accurate predictions about site locations which allow them to modify their developments to avoid potential sites.

Visiting the Great Wall of China

In honour of the Mysteries of China IMAX series currently playing at the Telus World of Science, I decided to look back on my trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in February of 2014.

We took a tour to Mutianyu organised by our hostel in Beijing. This portion of the wall is in a mountainous region running southeast to northwest for 2.25 km. It takes about 1.5 hours to get to this section of the wall from Beijing. While you are on the bus the tour guide will take the time to tell you a bit about the history of the wall.

For those who don’t know, The Great Wall of China is several sections of a 21,196 km wall made of brick and stone along the northern borders of China to serve as fortifications against northern invaders. The wall was built over several centuries from the 7th century BC until the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), first using rammed earth and locally sourced stone and later using bricks

img_1796
View of the Great Wall

February is a good time to go because there were basically no crowds besides our tour group and, as a result, there were very few hawkers trying to sell us souvenirs. However, there were still a few touts but they are useful for getting snacks and water while you are hiking the wall. The only negative about visiting during this time of year was that it was a little chilly and we didn’t get the lush green vegetation and vibrant flowers.

1964785_10152367989917868_1673874143_n
View of one of the vendors along the restored section of Mutianyu

.

img_1720
Taking the chair lift up to the Great Wall

The bus will take you to the parking lot, where you will have to walk a few hundred metres to the group ticket gate. From here you can choose to either hike up to the wall or you can take the chair lift. Our tour guide told us that hiking once on top of the wall is challenging enough so we decided to conserve our energy and take the chair lift up. From here you will have great views of the surrounding mountains as your excitement grows as get nearer to the top. 

img_1736
Some nice views from the chair lift

Once you get off the chair lift you are at Tower 14. You can turn left and head northwest towards Tower 23 which is the highest point at this section of the wall. This portion of the wall is all restored and is very steep. It is mostly uphill and there are a lot of steps that a predominantly uneven. You will see several watch towers, cannons, and buildings. The restored portions of the wall are pretty cool but after awhile it gets repetitive. 

img_1758
View towards Tower 23 from Tower 14
img_1798
View of one of the cannons

We worked our way back southeast toward Tower 14 and continued in that direction to get to the unrestored portion of wall. It is a bit of a hike to get to the unrestored area of the wall but it is not as steep as the previous section. This portion of the wall won’t be for everybody because it is covered in trees and many of the towers and wall sections are crumbling. I really enjoyed it as an archaeologist, it is a nice contrast to see the difference.

img_1788
View of an unrestored tower
img_1781
Unrestored portion of the wall with vegetation growing on top

Click here to view a video taken at a peak along the unrestored portion of the wall

After about an hour or so here we headed back west. When you reach Tower 6, you can take a toboggan track back down to the ticket gate. This was really fun but we ended up getting stuck behind a guy who either had a malfunctioning toboggan or didn’t know how to work it. Once we reached the bottom we reconvened with our group and had lunch and some beers before heading back out to Beijing.

Click here to view a video of toboggan run

Stay tuned for another blog post about my visit to the Terracotta Warriors.

Side-Notched Projectile Point

We often post images of beautifully crafted tools such as the besant point from FcPu-11 or the siltstone knife from Buffalo Beach but not every tool we find is a “work of art.” This week’s photograph is of an “ugly” artifact we found in 2016 when undertaking an HRIA for Sundre Forest Products. The site was found on a terrace overlooking the confluence of two tributaries to the North Saskatchewan River. The artifact is a side-notched chert projectile point similar to the Prairie or Plains side-notched typology. The point is asymmetrical with one edge being a rounded convex shape and the other an undulating edge with an angular shoulder. The tip of the point is broken off which is common of the projectile points we find and is likely the reason the point was discarded. While aesthetics can add to the function of a projectile point this artifact demonstrates it was not necessary. The idea that it doesn’t matter how it looks as long as it works was alive in the past as much as it is today.

Slave Lake Plane Crash

In the summer of 2013, Vince and I were walking through a harvested cutblock south of Slave Lake and we noticed something big and white on a high hill along the tree line. At first we thought it was some sort of tarp but as we got closer we realized it was the broken tail portion of an airplane. We were both pretty excited to find the wreckage because a plane crash is something we don’t find everyday.

tail_resized

We documented the site with photographs and mapped it as we would a normal historic site. We found pieces of the wreckage scattered over 100 m along the hill. The site seems to be a local hangout as evident by the bullet holes in the tail and several beer cans scattered around the wreckage.

map

Thankfully the registration number, C-GWYD, was still visible on the tail portion and were able to learn more about the crash. On December 29, 1975 a Beechcraft 99 en route to Peace River from Edmonton crashed into a high hill overlooking Slave Lake to the north. The plane came to a rest upside down and sadly both pilots, Captain Bill Groesnick and Co-pilot Banshi Ghelani, were killed upon impact. However, all seven passengers survived with minor injuries.

When discussing historic resources we often attribute it’s value to the age of the site. The Slave Lake plane crash site, while only 40 years old, demonstrates that something can have historic value because of it’s significance to a local community or a historic event.

Asymmetrical Knife

This week we feature a picture of an asymmetrical knife found north of Lac La Biche at a site called Buffalo Beach. The knife has one rounded retouched cutting edge and the other edge is straight. The notched knob at the bottom of the artifact is where the knife would have been attached to a handle. The handle was likely made from an organic material that does not preserve as well as stone (for example bone, antler, wood, etc.). The style of this knife does not match any previously recorded artifacts found in Alberta.