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.

Underwater Archaeology – Sanisera Field School

Ever wanted to combine a hobby you enjoy with work you are passionate about, like scuba diving and archaeology? In 2013 Vince and I did just that. Archaeologists tend to be naturally curious people, always wondering “what’s over there?” or “what’s under that?”, so its not surprising that many archaeologists also enjoy scuba diving. There are plenty of opportunities for the public to try their hands at archaeology right here in Alberta (such as at Bodo or Brazeau) but as avid scuba divers Vince and I decided to try our hands at underwater archaeology at a more exotic location.

For two weeks in April-May 2013 Vince and I attended the Sanisera underwater field school at the Cap de Cavalleria on the island of Menorca, Spain.  This field school was conducted by the Ecomuseum de Cap de Cavalleria (now called the Sanisera Archaeology Institute for International Field Schools).  This is a large field school with something for everyone and we met people from all over the globe who shared our interest in archaeology. In addition to the underwater fieldschool, there were two other fieldschools being held on land at the same site. One excavation was taking place at the Roman city (Sanisera), and the other was at one of the seven Roman necropolises located near the city. Our group was underwater investigating shipwrecks in the harbour. The site was diverse and included not only the areas mentioned above but also a Roman military camp which predated the Roman city, a quarry and an 18th century British watch tower.

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We started each morning by hopping into the van and driving to the dive site. On the beach before diving we would discuss which survey methods we were going to use that day and what our objectives would be (since we couldn’t speak once we were under). Then we would gear up and hit the water. Some days we would have to swim a fair distance before submerging and some days the sea was too stormy (or too many jellyfish) to dive at all.

Four different underwater survey strategies:

1. Snag line – two divers swim in the same direction with a weighted rope pulled tight between them dragging it along the bottom and stopping if it “snags” an object. When an object is snagged the ends of the rope are pinned to the bottom and the divers follow the rope to the object. If it is an artifact they record it, if it is something like a rock they unpin the rope and continue.

2. Circular search – to perform a circular search one end of rope is tethered to something that won’t move (a datum) then either multiple divers can space themselves out along the rope and survey a circle around the datum, or one diver can make multiple circles around the datum moving down the rope with each new circle to cover the same amount of space as the multi-diver scenario.

3. Swim-line search – a linear method, the swim-line search sees divers hold onto a rope to make sure they and maintain a consistent speed and keep their distance between each other as they move together in a line. A tug on the rope indicates that someone along the line found something and for everyone to stay put until it is recorded.

4. Jack-stay search – this type of survey is useful for carefully covering a predetermined area. Two parallel lines are fixed to the seabed (called jack-stays) and a movable rope is laid out spanning the distance between them. Divers then use the movable rope as a guide for their search starting at opposite ends, where it meets the parallel fixed jack-stay lines, and swim towards one another. When finished surveying the ground below the movable rope is adjusted along the length of the stationary jack-stays as the survey progresses slowly working from one end to the other effectively creating temporary survey corridors. When the search is midway through, the rope system will resemble a capital “H”. The two fixed jack-stay lines running parallel to each other form the vertical lines and the movable rope, perpendicular to the other two, would form the middle part of the “H”.

We practiced all of these survey techniques with the exception of the snag line and also practiced mapping artifacts underwater and taking photos. The artifacts we found were mostly amphorae that had spilled out of wrecked cargo ships, but we also found two anchors. We finished our dives around noon, got out of our gear, packed it back into the van and then returned to the Ecomuseum.

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Once at the museum we would have a debriefing about what we found, compare our notes and maps and have a short lecture. While we were doing this the students from the terrestrial field schools were cleaning and cataloging artifacts. We didn’t collect any artifacts from our underwater survey as keeping them underwater is the best way to preserve them at present. After our short lecture we would sometimes have a longer lecture that all three field schools would attend, these lectures were useful to all the groups as they usually discussed topics such as the history of the site, findings of previous excavations or focused on specific artifact types (for example how to tell where an amphora was manufactured based on vessel shape, temper type or colour of the clay).
We had a few days that we didn’t do any diving, lectures or excavation. On those days all three field schools were taken on tours of the island to visit other archaeological sites relating to the pre-Roman inhabitants of the island – the Talaiotic. We were also taken to the island’s capital city Mahon (Maó) to visit the museum where our instructors gave talks about some of the artifacts on display and we visited the back rooms to see some unique artifacts that were not currently on display. At the end of the field school each student gave a presentation to our specific field school group and to all the instructors.

If you know anyone who is interested in giving archaeology a try it is definitely possible to get your hands dirty no matter where in the world you live. Joining your local Alberta Archaeological Society chapter is the best way to hear about great (and often free or kid friendly!) ways to get involved and to learn from the experts.

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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.

Gear Review – Load-Bearing Equipment

Anyone that works all day in the wilderness knows the importance of having a quality piece of Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) that accommodates all the odds and ends that are required of your profession, while being comfortable enough to wear for prolonged periods. LBE comes in a variety of styles, from the standard Cruise Vest, to the more tacticool modular equipment based off military style plate carries and H-harnesses that employ MOLLE attachment systems. Archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. have tried and tested a whole gambit of systems over the years, and everyone but a few outliers (Reid loves his cruise vest), have adopted the True North Aero Vest – Wildland as our LBE of choice.

Before I start the review section, there is one important aspect of our job that influences what type of LBE we prefer. We need to carry more gear than can be accommodated by LBE alone, so that a good backpack (30-50 Litre) is a necessity. Even though some people have tried to fit all the required equipment in their cruise vest, you can only fit the bare minimum of what we need to bring, and have to abandon some items that aren’t necessarily required, but are extremely valuable in certain situations. Things like rain gear, extra thermal layers, extra socks, survival kits, extra food and extra water will not easily fit in a cruise vest when it is filled with all the items that are required for archaeological survey in the boreal forest. Also, if you do try to fit all those things in your cruise vest, you will no longer be able to work effectively while wearing it. Furthermore, attaching your screen to your backpack with a bungie cord is arguably the best way to carry your screen for long hikes, and allows you to stow things such as a hoodie or jacket between the screen and backpack. For these reasons, almost every archaeologist at TTSI uses a combination of some type of LBE and a backpack.

The Cruise Vest

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Cruise vests have been around for a long time, are widely available, and come in a variety of colour and materials. In my opinion, they are fine if your profession requires you to be mobile in the field and your profession does not require much equipment. Reid uses a cruise vest made from a plastic mesh and considers this to the best vest as it is durable and breathable. Cruise vests can be expensive ($100+), and even more so if they have an internal frame. Yet they still don’t accommodate all the extra gear needed for adverse conditions. Teresa and Tim have both used the cruise vest with internal backpack frame, but Teresa has since switched to the True North Aero and hasn’t looked back.

  • Pros
    • Comfortable if not carrying much equipment
    • Variety of colours and fabrics
    • Widely available
  • Cons (With no backpack feature)
    • Not enough storage space
    • Very uncomfortable when overloaded
    • Very uncomfortable while riding ATV
    • Cannot wear while digging
    • Secondary HiVis still needed
    • Bad screen attachment
  • Cons (With backpack feature)
    • Less gear retention
    • Uncomfortable with backpack
    • Full pockets impede pack waist straps
    • Not adjustable for winter layers
    • Flimsy and wear out quickly
    • Non-breathable and hot

The Modular Vest

Modular vests have been around since the 1990’s and have generally replaced what was typically referred to as “web gear” by many Armed Forces groups around the world. They employ a Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS), also referred to as MOLLE, which allows the user to change what types of pouches they use based on personal needs without changing the base vest. Most modular vests also act as plate carriers (body armour) and allow the user to change their load-out while still utilizing their body armour as a base. Although modular vests are widely available, most are in neutral colours or camoflage and are therefore not suited to working with a HiVis requirement. With hunters in mind, a few companies have produced modular vests that are blaze orange, and thus work as HiVis provided the rules concerning HiVis clothing are not super strict (some companies would not consider any of these options to be sufficient HiVis clothing). Kurt used a modular vest for a couple field seasons, but has since switched to the True North Aero. He provided the following list of pros and cons:

  • Pros
    • Modular and adaptable
    • Very durable
    • Equipment-specific pockets
    • Can wear while digging
    • Very adjustable and can fit winter layers
    • No zippers
    • Super Tacticool!
  • Cons
    • Expensive
    • Most are not HiVis
    • Non-breathable and hot
    • Heavy
    • Bulky
    • Not comfortable with backpacks

True North Aero – Wildland

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True North is a company that primarily produces gear for Wildland Fire Fighters and First Responders. The True North Aero was designed as a primary piece of LBE that could be worn comfortably with a backpack. Although True North makes specific products that compliment the Aero, we at TTSI have found that this particular LBE to work with a variety of backpacks. The Aero has a specific spot for radios, GPS, flagging, tape measure and has a fleece lined pocket that fits a iPad Mini perfectly. Essentially, the Aero can accommodate all the equipment need while actually working, and in conjunction with a 30-50 L backpack, provides all the space you will ever need. A further benefit of using the Aero in conjunction with a backpack is that since all your survey equipment fits in the vest, one does not have to unpack their backpack to survey a target. Kurt was able to obtain several Aero vest in blaze orange, but unfortunately they seem to have discontinued so only the black version is widely available. While wearing the black version, TTSI employees usually opt to wear a HiVis work shirt.

  • Pros
    • Very durable
    • Lightweight
    • Comfortable to wear with backpacks
    • Breathable and cool
    • Fits all survey equipment
    • Holds gear secure
    • Can wear while digging
    • Protected inner fleece pockets
    • Few zippers, but high quality
    • Sheds water and dries out fast
    • Very adjustable and can fit over winter layers
  • Cons
    • Not true HighVis
    • Zippers can get clogged with mud

There are many options when it comes to LBE and like most things, not everyone will agree on what is the best. Reid stands fast as a die hard proponent of the mesh style cruise vest as it is durable, breathable and works well with his system. Similarly, Tim continues to use the internal frame cruise vest even though he has had the option to switch. However, the rest of us archaeologists at TTSI have chosen the True North – Aero as our LBE champion and never looked back. I personally think it will be a very sad day when my blaze orange version finally wears out and I am unable to get a replacement. On that day, I will regrettably don a HiVis undershirt, strap on a black True North – Aero and head off into the boreal wilderness.