The Wabasca-Desmarais region is rich in heritage of all types, such as archaeological, palaeontological and historic sites and trails. In addition, there are unexplored landscapes that have the potential to contain countless unrecorded sites. Early archaeological research in the area was conducted through government surveys or University funded projects. Over the last 10 to 15 years most of the sites in the area were recorded by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies, like Tree Time Services Inc., working for industry, primarily the forestry sector.
At least 300 First Nations historic and archaeological sites have been identified within 100 km of Wabasca-Desmarais, AB, and 13 sites within 10 km. These sites are located throughout the landscape and shed light on indigenous life over at least 4,500 years.
Most of the archaeological sites in the region have only had limited excavation done, usually less than 20 “shovel tests”. These are 1 foot square holes dug and screened for artifacts. The most common artifacts are stone chips or flakes, called debitage, that are left behind by someone making or sharpening stone tools. Sometimes stone tools, like scrapers, knives or projectile points (arrow or spear-heads) are found, which let us say more about the site. Rarely, animal bone or charcoal is found that will let us do radiocarbon dating to find out how old a site is.
Until recently, the Wabasca-Desmarais was considered to be low in archaeological potential due to the abundance of low lying areas and muskeg. Although this type of terrain is difficult to survey, and therefore it may appear to have been largely uninhabited in the past, recent efforts have discovered that there was actually a substantial amount of past activity throughout this region. In the vast muskeg, archaeological sites can be found on elevated areas within the low lying terrain, showing that small water courses and lakes were also extensively inhabited. Many of these small water courses were likely used as transportation corridors between the more productive lakes, and elevated areas within wet lands would make ideal camping locations during resource gathering. In addition, many medicinal plants grow in the muskeg, making this environment invaluable for resource gathering.
The most-studied site in the region is the Alook Site (HaPl-1), named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. It is located on the north shore of North Wabasca Lake and was excavated by teams from the University of Alberta in the 1960’s and 70’s. These excavations determined that the site was likely a 4200 – 3500 year old indigenous campsite. Archaeologists were able to recover a multitude of stone tools, including McKean atlatl dart points, Side-Notched arrow points and hide scrapers. The excavation also identified a midden feature which contained a concentration of broken bone, stone artifacts and charcoal. Stay tuned for our next post to read more about this site!
With the limited archaeological research conducted in the Wabasca-Desmarais region to date, we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of past life-ways and traditional land use in this diverse landscape. It is important to note that even though people have lived in this area for several millennia, very little research has been done in the last 40 years. Further archaeological investigation is this area would be a great opportunity to bring together local communities, educators, academics and industry to further our understanding of its past inhabitants in an inclusive environment in the spirit reconciliation. There is definitely more work to be done!
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.
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.
Road exposure with artifact identified
Artifact found in disturbed context
Biface fragment of artifact found above (dorsal – left, ventral – right)
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.
Thick charcoal deposits from a shovel test
large pieces of charcoal are required for dating
results of radio carbon dating
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.
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).
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.
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.
One day last fall, Vince and I went to revisit an old cabin that had been found deep in the Swan Hills. This cabin had been found during an historic resource impact assessment back in 2009, and we just need to check to make sure that the new harvest block was going to avoid the site. The cabin, GfQa-2, was located on the tip of a narrow point along the East Prairie River valley, approximately 60 km south of Driftpile, Alberta.
After a long hike through dense fir, we finally reached the recorded spot for the cabin. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a structure to see on the surface. It took us a few minutes to find the 5 by 5 meter square outline of the cabin foundations, right on the river valley edge. It was hard to see as there was only one course of saw-cut logs remaining from the walls and even these were covered in a thick layer of moss and lichen. The cabin had been collapsed for so long that even a large white spruce tree was growing over one of the corners.
We also noticed two small pits near the cabin walls. The smaller of the two pit features (roughly 1 m in diameter and 60 cm deep) was about 15 meters southeast of the cabin. The second larger pit (2 by 1 m and 60 cm deep) was location a few meters northeast of the cabin wall. We couldn’t find any artifacts in these pits, but we concluded that the smaller pit was likely the privy and that the bigger one may have been some type of root cellar.
In contrast to the cabin itself, it was much easier to find the piles of historic artifact around the cabin entrance. Lying on the mossy surface of the site were a number of a metal buckets, glass mason jars, and several rusted metal cans. Artifacts like these are fairly common at historic cabin sites, and at first glance, these artifacts might seem like rusted bits of garbage. However, Vince and I were actually able to find out a lot about the site by looking at these artifacts. For example, one of these cans found a second life as a strainer. The label had long since rusted off of this can so we can’t tell what it originally held, but the bottom of the can had been repeatedly punched with a square nail or metal punch. I suspect that the people living at the cabin weren’t cooking up pasta, instead this can may have been used to wash berries or any number of small food items.
The three artifacts that revealed the most about the people who lived at the site were a set of cans with the labels still preserved. With these labels, we can identify what kinds of food products were brought to the site, and the time period when they were purchased. Certain important changes to labeling laws, like the introduction of the metric system in 1976, can help us to determine age brackets for an artifact (Must be younger or older than X date). Certain styles of labels can also help us to isolate a time period (like a ‘Phantom Menace’ commemorative Pepsi Can that could only date to 1999). By comparing the artifacts to preserved examples of different branded products, we can begin to isolate when this historic cabin was occupied. Unfortunately, the labeling style of different brands that were used in the past has not been well documented, so it is difficult to precisely date a can, even when there is a label.
The first can we identified was a 20 lb can of Roger’s Golden Syrup from the BC Sugary Refinery. This company began the production a variety of sugar-based products in 1891 and we still buy Roger’s Sugar products today in our grocery stores. There is no date listed on the can but the style of the label seems to match examples of preserved cans from the 1940’s and 50’s.
The second can that we were able to identify was a tin of Klim from the Borden Company. Klim is a brand of powdered or condensed milk, that was extremely popular throughout the 1900’s. Originally produced by the Merrell-Soule Company in New York, Klim was marketed with the slogan, “Spell it Backwards’. In 1927, the brand was purchased by the Borden Company and remarketed as a Borden Company product. We can only see part of the label on the artifact preserved at the cabin, but the type font and labeling matches other examples of Borden Company Brand Klim. The Klim brand now belongs to Nestle, who continue to produce Klim powdered milk products around the world.
The third can was the most difficult to identify, as most of the label has been covered with rust and the company name was not preserved. It does seems, however, that this is another can of Borden Company Klim. This is largely based on the shape of the label border and the colour of the can, which is similar to the front of the other preserved label. There was a fair bit of interesting material to read on this label. There is a seal of approval from the American Medical Association (bottom left of label). In 1929, the American Medical Association started a committee to approve the quality and safety of infant formula and other food products. Similarly, one portion of the label reports that the product adheres to the 1937 standards for caloric values. Throughout the 1930’s in Canada and the United States, there was a large push to create a framework for people to maintain optimal health, as well as to combat false or inaccurate claims for food products. The instructions printed on the can also list how to best mix the Klim with water or coffee, as well as a set of special information for physicians to make the equivalent of whole milk. So based on this, it seems likely that this was a can of Klim, produced some time after 1937.
Looking around at the other type of cans we found at the site, a number of them have a similar size and design to the Rogers Golden Syrup container, as well tins of Klim. It seems then that the owner of the cabin had a bit of sweet tooth when it came to their meals. Another intriguing possibility is that the Klim and syrup were used for baby formula, as these are common ingredients in early 20th century baby formulas. During the 1930’s through 1960’s, it was common for mothers to mix powdered milk with honey or syrup to used as infant formula. This was a practice that was recommended by many doctors at the time as the mixture was fattening, even though earlier condense milk products during this period lacked any significant amount of nutrients or minerals (These were added later once doctors realized that we need them to survive). So we might be seeing evidence that a family was living at this cabin, but it is hard to say conclusively that this was the case.
Based on the kinds of artifacts we were able to identified, we can reasonably guess that the cabin was built some time after 1937 and probably used during the 1940’s or 50’s. But how long did people continue to live at the cabin? The structure is largely gone, so we know that it has been left for some time. However, it is hard to know how long a place has been abandoned. Historic structures can often go through different phases of use, from a permanent residence to a seasonal home or travelers rest stop. One way to determine this is to look at the local vegetation and see how much has grown over the site. At this site, there is a dense growth of balsam fir and white spruce over the site, so it appears to be abandoned for some time. There was also one particularly large white spruce with a diameter of about 30 cm, growing over the south corner of the cabin. This is the perfect situation to determine the amount of time since the cabin was abandoned, because that tree could only start growing after the roof and walls of the cabin had collapsed. Tree growth rates vary considerably based on local conditions, but it would likely take approximately 40 to 60 years for a white spruce to reach that diameter and height. So, given what we know from the artifacts at the site, we can conclude then that this cabin was occupied some time between 1937 and abandoned some time after the 1960’s.
From a few cans in the middle of the forest, deep in the Swan Hills, we can get a snap shot of life from almost 70 years ago. We can see the kind of food that people were eating and what they considered important enough to carry 60 kilometers into the bush with them. Even though this little neck of the woods might seem secluded, so remote that you’d think nobody would visit, but just over 2 kilometers away from this cabin, on a little ridge, we found a 10,000 year old spear point. From the Ice Age to the Modern Age, it goes to show how even the most remote places can have the deepest history.
Authors Note: If you feel like you can better identify these cans, or if you feel like you know who could have lived at this cabin, please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly about it. Any information that you share will be greatly appreciate and will also help us to tell the stories of the areas we visit.
It’s that time of year again! Living in Alberta, we all know how disastrous a forest fire can be. No one wants to see fires tear through their homes and communities, like what has happened previously to Fort McMurray or Slave Lake. These fires are dangerous, unpredictable, and destructive. Many of us at Tree Time have walked though the remains of a burned forest and have seen what is left behind. So here are some tips to remember while you are out camping and enjoying your campfire.
Building your fire:
Check for a fire ban in your area. May can be a dry month, and it only takes one spark to start a forest or brush fire.
Use an existing fire ring if you can, rather than build a new one. Make sure all vegetation or flammable materials (like leaves, sticks, spruce/pine needles, etc) has been cleared away up to 10 ft.
If you have to build a new one, dig a pit 1 ft into the ground first and circle it with rocks.
Select an open area with no overhanging branches, dense dry grass, logs, etc.
NEVER LEAVE IT UNATTENDED!
Putting out your fire:
Use water to douse that fire. If the fire burns too hot, it can still catch fire when the wind picks up, so make sure everything that remains is soaked through.
Use shovels or a stick to stir the contents making sure everything gets wet and cools down.
Touch it to be sure! People might think that they put out their fire, but debris (roots, moss etc) on or under the ground can catch on fire and spread the fire beyond the stone rings. You can see in the pictures that the area around this abandoned campfire has been burned.
That is why it is so important to make sure that you have properly put out your fire. Please check out the Alberta Parks Website for great advice on campfire safety.
Also if you need to report a wildfire, call 310-Fire (3473). Never put yourself in danger.
We thought we would share this story in advance of the long weekend to remind people about campfire safety. Alberta is a great place and camping is an amazing way to experience it. So from us at Tree Time, we sincerely wish you a great long weekend and happy, safe camping.
The religious tradition of designating a patron saint to a profession or activity is a long standing one, and it is of no surprise that a heavenly protector, or advocate, has been claimed by archaeologists. When it comes to patron saints, archaeologists, like many other professions have claimed more than one patron. Some consider St. Helena of Constantinople (Emperor Constantine the Great’s mother) to be the patron saint of archaeology, since she was attributed to finding and excavating the True Cross. However, other archaeologists feel that they are more than mere excavators of history and are a part of the larger scientific community. Such archaeologist may chose to claim the patron of the natural sciences as their own. It just so happens that Kurt (our TTSI division manager) lives in a town that chose the same patron saint as its namesake, St. Albert. So who was St. Albert and why was he chosen from amongst hundreds of saints to be the heavenly guardian of those who chose to practice the natural sciences, and thus, archaeologists.
Albertus Magnus (c. 1200 – November 15, 1280), also known as Saint Albert the Great, Albert of Cologne or Albert of Lauingen, was a German Catholic Dominican friar and bishop, who spent his life teaching, writing and investigating the natural world. Early in his life, Albert attended university in Padua, Italy and joined the Order of St. Dominic. He gained his Doctorate while in Paris and taught theology at several universities. He was appointed to many positions within the Catholic Church, including the Master of the Sacred Place (the Pope’s theologian) and the Bishop of Ratisbon. However, Albert never remained in these positions for long as he did not wish to be away from teaching and his work. He is most well known as the mentor of St. Thomas Aquinasand for the wealth of knowledge that he provided for future generations, most of which is considered to be very accurate even by modern standards.
Although Albertus Magnus was known during his lifetime as a Doctor universalis, he was not beatified until 1622 and was not canonized as a saint until 1931. In 1931 he was also distinguished as one of 36 Doctors of the Catholic Church, which is one of the highest post-humus honors that may be bestowed upon a saint, and was declared to be the patron of the natural sciences in 1941. St. Albert’s feast day is on November the 15, which commemorates his death and the end of his inspiring career.
The reason why he is chosen as the patron saint of the natural sciences is simple: he dedicated his life to investigating the natural world. St. Albert was avid reader of philosophy and extensively studied the works of Aristotle. He is attributed with preserving much of Aristotles writings, and in an age mostly governed by mysticism, he utilized the teachings of the ancient philosophers to study the natural world and critically examine the assumptions of others. His prolific writings were collected in 1899 and placed into 38 volumes, which range in topics from zoology and chemistry to love and friendship. He stated that “the aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature”
St. Albert was truly a great man, and considered by some to be one of the greatest minds in history. Since excavating the past is only a small part of the profession, and the modern archaeologist must have at least a working knowledge of many different disciplines within the natural sciences, I find Albertus Magnus to be a very fitting patron. Whether you are a religious person or not, I believe that his contributions to philosophy, science, and humanity deserve a toast from all us archaeologists on his next feast day!
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.
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.
Point found at ElPs-56
Hammerstone found at ElPs-56
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.
Obsidian piece found at FePr-4
Elenore digging at FePr-4
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.
Point from GfQa-5
Moose teeth found at GfQa-5
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.
Faint maker’s mark on bottom of ceramic
Reference mark from Getty and Klaiman 2017
Remains of structures at GiPl-13
Remains of structures at GiPl-13
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.
While working on my Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Alberta, I had the privilege of being a member of the Vulture Archaeological Project. During the summers of 2009 to 2012, in the town of Rionero, Italy, I was part of an international team of academics and students attempting to gain a better understanding of this region’s past. The project is named after the dormant volcano, Monte Vulture, at the base of which lies the beautiful town of Rionero.
This archaeological endeavor was conducted under the direction of Dr. Richard Fletcher, aimed to investigate the Vulture zone of the Lucanian Frontier as a sphere of pre-Roman cultural interaction and Late Roman Stability. The project consisted of an archaeological survey of the region around the volcano and the excavation of a Roman villa (large industrial farm) and its associated cemetery. While the survey aimed to identify important sites in the surrounding area and collect data on land use and settlement patterns from the Early Iron Age to the Late Roman period, the excavation attempted to determinewhen the site was used, its economic importance, and gain a glimpse into the lives of the people that inhabited it. The project is responsible for recording numerous new sites in the area, and excavating approximately half of the villa (80×40 m). The project was funded through contributions from the Comune of Rionero in Vultur, the Comunità Montana Vultur and from the instruction fees paid by the students attending the field school.
Although I am not a Classical Archaeologist by training, I was able to apply my skills in a variety of ways. My pre-archaeological career involved a substantial amount of time in a supervisory role so I started my time at the Vulture Project as a Field Supervisor. My training in Human Osteology was an asset and I was not only responsible for overseeing cemetery excavations, but also conducting skeletal inventories and primary analysis of the human remains that were recovered. Since archaeological regulations in Italy state that excavated sites must be preserved, I was also in charge of the restoration and preservation of the site’s integrity. This involved applying mortar and concrete to unearthed structures, and generally making the site presentable by Italian standards.
My time with the Vulture Project still remains one of the highlights of my archaeological career. Although it was no vacation, and excavating in 40°C with no shade will discourage even the most seasoned shovel bum, I feel fortunate and grateful that I was able to experience the beautiful southern Italian countryside and touch its past. Due to this project, I have friends from all corners of the globe and memories that will last a lifetime.
If you ever want to have a similar experience, I highly suggest that you become involved in an archaeological dig either where you live, or abroad. Many field schools do not require any previous training, and at many digs, volunteering will only cost the price of room and board. While traveling, it is actually a very cost effective way to become intimately familiar with a region and become submerged in the local culture.