Archaeology of the Marten Creek valley

Last year (2015) archaeologists from Tree Time Services conducted surveys of a number of areas on the Marten Creek valley, from near the mouth of the creek at Lesser Slave Lake to the headwaters at Marten Lakes.  These surveys were done in advance of forestry operations by Alberta Plywood and Tolko Industries Slave Lake mill.  We found several clusters of precontact archaeological sites that show the Marten Creek valley has been occupied and traveled through for thousands of years.

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Point found at GjPr-8 on Marten Creek. Probably 3500 to 1350 years old.

Near the mouth of the creek, we surveyed areas on the north and south sides of the valley for Tolko.  A little survey had been done in this area before, for a pipeline that crossed the creek valley just east of Highway 88.  This survey found two small scatters of stone flakes on south facing terraces over the creek.  We flagged those sites for avoidance, and we found several other small sites.  At two of these sites (GjPr-8 and 10), we found small, side-notched points. If you found these, you’d probably call them arrowheads, but based on the size, they were probably attached to a shaft bigger than an arrow, for a javelin-like small spear. We call these spears ‘darts’. They were thrown with a throwing stick called an atlatl, that gave them a lot more range and force than a spear thrown by hand.  We know that atlatls were used in Alberta from about 8000 years ago up to 1300 years ago.  These points are similar to Besant or Bracken style points that date to the end of this period, from about 3500 to 1350 years ago.

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Broken dart point from GjPr-10, overlooking Marten Creek. Probably 3500-1350 years old.

Further upstream, on the north side of Marten Lakes, we found several small sites and a couple much more extensive campsites.  We didn’t find any diagnostic tools, like projectile points, that would give us a time of occupation, but we did find some other tools and cores that give a sense of what people were doing here.  A lot of the debitage, or flakes and chips from making tools, are from the early to middle stages in the tool making process and are of quartzite, which is present in the local glacial gravel.  This tells us that one of the things people were doing in the valley was making tools from local stone. The local quartzites are fairly coarse-grained, and very strong. They’re good for making things like stone choppers, hide scrapers,and expedient (quick, disposable) knives, and we have found a couple tools like this in the area. We also found some cores and flakes of materials other than quartzite. These include a fine grained siltstone core and a flake of chalcedony or silicified peat, which is a material similar to flint. These were probably brought here from elsewhere because people knew it would be difficult to find nice fine-grained stone here to make smaller, sharper tools with.

The biggest site on Marten Lakes (GjPp-4) had multiple components, identifiable occupations from different time periods.  There were stone flakes buried about 20 cm down; some stone flakes and moose bone fragments about 5 cm down, below the moss and duff; a pit feature, cans and moose bone in the duff, and an ATV trail and bullet casings on the surface.  We didn’t do enough excavation to get specific dates for the occupations, but our preliminary interpretation is that we have a precontact occupation of unknown age, maybe another more recent precontact / protohistoric (fur trade era) occupation, an early 20th century occupation (maybe a trapping cabin), and recent traditional or recreational use.

There’s another, very interesting historic site at Marten Lakes, an old ranger cabin with a marked grave. We revisited this to make sure that it wouldn’t be disturbed by the forestry operations, and to update the government on it’s status since it was last reported in 2007.

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Known archaeological sites on the Marten Creek valley, as of 2016.

All of these sites tell us that that the Marten Creek valley has been occupied and traveled through for at least 2000 years, and probably a lot longer. We didn’t do enough digging to interpret any of these sites in detail, but based on the types of tools we found: points, scrapers and expedient knives; moose hunting was probably a major activity here. Marten Lakes might also have had a very productive spawning season fishery. The Marten Creek valley and Willow River valley also form a natural travel corridor through the muskeggy country from Lesser Slave Lake to Wabasca, and this probably also played a role in its occupation during the precontact and historic periods.

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Picture of the Week

Today’s picture comes from the Ahai Mneh site on the shores of Lake Wabamun, west of Edmonton, AB. This archaeological site has a long history of human occupation, from earliest hints of people in Alberta using Clovis technology, right up to the Late Precontact and Historic Periods. Featured here is a large radial biface, made of a fine-grained siltstone. This artifact was found in a field adjacent to the site, having been turned up by a plow. While not exclusive, radial bifaces such as this one are commonly associated with the Clovis tool kit, dating back to 13 000 years ago in Alberta.

Picture of the Week

A lot of our work is located very far back in the boreal forest. It is not uncommon to have the only trail that gets close to our target areas be blocked by a fallen log. During hunting season, hunters usually clear these trails. But the rest of the summer it is up to us. Several of our crew members participated in a Chainsaw training course. We learned to how to properly maintain our equipment and how to safely operate the chainsaw. We had the opportunity to practice our skills by making small chairs from the logs.

There is a lot of PPE involved! We are sporting the stylish chaps, the fancy face cage, and the comfy ear muffs. We also need to be mindful of where our legs are so that we don’t accidentally get them in the way!

 

Early archaeology on Lesser Slave Lake

From 1979 to 1982, Dr. Ray LeBlanc, then Boreal Archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, conducted baseline surveys of the Lesser Slave Lake region.  Before that time there were less than 1000 archaeological sites recorded in the entire Green Zone of northern Alberta (including the Grande Prairie region).  Within the Lesser Slave Lake basin there were only 39 known sites (Figure 1, in yellow).  These were mostly surface scatters of stone artifacts identified by members of the public and the Archaeological Survey during early reconnaissance work.  Known sites included scatters at the Marten Mountain and Deer Mountain fire towers, several sites in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, and a few sites scattered around the shores of the lake.  Besides their locations, very little was actually known about these sites, because little to no testing or excavation was done.

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Figure 1. Known archaeological sites in the Lesser Slave Lake region, as of 1989.

 

Starting with preliminary surveys in 1979, followed by systematic surveys in 1980 and ’81 and test excavations in 1982 Dr. LeBlanc recorded 89 new sites on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake and the surrounding area.  The majority of these sites were located on the northwest shore of the lake, and on the north side of Buffalo Bay.  Most of the sites were identified in surface exposure, including some large collections of artifacts from ploughed fields.  Private collections west of Lesser Slave Lake included some rare artifacts from the earliest occupation of the province, such as Clovis period macroblades and large lanceolate points (Figure 2).  Some examples of these finds can be seen today in the High Prairie & District Museum.

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Large spearpoints from the Burley site. These lanceolate bifaces may date to the Palaeoindian period, 8-12,000 years ago. (from LeBlanc 2004, p.35)

Some other notable finds came from a site on the south shore of the lake, near Joussard.  Mr. Frank Madsen had collected a large number of artifacts from his farm on the shore.  His collection included a number of projectile points (arrowheads and spear points) from the middle and late periods of occupation of the province (about 5000 to 250 years ago), as well as a number of oval tools made from quartzite cobbles. These tools had worked ends and chipped notches on the sides.  They’ve been interpreted two ways.  They may have been stone axe or adze heads. Archaeologists call these celts when we don’t know if they were hafted parallel to the handle, as axes, or perpendicular, as adzes.  Alternatively, they’ve also been interpreted as stone net sinkers or weights, with the notches used to tie them to the bottom of fishing nets.
The most interesting finds in the Madsen Collection are examples of ground-stone artifacts, which are rare in Alberta: a jade adze, and a steatite (soapstone) pipe bowl (Figure 3).  The jade adze is typical of the type made and found in British Columbia.  Only about a dozen of these have been found in Alberta, and the current Boreal Archaeologist, Todd Kristensen, is researching them.

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Figure 3. Jade adze and steatite (soapstone) pipe bowl from the Madsen Collection. (From LeBlanc 2004, p.25)

These surveys in the early 1980’s made the Lesser Slave Lake region one of the best studied parts of Alberta’s boreal forest, but we still knew very little about the history of human occupation in the region, and how people lived at various times in the past.  We would start getting the answers to some of these questions in the later 1980’s, when Dr. LeBlanc, as a professor at the University of Alberta, returned to some of these sites with students for a field school excavation.

References:

LeBlanc, 2004  Archaeological Research in the Lesser Slave Lake Region. Mercury Series Archaeology paper 166, Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gatineau, Quebec.

Picture of the Week

This week we feature a picture of a biface found near Slave Lake, AB, a common stone tool in Alberta. The term biface is a generic stone tool classification, and simply refers to any thin piece of worked stone that has been flintknapped on both sides, or faces, of the artifact. So it can include tools like knives, arrowheads, and spear points, and certain types of cores.  This biface is made of a fine-grained quartzite, and has been extensively worked around the margin to create a sharp cutting edge. The artifact exhibits a waxy luster, or sheen, that may indicate that it was heated to improve the quality of the raw material.  Similar bifaces have been found in the foothills region and argued to be diagnostic of, or firmly associated with, the early middle period (5000 to 7500 BP) and referred to as Embarras Bipoints (Jason Roe, 2009, “Making and Understanding Embarras Bipoints: The Replication and Operational Sequencing of a Newly Defined Stone Tool from the Eastern Slopes of Alberta”).

Relict Shoreline Identification using Lidar in the Lesser Slave Lake Region

I’ve submitted a poster for the upcoming CAA conference in Whitehorse, Yukon in May. Check out my abstract and check back for research updates on our blog!

Advances in remote sensing technologies and industry-driven initiatives have precipitated the wide scale production of lidar-derived digital elevation datasets in Alberta. These high-precision terrain models have been instrumental for cultural resource management strategies and the identification of new archaeological sites in the province. Lidar has proven to be extremely useful in targeting of distinct landforms and topographic features present on the landscape, and in the development of archaeological predictive models. While most lidar analyses for archaeological site predictions are focused on the modern landscape, these datasets can also be used to identify ancient landforms that may have been more suitable for human habitation in the distant past. Review of lidar data from the Lesser Slave Lake region in northern Alberta revealed numerous strandlines, meltwater channels, and relict beaches related to changing levels of proglacial lakes in the lake basin. These previously unmapped topographic features reveal a fluctuating landscape during the early period of human occupation in the province, and provide an opportunity to identify potential locations of ancient sites around the Lesser Slave Lake basin. A combination of reconstructions of proglacial lake levels using strandline elevations and current predictive modeling techniques was used to identify locations reflective of this past landscape with high archaeological potential for sites. This information will be used to direct future surveys in the region, to identify archaeological sites that might otherwise have been missed by cultural resource management programs.