The King of Spades vs. the Grizzly

Over the years archaeologists have adopted technological advances from other disciplines. In the office, using programs such as QGIS along with LIDAR and other data sets we can create models to predict sites. In the field, we use a GPS for navigation and iPads to take our notes. Artifact processing has also seen many advances helping us to date and source artifacts.

For all of these advances that have been made in the field, certain tools remain the same. One of the most essential tools that we use in the field is a shovel. I know many people associate trowels and fedoras with archaeologists, however these are most commonly used in academic excavations. While in the world of CRM the trowel will be used for certain situations, the shovel reigns, specifically at Tree Time it is the King of Spades.

The reigning king

The advantages to the King of Spades are its durability and its ability to cut through roots. The all metal shovel has never been broken by a staff member at Tree Time. Maybe lost forever in a deep stream when accidentally dropped… but never broken. In addition, the sheer weight of the shovel can help pound through roots. Other shovels are not as durable, the blades may warp, and they are more prone to breaking at the shaft break. Not the king though.20160519_153950

The Grizzly Challenger

Most shovels are not made of all metal but incorporate bits of wood. There can be a wide variety in quality so we highly recommend the Grizzly. These shovels are much lighter and easier to sharpen. The durability of the King of Spades comes at a cost, it is by far the heaviest and the most difficult to sharpen due to its thick blade. The ability to sharpen the Grizzly easily due to the thinner blade helps us maintain a sharp edge in the field to cut through roots. The light weight also makes them a lot easier to hike a long distance with, making for a much more pleasant hike.20160519_153703

In the end the durability of the King of Spades wins the favor of most of us at Tree Time. In fact five out of seven archaeologists, well at least at Tree Time, agree that the King of Spades shovel is the preferred tool. Long live the king.

This would not have happened if Madeline had the King of Spades!

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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.

Bone Needle

This week we showcase a very unique artifact, a bone needle.  This tool is very long and thick compared to the modern steel needles that we are more familiar with, but it still very sharp at the tip. The eye of the needle is diamond-shaped and tapered, which shows us that the eye was made by gouging the bone with a stone flake, rather than using a bow drill. A bow drill would have left a round hole rather than a diamond-shaped one. This type of artifact is extremely rare in North America, especially one that is complete. Most of the time when they are found, bone needles like these are broken around the eye, or you just find the tip of the needle.

This artifact was found in a dry cave in Utah, which is filled with artifacts left behind from thousands of years of indigenous people living in the cave.  These repeated occupations left behind countless layers of juniper bark, which was laid down as a floor matting. The bone needle was found three meters below the modern surface. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack!

End Scraper

This week we feature a stone tool found upstream on Fall Creek, about 55 km west of the community of Caroline, AB. We were undertaking an assessment for Sundre Forest Products and testing a flat area overlooking the creek (shown below) when Ryan found the end scraper shown above.

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A “scraper” is a type of tool that is usually unifacial, meaning the stone was worked on one of its sides (or faces) only. Compare the two sides shown in the image above and you’ll see the one shown on the left is much smoother, except for a small piece that may have been broken off when digging the shovel test. The face of the scraper that is worked typically has pieces chipped off on the side or end in order to make a thick and strong edge. This is the scraping edge that could be used to prepare hides.

Unifacial working and a thick edge are the two main criteria used when identifying an artifact as a scraper, so as you can imagine there are a lot of different styles of scrapers found at archaeological sites. Just take a look at the beautiful example Reid describes in this blog post.

Regardless of what style of scraper you’ve found, a close look at the edge of these artifacts can reveal some “use wear,” when the edges become chipped, polished or worn down through the process of scraping hides, bone, wood or other softer materials. As a result of this wear, scrapers would occasionally need to be resharpened and the tools would become smaller and smaller through the resharpening process. It’s possible this scraper was considered too small to be of any more use and so was thrown away only to be found by us, perhaps thousands of years later.

Biface Preform

This week we feature an artifact found recently while conducting a survey for an Associated Aggregates gravel pit along the Nordegg River. The artifact is an irregular biface that is likely a preform. A preform is often an ovate or triangular shaped rock that has been flaked on both sides using percussion and pressure flaking techniques. This artifact was likely in the early stages of becoming some form of tool (e.g. knife or projectile point) before it was discarded by the flintknapper.

It is not clear why the flintknapper quit working on the artifact, the knapper may have made a mistake or did not like the stone material. The artifact is made from a unique red speckled chert with some fossilized plant remains embedded on the dorsal side of the artifact. We asked the consulting community if they knew what kind of chert the artifact was made from and Jason Roe, Lifeways Canada, identified the material as Paskapoo chert.

The artifact was found at a site identified by our clients, Dan Hill and Jodie Bauman, who were interested in the process of historical resource impact assessments (HRIA). While screening a shovel test, under the supervision of our archaeologists, Jodie found a large utilized quartzite flake. Further testing, revealed the site was over 200 m long and had evidence of fire (fire cracked rock) and tool making (biface).

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Spokeshave

This week we feature an artifact from a large site we found on the Pineneedle Creek valley margin, west of Caroline (a community between Rocky Mountain House and Sundre) and off of the Forestry Trunk Road. The site was found when we were undertaking an assessment for Sundre Forest Products. More than 100 stone artifacts were recovered from this site, most of which represent chips broken off when making stone tools. This one stands out from the rest. It’s not so obvious an artifact as some of the stone tools we’ve shown in previous blog posts, but it represents the other critical component of an arrow or a spear: the shaft.

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Figure 1: Two sides of an ancient spokeshave.

This is a “spokeshave”. This kind of tool is used even today for shaping and smoothing wooden rods for wheel spokes, chair legs, paddles, etc. You can find a spokeshave at your local hardware store, but it will look nothing like the example shown above.

An ancient spokeshave is thought to have been used to shape shafts for arrows, spears and darts. It’s recognized by the semi-circular notch on its side where you can imagine a wooden rod fitting nicely. In the picture above, the arrows are pointing to the notch on this artifact.

In many parts of Alberta, the soil is so acidic that materials like bone and wood don’t preserve so we don’t find arrow shafts. It’s pretty exciting and humbling to find an artifact that reminds us that there were once many more materials at these sites.

Big John’s Spring

A couple of the traits that serve archaeologists best are curiousity and an ability to recognize when something doesn’t belong.

For example, look at this site Brittany found in 2014 on the North Saskatchewan River when we were undertaking assessments for Sundre Forest Products. It may not look like much at first glance, but it’s an interesting historic period site.

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Figure 1. The first hint of the site was a break in the berm.

Brittany was riding her ATV along the recreational trail that follows the route of the historic Canadian Northern Western Railway line that ran between Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House. She was looking for the best place to park and begin her hike when she noticed a break in the berm that follows some parts of the rail line. It was a strange and deliberate looking design and so she stopped to investigate. Visible from the trail and through the berm was a small pool of water. Closer inspection showed the pool to be square shaped, lined with cut boards, and overflowing; the water was flowing out of the pool and down the slope away from the railway line. It must be spring fed for the water to be flowing like that.

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Figure 2. Square pool of water near the railway line.

We both walked through the surrounding area, looking for anything else that might be related to the site. We found some cans, part of a shovel and some other metal items. These things are common along the railway line. We saw that there was barbed wire fencing strung across the pool, probably to keep cattle in as this area has a history of grazing. Could this pool be a watering hole for cattle? Since the barbed wire ran right over the middle of the pool we decided that it likely wasn’t made for that reason. Perhaps it was a watering stop for the nearby railway. It may be a bit small for refilling a train (although we couldn’t safely confirm how deep it is). I think it’s more likely this water was used for human consumption.

We later found this story about the nearby town of Saunders Creek in the book Ghost Town Stories of Alberta1:

During the hungry Depression years, when there was very little work at the mine, most residents survived on garden vegetables, wild meat and fish from the North Saskatchewan River. Near his cabin, Big John discovered a way for townsfolk to keep their food and water supplies fresh… One day in 1932 while out walking, Big John discovered water seeping from a side hill. He climbed up a bit and dug a hole. As water began flowing into it, he realized he’d found a spring. He built a little shed around it to create a cooler. People stored perishable food there, and whenever the mine’s washhouse water line froze up, Big John allowed folks to help themselves to water. Over the years, it became a regular sight to see residents walking along Big John’s path from the creek, loaded up with as many buckets of water as they could carry.

Could this be the remains of Big John’s spring / cooler? We later found the remains of a cabin just 130 m down the slope from this pool (see photo below) so it certainly sounds like the same set up described in the history book.

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Figure 3. Door frame of log cabin.

Unfortunately, the location just doesn’t quite match up. Big John apparently lived close to Saunders Creek whereas this site is more than 20 km down the railway from Saunders. It could be a coincidence or an example of how good ideas spread.

To hear more about what we’ve been finding along this stretch of railway, join us on May 21st at the Sundre Museum for an Archaeology Roadshow.

1 Bachusky, Johnnie 2011. Ghost Town Stories of Alberta: Abandoned Dreams in the Shadows of the Canadian Rockies.