Water crossings are something we come across on a daily basis in the boreal forest. Sometimes we are fortunate to work in areas with active hunters or forestry layout crews, and can use the bridges they have already constructed. These brides can be cut logs laid across a deep, but narrow water channel, while others have been constructed with considerable planning and engineering!

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The first thing we do when we get to an unknown bridge is test it out. It’s not always obvious that the bridge is in disrepair. In order not to add extra stress to the bridge, we travel across one at a time, each person watching the following person to make sure they safely crossed.

There are times that a water crossing would have been fine to cross on a quad, but beaver activity has flooded the area. In these cases, we like to find a sturdy, wide beaver dam to use as a foot bridge. We move slowly across, testing footholds as we go, since beaver dams, like bridges, can look more sturdy than they are. If the beaver dam seems too small or too weak, we will not cross.

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Of course, there are always the days where there are no bridges to help us get to where we are going! At that point we either have to turn around and look for a new route, or bring in different vehicle types, like an Argo.

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Lightning Trees

Last year, while conducting survey with Brittany in a remote region of northern Alberta, I noticed some unusual scarring on a large spruce tree. Upon closer examination I realized the tree had been struck by lightning.

Usually when lightning hits a tree, one of three things may happen:

  • If the tree is wet on the outside, the electrical discharge may travel down the outside of the bark to ground and have little effect on the tree itself.
  • If the tree is not wet, the discharge may travel down the tree on the inside of the bark, which will result in scarring. In my experience, this will usually be one or more scars that revolve around the trunk of the tree as the discharge travels downwards.
  • If the tree is not wet, but is full of moisture, the moisture may be super heated and instantly turn into gas that quickly expands and causes an explosion. This may blow the bark off the tree, blow the top off the tree, or in some circumstances completely destroy the tree.

The tree that Brittany and I stumbled across had a considerable amount of damage due to the lightning strike. Yet, even though the tree had substantial bark scarring and its top blown completely off, it did not die and seemed to be in pretty good shape.

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The top of the tree exploded from the lightening.

As rare as finding a lightning tree may seem, trees are actually struck by lightning very frequently. The Government of Canada reports that there is an average of 2 million cloud to ground lightning strikes per year in Canada, igniting approximately 45% of all our forest fires. These fires account for nearly 80% of the total forests burned annually. Although I wasn’t aware of these statistics until recently, my time working as a Forest Fire Fighter made me very aware of the frequency, since many of the fires we were called to fight were started by lightning. Even during a torrential downpour, lightning may still strike a spruce tree, causing a small fire to start at the base where it is sheltered by the branches. Days or even weeks later, when the temperature rises and the vegetation dries out, the fire may grow substantially in size. Suppression of these fires cost Canadian taxpayers a substantial amount of money. The Government of Canada has a whole section of their website dedicated to severe weather.

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Lightening scar at  the base of the tree.

Taking refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm is very unwise. It may seem like a good place to keep dry during a sudden downpour, but it is actually one of the most unsafe places you could be. Indoors is always the safest place to be. However, if you are caught without shelter in a thunderstorm, the best place to be is in a low lying area such as a ditch. You might not stay dry, but you will be safe from lightning. Just make sure you watch out for flooding!

If you do happen to stumble across a lightning tree like Brittany and I did, you may want to take a little token for yourself (as long as it doesn’t harm the tree if it is still alive). Many people believe that the wood from a lightning tree will bring you good luck. Others believe that the power passed from the lightning to the tree, can then be passed on to whoever possesses its wood. Even if you are all full up on power and luck, you could always just keep the wood as a souvenir and reminder of the raw and devastating power of nature.

Tree Time Gals!

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to talk about women in our past that have paved the way in some fashion. Without the Famous Five women would not have been recognized as persons in Canada as early as we were. Women like Zelia Nuttal, challenged the norm and pursued something she truly loved, expanding our understanding of archaeology and ancient cultures in the process. Thanadelthur and Flores LaDue showed everyone just how strong, creative, and persevering women can be!

To end our posts this week, however, I would like to give a shout out to all the women archaeological consultants in Alberta today. On a daily basis in the field they face the elements, wildlife, and the unknown of what they may or may not find during survey. Those of us that work in the boreal forest have the added challenge of remote access, long hikes with 30-40 lbs of gear, no trails, exhaustion, and the sheer joy of being places people have rarely visited in the recent past. Many of these women lead archaeological survey projects large and small, while others conduct the surveys and are gaining the experience they need to become permit holders. Our permit holders manage the crews, budgets, research designs, safety, data analysis, reporting, and outreach.

In 2017, 62 people applied for a permit in Alberta in order to complete an Historic Resource Impact Assessment (HRIA), of which 23 were women. In Edmonton we have three major forestry CRM companies (Circle CRM, Western Heritage Services, and Tree Time Services) that currently employ 16 permit holders, 8 of which are women, in addition to seasonal and annual archaeologists. At Tree Time, we currently have 4 women (3 permit holders) on a 9 person team: Teresa Tremblay, Brittany Romano, Elenore Hood, and me (Madeline Coleman). We work side by side with our other team members improving our survey techniques, increasing our site identification rates (who doesn’t want to find more?), and annually increasing our understanding of where sites are in our project areas. All of these ladies have inspired me!

Teresa has really improved our understanding of site locations in the High Level area, which typically has very hard access, often needing helicopters. With helicopter access there are so many additional planning and safety considerations to take into account, creating a very challenging project, which she tackles with enthusiasm. In the Sundre area she works with developers on predicting where sites will be, allowing them to avoid areas. That doesn’t stop her from identifying over 30 sites a year in the planned harvest areas, though! She is one of our fastest diggers, and out-tests me on a regular basis. She also has several years teaching experience, preparing our next archaeological generation. She’s worked extensively in Ontario before moving to Alberta, and is working on expanding Tree Time into BC.

Brittany Romano has started to specialize in the Fort Vermilion area but has worked all over the province. Her problem solving skills for access, stuck quads, or site evaluations are excellent. She has recently been heavily involved with developing our outreach programs, which includes school visits. She’s put together our activity stations and worksheets to get young kids really involved and interested in archaeology. She keeps everyone at Tree Time on their toes with light-hearted practical jokes!

Elenore is one of the toughest field archaeologists I have ever met. No holds barred but at the same time the nicest person you could ever hope to work with. She takes no guff from bears, either. She built her career in BC and Alberta and has a keen sense of where on the landforms sites are located. She often finds artifacts in spots I would not have thought to test. She has been the lead of our blog series, and has kept a great balance with articles and featured artifacts. She has recently taken leave to work on a Master’s Degree. The next step is a Permit Archaeologist!

I’ve spent most of my career here, specializing in the Slave Lake region. Over the last few years I’ve been working on better understanding where we find sites in muskeggy regions. I love field archaeology but also really love the analysis part and outreach with First Nations groups. I’ve been working on improving our artifact analysis process, including its photography. I’ve also started working in the realm of public archaeology, which provides everyone with an opportunity to give archaeology a try.

And of course, there are so many other women archaeologists in the province. These include employees at the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, professors, students, volunteers at all our organizations around the province, and even the people who started out as archaeologists but have stepped away (you never really stop being one!). Women are a part of archaeology at every level in Alberta, and they are passionate about what they do.

Keep digging and researching, ladies!!


The context of an artifact is extremely important to archaeologists. The context of an artifact means the precise location of the artifact and it’s association with other artifacts and landscape features. This helps us determine such things as the relationships between artifacts on a site, it’s position in time and space, and even how it is related to different archaeological sites.

Below is a picture from a site near the Brazeau Reservoir, Alberta. The lithic scatter pictured below shows the flakes in their original context. The whole scatter is in a semi circle shape outlined in red. The positions of the flakes indicate that someone likely sat near the red circle. They then flint knapped purple quartzite which went in the direction of the purple arrow. They then shifted their body and began to flint knap a grey-blue quartzite that went in the direction of the blue arrow.

This is just a small portion of the site, so when we start to put together this information with other information about the site we begin to get a greater understanding of what happened, such as where specific activities took place and even what was going on in the area at that time.

Peace River Chert Biface

In the summer of 2016, this tool was identified while inspecting the exposures along an in-block road for Boucher Bros Lumber. It is likely the bottom portion of a biface that broke during manufacture or use. It is made from Peace River Chert, a material common to the Peace River region.

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Surface Exposure

Surface exposures are areas where there is no vegetation and the mineral soils are visible. These can occur naturally (areas of slumping, beaches, blow-out, or other natural erosional processes), or be caused by human activity (ATV trails, furrows created for site prep and skid trails just to name a few). Surface exposures can be great for covering a lot of ground during survey.

Field School in Belize – Trent University

One of the most common questions that I get asked is what is the coolest thing I have ever found.  My default answer is this censer fragment that my excavation team unearthed back in 2009 as part of the Trent University field school in Belize, at the Minanha site.

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Censer fragment

My team was working on the excavation of a house platform.  The house platform was part of a small complex of households near a ceremonial and political centre.  the site was abandoned around 1000 years ago at the end of the Classic era of the Maya civilization.

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Our excavation unit

One of the first things found during the excavation was a small cylinder seal next to the large tree root (pictured above).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the artifact but I still have my notes from the field school and a quick sketch that I did.

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Sketch of cylinder seal

As we continued to excavate through different occupation layers, we came upon an assemblage of broken pottery sherds.  We were careful to map each artifact before we removed them from their context (as indicated by the nails at each corner of the artifacts).  We could see there were holes in the ceramics but had no idea of what was waiting once we turned it over.

A young Corey Cookson excavating the house platform (left).  The censer fragment in situ (right).

When the sherd with the holes was turned over, the entire team got really excited and gathered around while the professor, Gyles Iannone, explained what we found.  The artifact was part of a large incense burner.  When incense was burned within the vessel, the smoke would come out the holes in the censer.  The smoke flowing out of the mouth likely created a very stunning effect.  After the field school was completed, the graduate students catalogued the artifacts and re-assembled the censer (pictured below).

Reassembled Censer (left – front view; right – side view). Photo Credit: Melissa Jeffrey