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.

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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).

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

Find the Flake (Part 2!)

While we always prefer to survey areas prior to any impacts, the identification of artifacts in post-impact contexts can be easier because of large areas of exposed sediments. Instead of targeted shovel tests that excavate a very small percentage of a high potential area, we can potentially see everything that is under the ground. However, the context of anything we find must be taken into account because heavy equipment can break cobbles and create things that look very similar to lithic debitage. If we find an artifact in the track of heavy machinery we need to be careful we are not misidentifying what we call a “tractorfact.”

In spring of 2017, we surveyed a proposed Associated Aggregates gravel pit that was being planned in a recently harvested cutblock . We identified several sites that were within the proposed gravel pit boundary, most of which were first identified by spotting artifacts on the ground.  It’s not always easy, as vegetation can trick you into thinking you’ve found something, only to realize it was just a leaf.

If you want to try your eye, try to spot the flakes in the above picture!

How many did you find? Give up?

Keep scrolling for the answer…

It can be pretty difficult to spot because of the leaves on the ground but when you really take the time to look you can see five pieces of quartzite debitage.

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Calcined Bone

When bone is burnt by a fire it can undergo a range of changes in appearances, such as calcining. Calcining, characterized by its bright white colour, is caused when bone is burnt at a higher temperatures. The bone can shrink, become more white or chalky in appearance, more fragile and more likely to fragment into smaller pieces. These pieces of calcined bone were collected during the summer of 2017. Calcined bone indicates the presence of a hearth at the site.

Public Archaeology at the Brazeau Reservoir

Public archaeological programs are an excellent opportunity for people with a general interest in archaeology or amateur archaeologists to learn what an artifact is, and to practice the techniques that are used to find and interpret them. Often these programs will have a dig component, where people join for a few days or a week, and learn excavation techniques in units laid out over a buried site.

The Brazeau Archaeological Project (BAP), sponsored in part by Tree Time Services Inc., provides a unique experience. The current sites being surveyed are almost entirely exposed by the continuously fluctuating water levels of the reservoir. This also means that the entire history of the area has been deflated to one level, rather than multiple occupation levels that can be apparent in excavations. The occupation of the Brazeau River by First Nations extends as far back as 12- 14,000 years ago. This allows participants to gain a better feel of how large and spread out an archaeological site can really be. The largest site surveyed so far spans almost 1 km!

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Bob Dawe (left) discussing boiling pits. Photo Credit: Jack Brink

The project invites members of the Strathcona Archaeological Society (SAS) to come out for a day or weekend to learn survey and excavation techniques, as directed by experienced or professional archaeologists. As most of the artifacts lay exposed on the surface due to the ever changing water levels of the reservoir, the experience is relaxed, family friendly, and can be conducted over a single day or weekend, rather than a week-long commitment.

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Participants surveying, excavating, and generally having a good time!  Photo credit: Top and left – Hilary McDonald; right – Madeline Coleman

Participants learn what features to look for when looking for surface finds, such as material, shape, and modifications. By pairing participants up with experienced archaeologists we can point out the various ways an artifact, such a flake, can look; particularly how it can blend in or really stand out from its surrounding environment. For example, Amandah van Merlin, one of the co-ordinators, picked up a small, indistinct black pebble. The black pebble chert material, however, is a popular flint knapping material. As it turned out, Amandah had found a thumbnail scraper!

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A small pebble with a big surprise!  Photo credit: Amandah van Merlin; inset – Madeline Coleman

Public archaeology programs are also a great way to explore new technology or try experiments. One participant brought his drone. He was able to take photos from a bird’s-eye view of the site, providing a totally new perspective on what these landforms look like along the shore, and the distances between the sites. Madeline Coleman, the other co-ordinator, laid out various sizes of brick pieces in order to examine how artifacts are affected by water movement (or perhaps even people).

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Ariel view of FfPv-1.  Photo credit: Robert Wambold
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Laying out pieces of brick to monitor movement over time.  Photo credit: Madeline Coleman

The project is still in its infancy. The pilot survey in May 2015 occurred over one day and had 9 participants. In May 2016, the survey occurred over two days with over thirty participants joining for one or both days. This past May, there were over 20 participants that joined for the full weekend. In addition, for two days prior to the public survey, BAP worked with University of Alberta field school students. Here they practiced map making, shovel testing, and laying out excavation units.

Outreach is also a very important aspect of a public program, such to First Nations group, schools, and universities. The BAP has recently reached out to Paul First Nation, in whose traditional territory the Brazeau River lies, and whom are active in working to protect their heritage. BAP has also recently partnered with Katie Biittner at Grant MacEwan University to begin a hands-on catalogue experience for university students at Grant MacEwan and the University of Alberta. In addition, the original finders of the site, Sandy and Tom Erikson, worked to create a 3-case display at their hometown school in Edson. The case shows some of the finds and information from the periods they may have originated in.

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School display in Edson. Photo credit Sandy Erikson

The View From Out Here

We took this photo in the fall of 2016 while completing fieldwork for Sundre Forest Products’. It’s of the Clearwater River valley as seen from a site we found that year. The site was easily identified because artifacts were eroding out of the steep valley wall and the ATV trails that cross the landscape.

From here, one would be able to keep an eye on traffic (human, moose, deer, etc.) through the valley (if the vegetation allowed it, that is). This is probably one of the reasons it was used as a campsite in the past, and still is to this day – we found a couple of modern fire pits at the ancient site.

Views are becoming an increasingly important and interesting part of predicting site locations and are becoming easier to consider. We have GIS to thank for that. Here former Tree Time archaeologist, Tim Allan, has an update on his MA research that provides an example of what a view-shed analysis can look like.

In the case of the Clearwater River site and the Hummingbird Creek site Tim discusses, both appear to be located to command the view – look how similar the landscapes are.

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Hummingbird site location on left (from Tim’s blog post), Clearwater River site on right.

As more view-shed analyses are undertaken in Alberta, we may see patterns emerge that indicate that people were choosing to place their structures or settlements in a location that ensured they could see certain landmarks (like kiva towers), be seen from certain landmarks (like the possible Whitby signal station), or to be protected from views altogether (like low-elevation defensive sites in the islands of Fiji).

These analyses of the views to, from, and between contemporaneous sites can provide us with some clues as to social interactions and climates in the past.

Obsidian

Obsidian is commonly known as volcanic glass. It forms when a volcano erupts and the lava is cooled extremely quickly, such as when it flows into a water body. In Alberta obsidian is considered to be an “exotic material” because it does not occur here naturally. When we find it here it tells us that people in the past engaged in long distance trade, usually with people in British Columbia or the Yukon. In 2016 Teresa found this lovely obsidian flake at site FaPr-6 located near the community of Caroline.