We Know How Old Stone Points Are, Right?

Back in September of 2017, I found what would probably be one of the coolest artifacts that I will ever find in my field survey career. My coworker Vince and I got up one fateful morning and set out on our four hour quad ride into one of the most beautiful areas in Northern Alberta: the Swan Hills. I have been working in the Swan Hills area for a few years now and every time I come back, I am always amazed by the broad vistas and pristine valleys that cut through this segment of the Alberta Foothills.

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On the trail near Goose Tower, Swan Hills, AB.

We were checking out a cutblock on the edge of a broad muskeg flat with a small stream. It was pretty swampy on the way in, but once we got closer to the stream, the land rose up into a nice, narrow little ridge that gave a good view over the stream. After walking around for a bit, Vince and I settled on a place to start digging. Normally, it takes a bit of time going through the screen before you can find the small stone flakes that we typically find. This time, I only had to flip over the root mat to see the top half of a stone blade stuck in the rootlets. A few seconds later, I pulled out the base of the same blade from the loose sediment, revealing a complete spear point buried only a few centimeters below the surface.

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The point seconds after I pulled it from the ground.

You can only imagine my excitement once I pulled this beautiful specimen out of the ground (I think I was making noises akin to Homer Simpson drooling over a doughnut). It is hard enough to find artifacts in the Boreal Forest, let alone to find a tool! My first thought as soon as I pulled it out was that I had found an Alberta Point. This is a type of projectile point that dates to around 9500 and 8000 years ago and is part of what is known as the Cody Complex. Alberta Points commonly have square stems that would have been hafted into a spear shaft, along with broad distinct shoulders and wider tapered blades. It seemed to be a good fit for the style of the point that I had found so I put Alberta Point in my notes and went about my day.

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The two pieces fit perfectly together, but it’s a bit awkward holding it like this!

Back at the lab, I started flipping through my reference books. I began to realize that what I had found didn’t really fit with what we know about Alberta Points. The shoulders weren’t as square as other Alberta Points and the blade was a little too broad and less lance-like. I also noticed that the shape of the point closely resemble ones found at Hell Gap sites, dating to between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago (before the Alberta points and the Cody Complex). During this period, we see that First Nations ancestors were making similar large spear heads, but with a broader blade and slight, indistinct shoulders. So the spearhead that I found could also belong to this time period. However, the story doesn’t end there. To complicate matters more, there are also similar kinds of projectile points being made around Lake Athabasca in the northeast corner of the province. During the Early Taltheilei Phase (2600 to 1800 years ago), the caribou hunting people living on the shores of Lake Athabasca were making similar looking large spear and atlatl dart points. The point I found could fit into any one of these three possibilities.

So what kind of projectile point had I found? If we can identify the style, we can make inferences on the age and archaeological culture that was present at the site. Being able to place an age on a site is often difficult to do for Alberta sites, especially sites in the Boreal Forest. The lack of organic preservation at many sites means that radiocarbon dating is often not possible. Also, most archaeological sites in northern Alberta have very little stratigraphy, meaning that you will find 13,000 years of history in about 20 cm of soil. Even this artifact, which may be anywhere from over 10,000 to 2000 years old, was found only 5 cm below the surface. So if I were to determine how old this site was, I would need to be able to positively identify the type of projectile point that I had found. So what did I find? How was it made? Where did it come from? The answers to these questions can tell us about the people who made the artifact.

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Both sides of the spear point.

First off, the material. The point is made of fine-grained quartzite, a lithic raw material that was frequently used in Alberta all throughout history. There are a lot of advantages to working with quartzite. As a material it is very strong and durable, which means that the edge of the blade will hold longer than other materials like obsidian. This also means that it is extremely difficult to work with. When we try our hand at flintknapping today, we often start with obsidian, chert, or flint because these materials will fracture more easily and predictably than others. Pick up a raw quartzite cobble, and you’ll find that you be bruised from trying to crack it open.

Quartzite is also very common. Almost every stream, creek, and river valley is filled with a variety of quartzite cobbles. You don’t need to import it thousands of kilometers, unlike Knife River Flint or obsidian. Not all quartzite is the same quality, but there are well documented sources of high quality quartzite and sandstone throughout the province, like the top of the Grizzly Ridge by Swan Hills or in the Oil Sands around Fort McMurray.

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Corey standing on a stream bed full of quartzite cobbles.

In fact, this point is made from a type of quartzite that is commonly known as ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ because of the small black specks in the largely white stone. This material has been found all over Northern Alberta, but it is most commonly reported around Fort McMurray. While no source has been officially documented, archaeologists who work in the Oil Sands region often report seeing raw cobbles and boulders of ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ quartzite in the creeks flowing into the Athabasca River. It is very likely then that this point was made from a cobble that came from the Fort McMurray region. Whether the person who made the point carried from Northeastern Alberta or if it made its way by trade, we don’t know. However, it does show us the vast ancient networks that connected the First Nations across Alberta.

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Possible pathway for Salt and Pepper quartzite from Fort McMurray.

So we know where the raw material for the point came from, what about how it was made? What can the shape and design tell us about the people who made it? One way to study this is to look at the flake scars, the ridges and concavities left when pieces of quartzite were struck from the point. Most of the time with finished projectile point, or those that have reached the end of their life as a usable tool, we will see that the edges will be very uniform and straight, with small flake scars along the blade where the tool was resharpened. However, this artifact is very rough, the edges are irregular and chipped and the blade has large long flake scars covering the surface. Based on these traits, it appears that this point was unfinished, and looking at where the break is, it was likely broken when they were trying to make the blade thinner. This point is what would be called a ‘Preform’, a roughly worked projectile point that has not been attached to a haft yet. Preforms can take a variety of shapes and forms, but they often resemble the final point style.

So now that we understand that we are looking at an unfinished point, it better explains why the shape of the artifact does not perfectly match other Alberta points. However, that doesn’t help us to determine if it is an Alberta, Hell Gap, or Taltheilei projectile point. The implications of assigning the point one of these time periods is significant, because it would move the occupation of the site from a period where Giant Bison and Ice Age mammals roamed Alberta during the Hell Gap Phase, to an environment more similar to what we see today during the Taltheilei Phase. Personally, I think that the point from GfQa-5 is more similar to projectile points and preforms that have been dated to the Hell Gap period. The shape of the shoulders, base, and the blade all seem to better match the style of these points than Alberta Points, and the points found at Taltheilei sites tend to be smaller and narrower. A cache of similar looking spear points were found near Eaglesham in northwestern Alberta, and the archaeologists who studied these points concluded that they were likely unfinished Hell Gap points. It seems likely then that the spear point I found would fall into this time period. However, this is still based on very general characteristics, and it could still easily fit within all three of these categories. Until we have more information, and we excavate more archaeological sites, we are often left with our best guess.

Publicly Reported Sites

In 2016 two members of the public contacted Tree Time Services to report archaeological sites that they had discovered. Our Archaeological Roadshow was being hosted by the Sundre Museum, during which we were approached by the first person who had found a side-notched projectile point while planting her garden. We arranged to meet her at her home to record the site. We took photos of her garden and recorded the location using a hand-held GPS unit of where she recalled finding the projectile point. We also took photos of the projectile point itself. Our time with her allowed us to collect the data we needed to report the site as EkPp-18. While the site is highly disturbed due to the construction of the subdivision it is still important to record the location of her site and what was found. This information will help future archaeologists to predict where other similar sites in the area can be found.

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Side-notched point found in the garden.

The second community member to contact us got in touch with Kurtis to let him know about six sites he found while hiking and hunting in the region. Teresa and I took a day off from working for our client to spend with him visiting the sites he had found. While we were there, we recorded the locations of where he had found artifacts, took photos and conducted surface inspections resulting in the identification of additional artifacts. The artifact collection is being catalogued by Tree Time so that we can record data to the standards required by the Royal Alberta Museum. This way we can submit site forms to the government of Alberta, just as we did for the previous person’s site. These site forms will have a detailed description of the archaeological sites found and a full listing of the number and types of artifacts found at each site. A copy of these catalogues will be sent to the Royal Alberta Museum when we have completed the reporting process. The museum needs a copy of the catalogue so that if any future work is completed at these sites they will be able to provide the researchers with a starting catalogue number, avoiding duplicates in the database. This way it is easy for researchers to know how many and what kinds of artifacts have come from a particular site, even if the museum doesn’t have the artifacts themselves.

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Bifacial fragment found while hiking.

We are always happy when people are willing to share their archaeological finds with us because the government cannot protect sites they don’t know exist. Researchers also need this information to build predictive models and to choose what areas would be interesting to conduct more research at.

If you have found an archaeological site and would like help to record it please contact Kurtis at 780-472-8878 or email [email protected].

Bridges

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!!

Context

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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