Last year I visited a very interesting site located near Canmore, AB. The Rat’s Nest Cave is accessible through the touring company, Canmore Cave Tours, and can be visited all year round. With the help of my guide, Brent, I rappelled 18 m into the cave and squeezed through many tight water carved gaps and tunnels. Eventually you reach “the grotto” where you can hang out by a crystal clear pool and several beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.
Also in the cave are many animal bones dating to approximately 7000 years ago and, although I didn’t see any while on the tour, several stone tools dating to 3000 years ago. One of the most fascinating aspects of the cave are the pictographs located at the entrance of the cave. Inside the cave, are several small rock paintings that indicate the cave was of cultural significance for the First Nations people possibly for thousands of years. My guide also informed me that there are several pictographs on the outside of the cave above the entrance but due to years of weathering they are not visible to the naked eye.
Luckily, recent advances in technology allow us to digitally enhance rock art paintings. A process called Decorrelation Stretch or simply D-Stretch is currently being used by archaeologists and rock art researchers to enhance even the faintest of pictographs. The process works by increasing differences in hue and stretching the contrast for each colour variance. When D-stretch is used to enhance the image of the entrance of the Rat’s Nest Cave, a series of handprints can be seen going up the wall.
During our field seasons we find 100+ archaeological sites every year; however, not every site we find is flagged for avoidance. The decision of whether a site is avoided or approved for impact ultimately comes down to the Historic Resource Management Branch at Alberta Culture and Tourism’s approval of our recommendations. Our recommendations are based on the following criteria of site significance:
Multiple Component: The continued use of a landform throughout time increases the site significance. This can be represented by stone artifacts from different, distinct depths or in different layers. The most obvious multi-component sites are historic period sites (Post-European Contact) with an earlier Pre-European contact component. For example, we have found stone tools in tests conducted around the outside of a collapsed cabins.
Integrity: Sometimes we assess areas after they have been disturbed. We do this either to assess the level of impacts from the disturbance or protect sites from any further impacts (site preparation for tree planting, gravel pits, etc.). If we believe the site has been completely disturbed and the artifacts have lost their context, we will collect a representative sample of artifacts and recommend approval for the impacted area.
Road exposure with artifact identified
Artifact found in disturbed context
Biface fragment of artifact found above (dorsal – left, ventral – right)
Datable Materials: The presence of organic material is necessary to determine how old the site is. This is quite rare in the boreal forests of Alberta because the acidic soils do not preserve things such as bone or wood. Often, the only datable material we find is charcoal which can be used for Carbon dating. The ability to date the site is important as archaeologists are still figuring out the evolution of tool use and the spread of people throughout Alberta.
Thick charcoal deposits from a shovel test
large pieces of charcoal are required for dating
results of radio carbon dating
Exotic Materials: The sites we find are typically scatters of tool stone such as quartzite and chert. These materials were local to the area, collected from stream beds by the past flintknappers. When we find something not native to Alberta, we consider the site to be of high significance. The presence of obsidian suggests trade or travel from areas with volcanoes. The presence of Knife River Flint suggests trade or travel from North Dakota.
Presence of tools or diagnostic materials: The majority of sites we find are simply areas where a stone tool was made. To find a tool is significant because it tells us what activities were happening at the site. These tools can include things such as: scrapers for scraping hides; knives for butchering animals; wedges or adzes for woodworking; or projectile points (e.g. arrowheads) used for hunting. Projectile points can also be diagnostic of certain groups (e.g. Clovis) or certain time periods (e.g. spears>darts>arrowheads).
Distinct intra-site activity areas or features: Sometimes we can find things that suggest a certain activity happened at a specific area of a site. This can be represented by what we call features which are non-portable representations of human activity. These can be such things as: post holes, hearths, or walls. We can also find distinct activity areas such as the flake scatter identified at the Brazeau Reservoir.
Uniqueness of the site in the surrounding area: We often find ourselves in areas of the province that have never had an archaeological survey before. I’ve found sites in areas of the province that we would describe as “the middle of nowhere.” Basically areas that are from major rivers or known travel corridors that were used by people in the past. To find a small scatter of flakes in an area without another site for another 20 km in any direction is more significant than finding another site in densely occupied areas such as the Fort McMurray region.
Site size: Our work is primarily concerned with determining how large the site is for purposes of avoidance by our clients. When we find very large sites these are considered of high significance due to the increased potential of finding anything listed above.
One day last fall, Vince and I went to revisit an old cabin that had been found deep in the Swan Hills. This cabin had been found during an historic resource impact assessment back in 2009, and we just need to check to make sure that the new harvest block was going to avoid the site. The cabin, GfQa-2, was located on the tip of a narrow point along the East Prairie River valley, approximately 60 km south of Driftpile, Alberta.
After a long hike through dense fir, we finally reached the recorded spot for the cabin. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a structure to see on the surface. It took us a few minutes to find the 5 by 5 meter square outline of the cabin foundations, right on the river valley edge. It was hard to see as there was only one course of saw-cut logs remaining from the walls and even these were covered in a thick layer of moss and lichen. The cabin had been collapsed for so long that even a large white spruce tree was growing over one of the corners.
We also noticed two small pits near the cabin walls. The smaller of the two pit features (roughly 1 m in diameter and 60 cm deep) was about 15 meters southeast of the cabin. The second larger pit (2 by 1 m and 60 cm deep) was location a few meters northeast of the cabin wall. We couldn’t find any artifacts in these pits, but we concluded that the smaller pit was likely the privy and that the bigger one may have been some type of root cellar.
In contrast to the cabin itself, it was much easier to find the piles of historic artifact around the cabin entrance. Lying on the mossy surface of the site were a number of a metal buckets, glass mason jars, and several rusted metal cans. Artifacts like these are fairly common at historic cabin sites, and at first glance, these artifacts might seem like rusted bits of garbage. However, Vince and I were actually able to find out a lot about the site by looking at these artifacts. For example, one of these cans found a second life as a strainer. The label had long since rusted off of this can so we can’t tell what it originally held, but the bottom of the can had been repeatedly punched with a square nail or metal punch. I suspect that the people living at the cabin weren’t cooking up pasta, instead this can may have been used to wash berries or any number of small food items.
The three artifacts that revealed the most about the people who lived at the site were a set of cans with the labels still preserved. With these labels, we can identify what kinds of food products were brought to the site, and the time period when they were purchased. Certain important changes to labeling laws, like the introduction of the metric system in 1976, can help us to determine age brackets for an artifact (Must be younger or older than X date). Certain styles of labels can also help us to isolate a time period (like a ‘Phantom Menace’ commemorative Pepsi Can that could only date to 1999). By comparing the artifacts to preserved examples of different branded products, we can begin to isolate when this historic cabin was occupied. Unfortunately, the labeling style of different brands that were used in the past has not been well documented, so it is difficult to precisely date a can, even when there is a label.
The first can we identified was a 20 lb can of Roger’s Golden Syrup from the BC Sugary Refinery. This company began the production a variety of sugar-based products in 1891 and we still buy Roger’s Sugar products today in our grocery stores. There is no date listed on the can but the style of the label seems to match examples of preserved cans from the 1940’s and 50’s.
The second can that we were able to identify was a tin of Klim from the Borden Company. Klim is a brand of powdered or condensed milk, that was extremely popular throughout the 1900’s. Originally produced by the Merrell-Soule Company in New York, Klim was marketed with the slogan, “Spell it Backwards’. In 1927, the brand was purchased by the Borden Company and remarketed as a Borden Company product. We can only see part of the label on the artifact preserved at the cabin, but the type font and labeling matches other examples of Borden Company Brand Klim. The Klim brand now belongs to Nestle, who continue to produce Klim powdered milk products around the world.
The third can was the most difficult to identify, as most of the label has been covered with rust and the company name was not preserved. It does seems, however, that this is another can of Borden Company Klim. This is largely based on the shape of the label border and the colour of the can, which is similar to the front of the other preserved label. There was a fair bit of interesting material to read on this label. There is a seal of approval from the American Medical Association (bottom left of label). In 1929, the American Medical Association started a committee to approve the quality and safety of infant formula and other food products. Similarly, one portion of the label reports that the product adheres to the 1937 standards for caloric values. Throughout the 1930’s in Canada and the United States, there was a large push to create a framework for people to maintain optimal health, as well as to combat false or inaccurate claims for food products. The instructions printed on the can also list how to best mix the Klim with water or coffee, as well as a set of special information for physicians to make the equivalent of whole milk. So based on this, it seems likely that this was a can of Klim, produced some time after 1937.
Looking around at the other type of cans we found at the site, a number of them have a similar size and design to the Rogers Golden Syrup container, as well tins of Klim. It seems then that the owner of the cabin had a bit of sweet tooth when it came to their meals. Another intriguing possibility is that the Klim and syrup were used for baby formula, as these are common ingredients in early 20th century baby formulas. During the 1930’s through 1960’s, it was common for mothers to mix powdered milk with honey or syrup to used as infant formula. This was a practice that was recommended by many doctors at the time as the mixture was fattening, even though earlier condense milk products during this period lacked any significant amount of nutrients or minerals (These were added later once doctors realized that we need them to survive). So we might be seeing evidence that a family was living at this cabin, but it is hard to say conclusively that this was the case.
Based on the kinds of artifacts we were able to identified, we can reasonably guess that the cabin was built some time after 1937 and probably used during the 1940’s or 50’s. But how long did people continue to live at the cabin? The structure is largely gone, so we know that it has been left for some time. However, it is hard to know how long a place has been abandoned. Historic structures can often go through different phases of use, from a permanent residence to a seasonal home or travelers rest stop. One way to determine this is to look at the local vegetation and see how much has grown over the site. At this site, there is a dense growth of balsam fir and white spruce over the site, so it appears to be abandoned for some time. There was also one particularly large white spruce with a diameter of about 30 cm, growing over the south corner of the cabin. This is the perfect situation to determine the amount of time since the cabin was abandoned, because that tree could only start growing after the roof and walls of the cabin had collapsed. Tree growth rates vary considerably based on local conditions, but it would likely take approximately 40 to 60 years for a white spruce to reach that diameter and height. So, given what we know from the artifacts at the site, we can conclude then that this cabin was occupied some time between 1937 and abandoned some time after the 1960’s.
From a few cans in the middle of the forest, deep in the Swan Hills, we can get a snap shot of life from almost 70 years ago. We can see the kind of food that people were eating and what they considered important enough to carry 60 kilometers into the bush with them. Even though this little neck of the woods might seem secluded, so remote that you’d think nobody would visit, but just over 2 kilometers away from this cabin, on a little ridge, we found a 10,000 year old spear point. From the Ice Age to the Modern Age, it goes to show how even the most remote places can have the deepest history.
Authors Note: If you feel like you can better identify these cans, or if you feel like you know who could have lived at this cabin, please feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly about it. Any information that you share will be greatly appreciate and will also help us to tell the stories of the areas we visit.
It’s that time of year again! Living in Alberta, we all know how disastrous a forest fire can be. No one wants to see fires tear through their homes and communities, like what has happened previously to Fort McMurray or Slave Lake. These fires are dangerous, unpredictable, and destructive. Many of us at Tree Time have walked though the remains of a burned forest and have seen what is left behind. So here are some tips to remember while you are out camping and enjoying your campfire.
Building your fire:
Check for a fire ban in your area. May can be a dry month, and it only takes one spark to start a forest or brush fire.
Use an existing fire ring if you can, rather than build a new one. Make sure all vegetation or flammable materials (like leaves, sticks, spruce/pine needles, etc) has been cleared away up to 10 ft.
If you have to build a new one, dig a pit 1 ft into the ground first and circle it with rocks.
Select an open area with no overhanging branches, dense dry grass, logs, etc.
NEVER LEAVE IT UNATTENDED!
Putting out your fire:
Use water to douse that fire. If the fire burns too hot, it can still catch fire when the wind picks up, so make sure everything that remains is soaked through.
Use shovels or a stick to stir the contents making sure everything gets wet and cools down.
Touch it to be sure! People might think that they put out their fire, but debris (roots, moss etc) on or under the ground can catch on fire and spread the fire beyond the stone rings. You can see in the pictures that the area around this abandoned campfire has been burned.
That is why it is so important to make sure that you have properly put out your fire. Please check out the Alberta Parks Website for great advice on campfire safety.
Also if you need to report a wildfire, call 310-Fire (3473). Never put yourself in danger.
We thought we would share this story in advance of the long weekend to remind people about campfire safety. Alberta is a great place and camping is an amazing way to experience it. So from us at Tree Time, we sincerely wish you a great long weekend and happy, safe camping.
Now that all the reporting is done, we thought it was a good time to look back on some of the exciting sites we worked on from the past year. We usually find over 100 sites every year but these sites stand out either because we found interesting artifacts or the site is unique compared to the sites we generally find. It doesn’t matter how many points an archaeologist has found throughout their career, they will still get really excited when they pull a projectile point out of the their screen! In fact, compiling this list got me really excited to get out of the office and back into the field where an archaeologist belongs.
ElPs-56: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for Sundre Forest Products near the South James River. It’s located on a distinct corner, so we couldn’t miss the landform. What makes this site exciting is that Brian found a Beasant point! We don’t often find these during a shovel test program (compared to excavations). It was likely dropped there by a past hunter while looking out over the valley below. We also found several flakes and a hammerstone which suggests people were also making tools at this location.
Point found at ElPs-56
Hammerstone found at ElPs-56
FePr-4: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands. The site was located on terrace edge overlooking an old oxbow of Wolf Creek. The site has a very diverse artifact assemblage consisting of various materials including mudstone, petrified wood, chalcedony, and quartzite. The most interesting find was a piece of obsidian. Obsidian is volcanic glass and only comes from areas with volcanic activity. The presence of obsidian suggests either long distance trade outside of Alberta, or long distance movement of people.
Obsidian piece found at FePr-4
Elenore digging at FePr-4
GfQa-5: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for North Central Woodlands. At this site we found a salt-and-pepper quartzite spear point preform on a small ridge in the Swan Hills. The point likely broke in half during the manufacture of the tool. The site is interesting because spear points such as Alberta or Hellgap points (which are similar to this point stylistically) are typically dated to approximately 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Also recovered at the site were the molars of an adult moose but unfortunately in a different context than the point. Further testing at the site may recovered datable materials that can be associated with the point.
Point from GfQa-5
Moose teeth found at GfQa-5
GiPl-13: This site was found near Howard and Fawcett Lake by the layout crew of Tolko Slave Lake Industries. We visited the site to document and confirm what type of site the flagging crew found. Upon visiting the site we found six collapsed structures, five mounded rectangles, and lots of mechanical and other types of debris. Our initial interpretation was that the site was an old forestry camp. Further background research revealed that area was known to have a WWII prisoner of war camp, where POWs often worked for the forestry sector. It’s possible this camp may have been related to the work they did. We analyzed the artifacts identified at the site and found one of the pieces of ceramic had a makers mark that read “Medalta Made In Canada.” This ceramic seal dates to between 1937 and 1943. Further research is needed at the site to confirm it is a POW camp from WWII. If it is, the site is very significant for learning how POW’s were treated, lived, and contributed to industry during WWII.
Faint maker’s mark on bottom of ceramic
Reference mark from Getty and Klaiman 2017
Remains of structures at GiPl-13
Remains of structures at GiPl-13
KkDo-1: Kurtis and Vince spent a week excavating a sod house on a remote part of Baffin Island in the Qaummaarviit Territorial Park last October. This was a unique opportunity for us because we typically only work in Alberta. However, Vince’s experience from his graduate research on a historic Inuit house in Newfoundland made him well suited to the project. While excavating the house they found spears, harpoons, and projectile points while working along side the local descendant community. In fact, one of the Inuit team members, Naulaq Inookie, is a direct descendant of the people who lived there. The sod house dates to between 1200-1800 AD and will be eventually reconstructed as a tourist attraction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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].