The Whiskey Jack!

In 2015 a two year poll was issued by Canadian Geographic for a new National Bird.  In the end, our little Grey Jay took the lead, beating out the common loon, black-capped chickadee, snowy owl, and Canadian Goose. Although not officially recognized as the new National bird yet, it was selected as an avian representation of Canadians: its found in every province and territory, it’s friendly, and it’s very intelligent!

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From the Canadian Geographic: https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/meet-our-national-bird-gray-jay

For the Cree, the Whiskey Jack, or Wisakedjak, is a shape-shifter, benevolent trickster, teacher, and messenger of the forest. There are many different stories about the Wisakedjak, but most of them have a moral. The appearance of the Wisakedjak in the morning is seen as a good omen, and is believed it warns people of nearby predators.

This boreal forest inhabitant is often spotted by Tree Time’s archaeology crews, and it has quickly become my favourite little bird. They are almost always seen traveling in a group of three: a monogamous pair and a juvenile from the previous year’s breeding season. The friendliest groups have always been found near areas people have made their hunting camps. In fact, the Whiskey Jack has figured out that people mean food. Given a few minutes, some of them may even eat out of your hand!

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The Whiskey Jack checking us out! Notice how close it is to our gear.
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This camp must have been a popular food gathering place for these Grey Jays. They were very friendly!

Whiskey Jacks stick around all winter too, even incubating their eggs as temperatures dip to -30°C. They store their food in crevices, under lichen, and even under conifer needles. They coat the food in a saliva, called bolus, which makes it sticky, ensuring the food doesn’t move until the Whiskey Jack returns. Unlike forgetful squirrels, these birds will remember exactly where they left their caches! Their food is a variety of arthropods (like spiders), small mammals, ticks, carrion, fungi, fruits, and seeds. The average life span is about 8 years, although the oldest recorded Whiskey Jack was 17 years old!

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These three checking to see if we were going to drop any of our lunch.

What bird would you have voted for?

Archaeology Around the Wabasca-Desmarais Area

The Wabasca-Desmarais region is rich in heritage of all types, such as archaeological, palaeontological and historic sites and trails. In addition, there are unexplored landscapes that have the potential to contain countless unrecorded sites. Early archaeological research in the area was conducted through government surveys or University funded projects. Over the last 10 to 15 years most of the sites in the area were recorded by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies, like Tree Time Services Inc., working for industry, primarily the forestry sector.

At least 300 First Nations historic and archaeological sites have been identified within 100 km of Wabasca-Desmarais, AB, and 13 sites within 10 km. These sites are located throughout the landscape and shed light on indigenous life over at least 4,500 years.

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Most of the archaeological sites in the region have only had limited excavation done, usually less than 20 “shovel tests”. These are 1 foot square holes dug and screened for artifacts. The most common artifacts are stone chips or flakes, called debitage, that are left behind by someone making or sharpening stone tools. Sometimes stone tools, like scrapers, knives or projectile points (arrow or spear-heads) are found, which let us say more about the site. Rarely, animal bone or charcoal is found that will let us do radiocarbon dating to find out how old a site is.

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A sample of tools found at sites in 2017 located southwest of Wabasca.

Until recently, the Wabasca-Desmarais was considered to be low in archaeological potential due to the abundance of low lying areas and muskeg. Although this type of terrain is difficult to survey, and therefore it may appear to have been largely uninhabited in the past, recent efforts have discovered that there was actually a substantial amount of past activity throughout this region. In the vast muskeg, archaeological sites can be found on elevated areas within the low lying terrain, showing that small water courses and lakes were also extensively inhabited. Many of these small water courses were likely used as transportation corridors between the more productive lakes, and elevated areas within wet lands would make ideal camping locations during resource gathering. In addition, many medicinal plants grow in the muskeg, making this environment invaluable for resource gathering.

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View of a beaver pond on our way to a site in 2017, southwest of Wabasca.

The most-studied site in the region is the Alook Site (HaPl-1), named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. It is located on the north shore of North Wabasca Lake and was excavated by teams from the University of Alberta in the 1960’s and 70’s. These excavations determined that the site was likely a 4200 – 3500 year old indigenous campsite. Archaeologists were able to recover a multitude of stone tools, including McKean atlatl dart points, Side-Notched arrow points and hide scrapers. The excavation also identified a midden feature which contained a concentration of broken bone, stone artifacts and charcoal. Stay tuned for our next post to read more about this site!

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A few artifacts from HaPl-1 Alook Site (Sims  1981.   Archaeologicla Investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site.  In: Archaeology in Alberta, 1981, pp. 12-16.  Occasional Paper No. 19, Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

With the limited archaeological research conducted in the Wabasca-Desmarais region to date, we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of past life-ways and traditional land use in this diverse landscape. It is important to note that even though people have lived in this area for several millennia, very little research has been done in the last 40 years. Further archaeological investigation is this area would be a great opportunity to bring together local communities, educators, academics and industry to further our understanding of its past inhabitants in an inclusive environment in the spirit reconciliation. There is definitely more work to be done!

What Makes a Site Significant?

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.

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Matt digging at an historic site in 2012, looking for pre-contact components

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.

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.

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.

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Knife River Flint dart base found in 2013
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Distance from point to KRF quarry in 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).

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Common Alberta point typologies and timeline

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.

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Flintknapping area identified during the ASA-EC Brazeau Reservoir survey

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.

Cabin in the Woods

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.

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Looking out over the Swan Hills

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.

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Remnants of the cabin walls at GfQa-2, with a white spruce tree growing over the corner
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Hand-cut logs used in the construction of the cabin

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.

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The smaller pit, right up against a small white spruce tree

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.

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Can with perforated bottom at GfQa-2

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.

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On the left a can from GfQa-2, on the right a can of Roger’s Golden Syrup from the BC Sugary Refinery (Kneehill Museum, Three Hills AB).  The details on the building are slightly different, but the company name is still largely preserved along with the red strip around the top.

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.

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On the left an artifact from GfQa-2, on the right a preserved Borden Company Klim can. Note the similar type font and printing at the bottom and the similar corners on the label background. One difference is that the preserved label was green as opposed to brown, but it might just represent a different manufacturing period or that the colour has faded from brown to green over time.

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.

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Unidentifiable can

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.

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Examples of other cans found at the site. Most are similar in size to the syrup and Klim cans. We also found a broken tape measure from the archaeologists who found the site, circa 2009!

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.

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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.

Camp Fire Hazards

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.

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An area that was partially burned by a forest fire

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.
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Note the burnt ground under Brian’s feet clearly outside the intended fire pit area

 

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Brian digging up earth around the fire pit to put out the fire

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.

http://www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/advisories-public-safety/outdoor-safety/campfire-safety/

http://www.ofc.alberta.ca/camping-and-outdoor-fire-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.

Tree Time’s 2017 Top Five Sites

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Setting up the excavation units at the Sod House
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View of the camp at night!

Features of a Flake

Back in 2015 I was dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of a large muskeg to assess a cutblock for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. After trudging my way through the swamp to the cutblock, I found a very prominent but small hill. I put my shovel in the ground and I found one large, beautiful flake. I tested out the rest of the landform but found nothing else. I flagged the site for avoidance by harvesters and made my way back through the muskeg to be picked up by the helicopter.

When I got there I told the pilot that I found a site. He responded “Really? This is the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone be out here?” To which I replied, “People were everywhere, man.” The pilot was skeptical and asked to see what I found. He said, “That’s just a rock that was broken by your shovel.” I responded by saying, “I can give you eight reasons why this is a legitimate artifact…”

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The above artifact is the “textbook flake” that I found that day. It has all the features that we typically look for in determining if it is natural or a rock that was broken by a human in the past. These features are:

1. Bulb of percussion: A bulb that forms directly below where the hammerstone struck the core. This is what causes the flake to be popped from the core. If a rock is broken by heating or freeze-thaw this bulb will not be present.

2. Platform: The flat area where the flintknapper would strike the core to pop the flake off. These areas are sometimes prepped to be struck by rubbing the hammerstone on the edge to strengthen the edge and remove any micro-fractures that may cause the rock to break in an unintended way.

3. Percussion waves: Caused by the force travelling through the flake.

4. Eraillure Scar: Small flake scar on the ventral surface of the flake which is the result of the rebounding force from the percussive force.

5. Termination: This flake has a feather termination. This is a perfect detachment of a flake from a core. Desirable because the end of the flake is sharp without need to resharpen or retouch. This means that the flake is a ready tool that can be used to cut or scrape. Other types of terminations include: hinge, step, and overshot terminations. These are usually an error by the knapper or flaws in the core.

6. Flake Scars: Areas on the dorsal surface of the flake where flakes were knocked off during earlier stages of tool making process. The coincidence of these being present on a naturally broken rock are impossible.

7. Material: The material of this flake is a fine grained chert. This is not a rock that would naturally be found in this immediate area. There were also no other rocks present in the shovel test or any of the other shovel tests that were dug that day.

8. Context: Sometimes when rocks are crushed by heavy equipment they can break in a similar fashion but this was found pre-disturbance. Additionally, the force from me putting my shovel into the ground could never possibly break a rock in this fashion. I am not that strong.

It is not often that we have all of these flake features present. Sometimes if a flake is broken we might not be able to see the bulb and platform or the termination. We usually try to find at least two of these features to call something an artifact. To convince a non-archaeologist a flake is genuine you might need all these features present. I feel like I convinced the pilot that this was a real artifact but I think he only responded by saying “interesting.”