Big John’s Spring

A couple of the traits that serve archaeologists best are curiousity and an ability to recognize when something doesn’t belong.

For example, look at this site Brittany found in 2014 on the North Saskatchewan River when we were undertaking assessments for Sundre Forest Products. It may not look like much at first glance, but it’s an interesting historic period site.

Figure 1. The first hint of the site was a break in the berm.

Brittany was riding her ATV along the recreational trail that follows the route of the historic Canadian Northern Western Railway line that ran between Nordegg and Rocky Mountain House. She was looking for the best place to park and begin her hike when she noticed a break in the berm that follows some parts of the rail line. It was a strange and deliberate looking design and so she stopped to investigate. Visible from the trail and through the berm was a small pool of water. Closer inspection showed the pool to be square shaped, lined with cut boards, and overflowing; the water was flowing out of the pool and down the slope away from the railway line. It must be spring fed for the water to be flowing like that.

Figure 2. Square pool of water near the railway line.

We both walked through the surrounding area, looking for anything else that might be related to the site. We found some cans, part of a shovel and some other metal items. These things are common along the railway line. We saw that there was barbed wire fencing strung across the pool, probably to keep cattle in as this area has a history of grazing. Could this pool be a watering hole for cattle? Since the barbed wire ran right over the middle of the pool we decided that it likely wasn’t made for that reason. Perhaps it was a watering stop for the nearby railway. It may be a bit small for refilling a train (although we couldn’t safely confirm how deep it is). I think it’s more likely this water was used for human consumption.

We later found this story about the nearby town of Saunders Creek in the book Ghost Town Stories of Alberta1:

During the hungry Depression years, when there was very little work at the mine, most residents survived on garden vegetables, wild meat and fish from the North Saskatchewan River. Near his cabin, Big John discovered a way for townsfolk to keep their food and water supplies fresh… One day in 1932 while out walking, Big John discovered water seeping from a side hill. He climbed up a bit and dug a hole. As water began flowing into it, he realized he’d found a spring. He built a little shed around it to create a cooler. People stored perishable food there, and whenever the mine’s washhouse water line froze up, Big John allowed folks to help themselves to water. Over the years, it became a regular sight to see residents walking along Big John’s path from the creek, loaded up with as many buckets of water as they could carry.

Could this be the remains of Big John’s spring / cooler? We later found the remains of a cabin just 130 m down the slope from this pool (see photo below) so it certainly sounds like the same set up described in the history book.

Figure 3. Door frame of log cabin.

Unfortunately, the location just doesn’t quite match up. Big John apparently lived close to Saunders Creek whereas this site is more than 20 km down the railway from Saunders. It could be a coincidence or an example of how good ideas spread.

To hear more about what we’ve been finding along this stretch of railway, join us on May 21st at the Sundre Museum for an Archaeology Roadshow.

1 Bachusky, Johnnie 2011. Ghost Town Stories of Alberta: Abandoned Dreams in the Shadows of the Canadian Rockies.


Stone Drill

This week, we showcase a stone drill. That’s right, you guessed it, this type of stone tool is used to drill holes in things. Like knives and projectile points, drills are worked on both sides to create sharp edges and a narrow tip. Unlike other stone tools however, drills are very narrow and thick, and often are diamond shaped in cross-section. This design makes the drill stronger, and less likely to break. In Alberta, stone drills are often either long and straight, with a bulb or a “T” shaped base. More often than not, you find the broken end of drills, because they snapped off while in use. The stone drill bit would be attached to a long wood handle using sinew, rawhide, and pitch, and then spun to create the circular motion for drilling. This could be either done by hand, or using a small bow and string to spin the drill.

Using a stone drill with a bow saw to drill a hole in a slate ulu.

We found this stone drill while working for Sundre Forest Products in 2012, in the Foothills west of Red Deer. The artifact is made from a brownish-gray chalcedony, and also shows evidence that it was heat treated. The drill has small “potlid” fractures, where irregular pieces of the stone popped off. This type of break happens when a stone is quickly heated and cooled.

2550 – 1400 year old projectile point!

This week we present one of the artifacts from a site we found while doing surveys for Sundre Forest Products on the North Saskatchewan River in 2015. More than 30 artifacts were found through shovel testing at the site, but this one is extra-special. It’s a dart point of the Besant style. Above is a photo of the point right after Corey found it in the screen we use to sift soil from the shovel tests we dig while looking for sites.

One reason this artifact is so special is because it helps us estimate how old the site is. We don’t have a precise date for when people were at this site because that usually requires finding an artifact made of material that was once living, like wood or bone, that can be sent to labs to be dated through special techniques. Unfortunately these kinds of material don’t preserve well in the acidic soil of the Boreal forest, but by finding a point like this we can give an estimate of the site’s age. Besant points have been found in Alberta at sites dating between 2,550 and 1,400 years ago. That means that before this photo, the last time the point was seen may have been more than two thousand years ago!

In addition to being one of the few artifacts we find that can be used to figure out how old a site is (and teach us about how people were living in the past and how that changed over time), this artifact is special because we don’t find points often. Most people have seen arrowheads like this at some point, but they’re not commonly found when archaeologists are at the test pitting stage of their work. Instead, we usually find all the rock that gets broken off when the past person was making the tool. We call those pieces “flakes” and there are way more flakes out there than points. That’s why it’s always a big deal to find a point through shovel testing. Look how happy Corey is at finding it in one of his shovel tests!DSCF2440_resized


Black Bear

It’s that time of year again! The bears are waking up and the field workers are heading into bear territory. One of our archaeological field crews encountered this little guy in 2013 and found that he was a little less scared of them than the average bear.

Usually bears are skittish and will leave the area as soon as they know humans are around, especially if you have a noisy ATV running but this bear was a bit curious and stuck around long enough for a photo shoot. The crew scared him away and didn’t have another encounter. Remember to review your bear awareness training before heading into the bush for work or play!

Keep an eye open for fresh bear sign while you are out and keep alert!

Agate Basin Spear Point

This week’s photograph is of an artifact we found in 2015 when undertaking an HRIA for Sundre Forest Products. It comes from a site south of the Ram River – our 100th site of the year, in fact. It’s an exciting find: a spear point of the Agate Basin style. The picture above was taken when it was found and the picture below shows the point after it was catalogued in our lab. We have found our fair share of points over the years, but this is a rare one because of its age. Agate Basin points are some of the oldest found in the province and date between 10,200 and 9,600 years ago.

FbPu-31_8_IMG_0106The site was identified when we were surveying a disturbed area. Like Corey explained in his blog entry, a lot of information may be lost when a site is disturbed because the relationship of one artifact to another has been disturbed. Although we always hope to find sites intact and undisturbed, disturbances like erosion can allow archaeologists to see a larger area of soil than through shovel testing alone. This artifact was found lying on the ground when we were walking over a ridge. This is why archaeological assessments in disturbed areas can be worthwhile. It’s also why archaeologists are hard to walk with – they’re always looking down, searching for artifacts in even the most unlikely places.

Knife River Flint Dart Base

In the summer of 2013, Tree Time Services surveyed cutblocks for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries in the Logan River area north of Lac La Biche and found an artifact protruding out of exposed sediment along a previously constructed oil and gas access road.exposure_resized - Copy

When we find artifacts in disturbed areas it is unfortunate because these artifacts have lost much of their informational value. By finding the artifact in situ – or in its original context – there is much more information that can be gathered about the site, such as an association with other artifacts or organics, which can be informative of the age of the artifact. If the artifact is a single stone chip or flake from making a tool the loss is minimal; however, in this case the artifact recovered was an atlatl dart base made from Knife River Flint.artifact

The artifact is an atlatl (or spear thrower) dart based on the width of the base (The neck widths of arrowheads tend to be a lot narrower and are typically corner or side-notched). The artifact could date to anywhere between 7,000 to 9,000 years ago based on the timeframe that atlatl technology was prominent and stylistic preference of stemmed points. The style of the projectile point is similar to the Scottsbluff style which is usually associated with spear points rather than darts. Based on this style we believe it to be dated to the early period of the spear thrower technology

The artifact is also interesting for reasons other than its age. The artifact is made of caramel-coloured rock called Knife River Flint which is found mainly in streams in North Dakota which means people were either trading for the material or travelling great distances to obtain it. For context, the location of the knife river flint quarry and the location of the artifact find were loaded into google maps:google

The story of the artifact: The stone this artifact was made from traveled over 1300 km through trade and migration. Upon arrival in Alberta the stone was crafted into an atlatl dart by an expert flintknapper. The dart was likely used several times to hunt game and was retouched or reworked to sharpen the point. Eventually the tip was broken off and the dart could not be salvaged resulting in the dart being discarded. The artifact sat where it was discarded for possibly thousands of years and was buried by sediment not to be seen again until it was exposed by a bulldozer and spotted by an archaeologist.

Oxbow Dart Point

Today’s picture is brought to you from the Peace River Trail. It is a nearly-complete Oxbow dart point, made of a medium-grained quartzite. Dart points are larger than arrow-heads and were used on long spears that were thrown using an atlatl. The atlatl gave the thrower extra force than when using a spear. An Oxbow point is recognized by it’s “Micky Mouse ears” that form the base of the point, and is one of the most easily identifiable point types. The Oxbow Phase dates between 4500 and 4100 BP (Before Present), and is part of Alberta’s Middle Precontact Period.