The Alook Site – HaPl-1

Although the Wabasca-Desmarais regions is rich in cultural heritage, very few in-depth archaeological investigations have been conducted. HaPl-1, also known as the Alook site, is one of the few sites in the region that has actually been excavated or received any interest past its initial identification. In the 1960s and again in the 1070s, a team from the University of Alberta did preliminary excavations at the site. The results speak of a very long history!

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Archaeological sites around Wabasca-Desmarais

The Alook Site was found on a small knoll along the north shore of the North Wabasca Lake. The site is named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. In the early years of archaeology in Alberta sites were often named after the landowner or the person who reported the site, although it is unclear if John Alook was one of these people or named in his honour. Test excavations were conducted by the University of Alberta in 1969, but the band did not receive a report of the initial findings until 1977. Later that summer additional excavations were conducted under the direction of Cort Sims.

Excavations at the Alook Site included three 1×2 meter test trenches excavated in 1969, and a 4×8 meter excavation trench that was placed directly east of these in 1977. These trenches focused on the undisturbed western part of the knoll, as the eastern part was a little disturbed by a garden, and the reported possible location of the original house. The 1969 excavations recovered a total of 891 artifacts. The types of artifacts found suggested that HaPl-1 was an indigenous campsite that had seen substantial use. The artifact types included projectile points, biface fragments, scrapers, and an assortment of lithic debitage. One of the most significant finds was a McKean projectile point, found in the garden. The McKean point suggested that the site dates to the Middle Prehistoric period, or approximately 4200 to 3000 years before present.

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Examples of McKean projectile points from Alberta (modified from “Record in Stone”, Archaeological Society of Alberta, 2012).

The 1977 excavations helped us understand more of the site and its use by past peoples. A total of 131 stone tools and tool fragments were recovered. The recovered artifacts reinforced the initial suggestion that HaPl-1 is a campsite that had seen significant use. Seventeen projectile points and 11 projectile point fragments were found at the site. Points are also considered “diagnostic” artifacts, because variations in style can reflect change over time, or points made by different cultural groups. Some of the projectile points were also of the Plains arrowhead type, which generally date from 1100 to 250 years before present. These can tell us what kinds of hunting activities were being done in the area. That fact that both McKean and Plains projectile points were recovered is significant, as it shows this site was occupied at multiple times throughout the past.

Almost 40 scrapers were found, which tell us that hide processing was likely a major activity at the site. The other tool types found include utilized flakes, hammer stones, anvils, an adze and adze fragment, core fragments, bifaces, and worked pebbles. The number and variety of tools found at the site were what led researchers to suggest that this site was a major campsite, since these artifacts suggests that a multitude of different activities occurred at this location. These tools probably reflect activities as diverse as making stone tools, drying meat or fish, and wood-working. These activities are all consistent with traditional life at a major lakeshore campsite or summer settlement.

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Some of the artifacts from the Alook Site.  Artifacts B and D are examples of side-notched points, estimated to be 1100 to 250 years old.  Artifact C is possibly a Beasant point that dates from 2500 to 1350 years old (modified from “Archaeological investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site”, by C. Sims. 

During the 1977 excavations a midden feature, or refuse pile, was also uncovered. Since one of the goals of the work that year was to recover some organic material for radiocarbon dating, this was a substantial find. Radio carbon dating provided an age of 2165 to 1815 years before present, which places the site within the Besant phase. This date, combined with the McKean and side-notched projectile points found, show that this site was likely in use from at least 4000 years ago to the present. To put this in perspective, HaPl-1 was likely occupied long before the Roman Empire came into existence and is still in use today, as at present the site contains a modern house. Talk about continuity!

Although a substantial amount of information was learned from the excavations at HaPl-1, there is still much more work needed to gain a better understanding of the past life-ways of people in the Wabasca-Desmarais region. Cultural heritage is important for bringing people together and creating a dialogue of openness and acceptance in the region. First Nations people have inhabited the region surrounding the modern town of Wabasca-Desmarais for more than 4000 years (and more likely 10 000 years). This is an aspect of our heritage and history shared by all Albertans. Stories like this are a part of all of our heritage we are all treaty peoples and share a collective history.

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!

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.

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.

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].

Projectile Point

Projectile points come in many shapes and sizes ranging from large paleolithic spear points to small protohistoric arrow heads to even smaller “toy arrow heads”. This artifact type is a stone that has been shaped using flint knapping techniques to create a sharp triangular and aerodynamic tip that is attached to a wooden shaft that can be propelled through the air by throwing by hand, atlatl, or bow, to hunt game. This is an important artifact type as over time the styles of points changed allowing us to use the style to estimate the time period a site was occupied.  This particular point is a Besant style dart point, which dates to approximately 2,500 -1,350 BP.

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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A spokeshave is a type of formed tool that was used to scrape and/or smooth wooden shafts or handles such as on spears, darts and arrows. It is typically identified by the inward curving edge. This edge typically has small flakes removed from use or from shaping it into the curve prior to use.