Alberta Top 10 Archaeological Sites

As Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation it is important to remember that the history of the land we call home goes back thousands of years. Tree Time Services staff discussed some of the most important archaeological sites in Alberta and created a top ten list. Several of these sites can be visited by the general public and a few have public excavation programs that allow volunteers to participate in the digs!

1. Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

A UNESCO World Heritage site, interpretive centre, and museum located near Fort MacLeod, AB. For thousands of years the Blackfoot and other First Nations guided bison down drive lanes to the jump where they would plunge to their death or be rendered immobile from the fall and weight of the herd. At the base of the cliff these animal carcasses were butchered and distributed between the members of the hunt.

Did you know the name “Head Smashed In” does not refer to the skull crushing demise many of the bison suffered at the site but rather a Blackfoot legend? According to the story a young man wanted to watch the bison fall off the cliff from below but was unfortunately buried by the falling animals. He was later found with his head smashed in (Jack Brink pers comm).

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Figure 1: The cliffs at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (Madeline Coleman).

 

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Figure 2: Interpretive Centre and Jump (Madeline Coleman)

2. Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park

The Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park is located near Milk River, AB, almost on the Montana border. Many rock carvings (petroglyphs) and rock paintings (pictographs) can be found as one wanders through the sandstone valleys and hoodoos. These rock art sites were created by Aboriginal groups visiting the area, telling stories of battles, hunts, and great deeds of individuals. There are also many images of ceremonial nature that depict spirits and the spiritual world.

These images were likely created over thousands of years by the Blackfoot people and other native groups that travelled through the southeastern plains of Alberta. While rock art cannot be directly dated some of the images can be positively dated to after 1700 AD due to the depiction of horses and items introduced by Europeans, like muskets.

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Figure 3: Petroglyphs at Writing-on-Stone Park (Vincent Jankunis)

 

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Figure 4: View of Writing-On-Stone Park (Vincent Jankunis)

3. Quarry of the Ancestors

Located north of Fort McMurray near the community of Fort McKay, the Quarry of the Ancestors is a quarry site and the primary source of Beaver River Silicified Sandstone (BRSS), a highly valued material for making stone tools. The principal use of the site for quarrying BRSS and making stone tools was between 9800-5500 years ago.

Beaver River Sandstone is found throughout the Alberta Oilsands region which was once thought to be sparsely occupied. However, due to the ongoing work occurring in advance of oil sands extraction the region is now considered one of the most densely occupied in Northern Alberta during the thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans.

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Figure 5: Reid Graham assisting in the excavations at Quarry of the Ancestors (Robin Woywitka)
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Figure 6: Profile of excavation unit, natural ice heave visible (Robin Woywitka)

4. Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel

The Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel is an ancient Blackfoot ritual centre that shows evidence of use as early as roughly 4500 years ago, and continues to be used today. The site consists of a 9 m wide central cairn (rock pile) which is connected to a surrounding 27 m wide stone circle by 28 spokes. The site is located on a large hill west of the Bow River in southern Alberta near Bassano, AB.

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Figure 7: The Majorville Cairn and Medicine Wheel (Alberta Environment and Parks)
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Figure 8: Aerial view (Alberta Enviornment and Parks)

5. Bodo Bison Skulls site

Located in the town of Bodo, on the Saskatchewan boundary half an hour south of Provost, this seven square km site is one of the largest pre-European contact archaeological sites in Canada. The site contains several repeat occupations of the area, with large intact bison pounds and campsites. Tens of thousands of bison bones have been recovered from the site as well as projectile points, scrapers, and pottery sherds.

Unlike many of the other sites on this list, this site encourages visitors to get down and dirty and help uncover Alberta’s past. The Bodo Archaeological Society allows the general public to dig at the site under the supervision of professional archaeologists. The site was also the subject of Tree Time’s own Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt’s Masters research!

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Figure 9: Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt discussing the excavations at Bodo during a visit to the site by the Archaeological Society of Alberta in 2014 (Corey Cookson)
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Figure 10: Volunteers excavating at Bodo (Christie Grekul)

6. Wallys Beach

This ice age kill and butchering site is located in southern Alberta at the St. Mary’s Reservoir near Cardston, AB. The site contains the bones and footprints of extinct animals, including the North American horse and camel, as well as mammoth and caribou. Wally’s Beach was one of the first sites in North America containing evidence of hunting horses.

Originally thought to date to the beginnings of the Clovis era (ca. 13,000 ya), advanced radiocarbon dating techniques now dates the site to approximately 13,300 years ago.

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Figure 11: Butchered camel remains at Wally’s Beach (Brian Kooyman / University of Calgary)
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Figure 12: Mammoth tracks at Wally’s Beach (Brian Kooyman / University of Calgary)

7. Viking Ribstone

Located approximately 11 miles east of Viking (southeast of Edmonton) are the Viking Ribstones, two large quartzite boulders on top of a high hill. The boulders are carved with a series of grooves interpreted as a representation of a bison vertebrae and rib cage. There are also several circular pits grooved into the boulder which may represent arrow or bullet holes. The pits have also been interpreted as an attempt to recreate the pock-marked surface of the Iron Creek Meteorite, another revered monument.

The bison were extremely important for many First Nations of central and southern Alberta and these rock carvings may have served as a shrine or ceremonial location. Hunters would visit the ribstones to leave offerings of sweetgrass, tobacco, beads, or coins prior to and/or after a successful hunt. There are other ribstone sites in Alberta but all other ribstone sites have been disturbed or removed entirely from their original context.

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Figure 13: View of Viking Ribstone and offerings (Corey Cookson)
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Figure 14: View of Viking Ribstone and offerings (Corey Cookson)

8. Banff Pithouses

The Banff Pithouses were located along the Bow River and are now lost to the expansion of the Banff Springs golf course in 1928. Documented in 1913 by Harlan Smith, an early archaeologist in the province, the site is one of the first pre-European contact sites to be preserved in Canada. The site contained 14 large (8-10 feet across) circular depressions (1-2 feet deep) with nine of the depressions arranged in an irregular line.

These semi-subterranean houses are common in the British Columbia interior plateau region but are rare in Alberta. The group that built these homes likely crossed the continental divide to hunt bison. For a period of time this was the only site of this type identified in Alberta. Fortunately, several other housepit sites have now been identified in Banff National Park and are currently being researched.

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Figure 15: Notice announcing the semi-subterranean house sites located between Mount Rundle and Bow River, Banff, Harlan I. Smith, 1913 Canadian History Museum, 24014
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Figure 16: 1913 Blueprint of housepits on golf course (LAC RG 84, Vol. 2073, File A4128-1, Vol. 1 Redrawn by R. Lalonde)

9. Cluny Site earthlodge village

An unusual site for the Southern Plains, the Cluny fortified village is located in the valley of the Bow River on the Siksika First Nation Reserve south of Calgary and is part of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. At the site, dwellings made from logs and earth were surrounded by defensive features including a palisade wall and trenches.

The Cluny Fortified Village site dates to the Late Pre-contact period (Mid 1700s) where the First Nations of the Canadian Plains had not yet had direct contact with explorers of European descent but had access to European goods through trade with other First Nations groups. It is believed that the group that constructed the village migrated to the region from the Dakotas, due to similarities of artifacts with those of the Middle Missouri region. The University of Calgary will be hosting a public archaeology program from May 23rd to June 23rd, 2017 where people can volunteer to excavate at the site. Contact their administrative staff by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at 1-403-220-8537 for more details.

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Figure 17: Aerial view of the Cluny earthlodge village (Harrison Boss)
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Figure 18: Volunteers and students excavating at the site in 2012 (University of Calgary)

10. Fincastle Kill Site

Recently named one of the top discoveries of 2015 by Western Digs, the Fincastle site is located in the sand dunes of southern Alberta, near Lethbridge. The 2,500 year old bison kill site contains over 200,000 fragments of bone along with hundreds of stone projectile points representing two cultural groups: the Besant and Sonota.

The most interesting aspect of the site is the discovery of 8 upright arrangements of bison bones placed in sculptural patterns. These are unusual and rare in archaeological sites and the purpose of the upright features remains a mystery. Dr. Shawn Bubel of the University of Lethbridge notes that the bone arrangements are not utilitarian but were intentionally placed in patterns with unique examples of one upright, for example, features a tibia, or lower leg bone, surrounded by four jaw bones, all set on end with the teeth facing outward.

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Figure 19: Students excavate a small section of Fincastle bison-kill site (Shawn Bubel)
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Figure 20: One of the eight arrangements of bison bones standing on end (Shawn Bubel)
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Visiting the Terracotta Army Museum

In a continuation of our posts in honour of “Mysteries of China” playing at the Telus World of Science for the months of February and March, I decided to look back on my trip to the Terracotta Warrior museum just outside of Xi’an.

We visited the Terracotta Army Museum in the winter of 2014. This was a good time to visit because the crowds were minimal but it was bone-chillingly cold. The Terracotta Army is indoors but there are several large windows and the door is kept open so it is still pretty cold in there too. So bundle up!

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Bell Tower in central Xi’an

We took a local bus that you can catch just east of the railway station located north of the city wall approximately 3.5 km north of the Bell Tower. There will be several buses that will take tourists directly to the museum. The ride takes about 45 minutes and will take you to a large parking lot.

There are number of signs that have been translated into English but if you have limited knowledge going into the site it might be a good idea to get a guidebook or hire a guide.

The terracotta sculptures were created to represent the armies of Qin Shi Huang and their purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife when he died in 210-209 BCE. The Terracotta army is located east of the large mausoleum for the emperor that is underneath a 76 m tall pyramid-like mound. Work on the mausoleum began in 246 BCE (when Emperor Qin was 13 years old) and required 700,000 workers. This tomb has not been subjected to archaeological excavation as of 2017.

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Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Statue of Emperor Qin Shi Huang

From the parking lot, you will see a large statue of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, walk toward it and continue walking west (about 15 minutes) until you come Pit 1. When you first walk in to Pit 1 you will be blown away by the number of statues (over 6,000!). In this pit you can see the 11 corridors of warriors placed on pottery bricks separated by rammed earth walls. The corridors had wood roofs that were covered with reed and clay then covered with 2 to 3 m of soil.

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View of Terracotta Warriors from east side of Pit 1
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View of the Terracotta Warriors from south side of Pit 1

As you walk around the side of the vault you can get a little closer to some of the recently restored statues. You can also see a sign pointing to the location of well dug by a farmer that discovered the site back in 1974. The farmer was at the museum when I visited and he signed a nice book of photographs that I purchased.

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View of a close up of the Terracotta Warriors in Pit 1
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View of the well location in Pit 1

You can exit out of the back of Pit 1 and continue to Pit 3 which is a much smaller vault with one chariot and several high-ranking officers.

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View of a war chariot and warriors in Pit 3
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View of several high ranking officer statues in Pit 3

Exit to the east and continue to Pit 2. In pit 2 the soldiers have not been restored as in the other pits.

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View of Pit 2

Once you are done with the main excavation pits you can go two exhibits on either side of the main courtyard. These are the Exhibition of Ancient Weapons to the north and the Bronze Chariot Exhibition Room to the south. In these rooms you can get a little closer to the artifacts (but they are behind glass of course) to see the little details. You can see some pieces that still have the paint intact.

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Intact paint on Terracotta Warrior heads

I was also unaware of all the non-military types of statues that existed. There are more than just warriors and archers that have been found. The emperor also wanted his entertainment and servants in the afterlife. There are Terracotta statues of musicians, acrobats, and women as well.

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Musician statue
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Acrobat statue
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Statue of a woman

You can also see the Bronze Chariot at this exhibit.

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Bronze chariot

They also have a really good exhibit that educates the public about the archaeological processes of excavating, conserving, and restoring the Terracotta statues.

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Two children learning about artifact illustration and photography
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Display about excavating and mapping features

After we were done exploring the museum and pits we headed back to our hostel (Xian Shuyuan International Youth Hostel) where we had some hot showers and then we headed down to the Terracotta Warrior themed bar in the basement and drank some China beers.

Check out our previous post about the Great Wall of China if you want to learn a bit more about visiting China’s famous archaeological sites.

Visiting the Great Wall of China

In honour of the Mysteries of China IMAX series currently playing at the Telus World of Science, I decided to look back on my trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in February of 2014.

We took a tour to Mutianyu organised by our hostel in Beijing. This portion of the wall is in a mountainous region running southeast to northwest for 2.25 km. It takes about 1.5 hours to get to this section of the wall from Beijing. While you are on the bus the tour guide will take the time to tell you a bit about the history of the wall.

For those who don’t know, The Great Wall of China is several sections of a 21,196 km wall made of brick and stone along the northern borders of China to serve as fortifications against northern invaders. The wall was built over several centuries from the 7th century BC until the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), first using rammed earth and locally sourced stone and later using bricks

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View of the Great Wall

February is a good time to go because there were basically no crowds besides our tour group and, as a result, there were very few hawkers trying to sell us souvenirs. However, there were still a few touts but they are useful for getting snacks and water while you are hiking the wall. The only negative about visiting during this time of year was that it was a little chilly and we didn’t get the lush green vegetation and vibrant flowers.

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View of one of the vendors along the restored section of Mutianyu

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Taking the chair lift up to the Great Wall

The bus will take you to the parking lot, where you will have to walk a few hundred metres to the group ticket gate. From here you can choose to either hike up to the wall or you can take the chair lift. Our tour guide told us that hiking once on top of the wall is challenging enough so we decided to conserve our energy and take the chair lift up. From here you will have great views of the surrounding mountains as your excitement grows as get nearer to the top. 

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Some nice views from the chair lift

Once you get off the chair lift you are at Tower 14. You can turn left and head northwest towards Tower 23 which is the highest point at this section of the wall. This portion of the wall is all restored and is very steep. It is mostly uphill and there are a lot of steps that a predominantly uneven. You will see several watch towers, cannons, and buildings. The restored portions of the wall are pretty cool but after awhile it gets repetitive. 

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View towards Tower 23 from Tower 14
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View of one of the cannons

We worked our way back southeast toward Tower 14 and continued in that direction to get to the unrestored portion of wall. It is a bit of a hike to get to the unrestored area of the wall but it is not as steep as the previous section. This portion of the wall won’t be for everybody because it is covered in trees and many of the towers and wall sections are crumbling. I really enjoyed it as an archaeologist, it is a nice contrast to see the difference.

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View of an unrestored tower
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Unrestored portion of the wall with vegetation growing on top

Click here to view a video taken at a peak along the unrestored portion of the wall

After about an hour or so here we headed back west. When you reach Tower 6, you can take a toboggan track back down to the ticket gate. This was really fun but we ended up getting stuck behind a guy who either had a malfunctioning toboggan or didn’t know how to work it. Once we reached the bottom we reconvened with our group and had lunch and some beers before heading back out to Beijing.

Click here to view a video of toboggan run

Stay tuned for another blog post about my visit to the Terracotta Warriors.