Archaeology in the Fort McMurray Fire

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View from a burned aspen stand to the Gregoire River valley.

At the end of June we started work on planned fire salvage harvest blocks for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries, southeast of Anzac Alberta. This was the southeastern end of this springs massive Fort McMurray forest fire. When fire kills or damages a stand, there’s a limited time-frame within which the wood can still be salvaged for lumber or pulp. Planning for salvage started before the fire was under control. Once it was safe to do layout work we had a narrow window to get in and complete our Historic Resource Impact Assessment of the salvage plan before harvest operations would start.
As the Forest Management Agreement holder for most of northeastern Alberta, Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries has a long-term right to harvest aspen and poplar for their pulp mill north of Athabasca. This long term land tenure comes with a lot of responsibilities. These include a responsibility to salvage as much timber as they can from wildfires, and a responsibility to complete historic resource impact assessments of their operations.
The Historic Resource Management Branch of Alberta Culture understands that fire salvage is not part of a forest company’s normal Annual Operating Plan. It’s often difficult to know the final block boundaries until harvest is complete because the timber has to be damaged by the fire, but not too burned. There is therefore some concession given for late-season or last-minute salvage plans, which can be deferred to post-harvest impact assessment the following season.
In this case, Al-Pac wanted to ensure due diligence by completing their HRIA’s prior to salvage, so we started our fieldwork immediately after the layout crews finished putting up their block boundary ribbon. Fire salvage can be both a challenge and an opportunity for historic resource management. In addition to the logistical challenges of the narrow timeframe and uncertainty, working in a fire stand increases some safety hazards. There is of course the risk of holdover fires or flareups. There’s also an increased risk of blowdown from snags (standing dead trees) with their roots burned out and hangers (fallen trees and limbs hung up on other trees). Foresters call these “widowmakers” for a reason. There is often increased bear activity as they take advantage of the fresh green growth, grubs, and in later summer berry production, made available by the fire.
Forest fires also increase the risk of impact to archaeological sites. Forest harvest operations are normally pretty low impact, as far as archaeology is concerned. Feller-bunchers and skidders have large tracks and wheels to keep their footprints light. Under normal conditions, harvest leaves some tracks and trails, but the thick moss and duff of the boreal forest protect buried archaeological sites from a lot of the potential disturbance. A hot ground fire burns off much of the moss and duff, leaving the shallowly buried artifacts typical of the boreal forest much more vulnerable to exposure and displacement.
This factor is also what makes some fires an opportunity for archaeology. One of the hardest parts of doing archaeology in the boreal forest is the fact that everything is covered by a mat of moss, with almost no surface exposure. The only way to find sites is to dig labour-intensive shovel tests, and these provide very limited windows into the buried past. In a hot fire, the moss has been burned off, and we can see a much larger window. In some cases, scatters of artifacts, in-situ (in place) where they were left thousands of years ago, are sitting on the surface.
That wasn’t the case this week. We found a couple of sites where the fire didn’t burn quite that hot, including a probable Besant point, but we had to dig for them, as usual.
I also found a renewed appreciation for the resiliency of the boreal forest, and how well it’s adapted to a frequent fire regime. It’s only been two months since the fires burned through the area, and most of the burn is covered in a lush green carpet of fresh growth. Plants like fireweed, sasparilla, wild rose, raspberry and bunchberry have sprouted from root systems protected from the fire. Aspen and poplar suckers with huge deep green leaves are already knee to hip high. Insects are present in abundance, birdsong can be heard, deer and moose sign shows they’ve returned, and we saw a black bear sow with two cubs.

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By salvaging the burnt timber, Al-Pac will help to fast-track that cycle of renewal, and will leave other areas they’d planned to harvest to grow for another season or two. By having us complete our historic resource impact assessments before harvest, we’ve identified and protected two potentially significant archaeological sites in an area that’s still pretty poorly understood. These are some good examples of how the forest industry plays an important role in Alberta’s woodlands, helping to manage multiple values on the landscape, and balance their operations with ecological and cultural concerns.

Why do we survey gravel pits?

Aggregate pit applications, even renewals, are regularly triggered for Historic Resources Impact Assessments in Alberta.  This is mostly due to two factors: their location, and their impact levels.  Good sand and gravel deposits are often located near watercourses, especially major rivers, and the presence of coarse parent sediment usually gives them better drainage than surrounding terrain. High, dry ground next to water is exactly the kind of place people have been camping for thousands of years.

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Reid taking notes after testing a high potential landform in a planned gravel pit.

The second factor is the expected impact.  Other development types, like forestry or seismic, may disturb sites, but will leave some or most of them intact.  By their nature, aggregate pits will result in complete destruction of any archaeological sites that may be in their footprint.  Once an archaeological site is destroyed, it’s gone forever.  This means the province only gets one chance to find, understand and protect sites if they’re in a planned gravel pit.  The survey intensity and mitigation standards are therefore more stringent.
Gravel pits also have a high potential to contain quaternary (ice age) mammal fossils.  Bones and tusks from ice age animals like mammoths, extinct bison and sabre toothed cats were often deposited in gravel bars along ice-age rivers.  These gravel bars are the gravel seams that the modern aggregate industry targets.
Alberta Culture released new guidelines for gravel pit Historical Resources Act compliance two years ago.  In short, pits under 5 ha require an HRIA if there’s a known site in the immediate area.  Pits over 5 ha require an HRIA if there’s a known site, or if the land is deemed to have high archaeological or palaeontological potential.
The 2004 Code of Practice for sand and gravel pits says that gravel pits “may be required to shut down if artefacts are discovered during operation of the pit” (section 8.3.6).  This is very rare. Usually if an archaeological site is found during the HRIA, it can be avoided or archaeological digs (mitigative excavation) can be done to salvage a sample of the site before development.  If archaeological or palaeontological resources (for example arrowheads, stone tools, ice age mammal or dinosaur bone) are found during operation, the pit operator is required to report it (this post explains how), and some salvage may be done, but it’s unlikely the pit will be shut down.  Alberta Culture and historic resource management professionals like us work to balance economic development for Alberta’s future with preservation of it’s past.

To keep up to date on Historic Resource regulations and processes, you can subscribe to our quarterly Regulatory Update email.

 

The King of Spades vs. the Grizzly

Over the years archaeologists have adopted technological advances from other disciplines. In the office, using programs such as QGIS along with LIDAR and other data sets we can create models to predict sites. In the field, we use a GPS for navigation and iPads to take our notes. Artifact processing has also seen many advances helping us to date and source artifacts.

For all of these advances that have been made in the field, certain tools remain the same. One of the most essential tools that we use in the field is a shovel. I know many people associate trowels and fedoras with archaeologists, however these are most commonly used in academic excavations. While in the world of CRM the trowel will be used for certain situations, the shovel reigns, specifically at Tree Time it is the King of Spades.

The reigning king

The advantages to the King of Spades are its durability and its ability to cut through roots. The all metal shovel has never been broken by a staff member at Tree Time. Maybe lost forever in a deep stream when accidentally dropped… but never broken. In addition, the sheer weight of the shovel can help pound through roots. Other shovels are not as durable, the blades may warp, and they are more prone to breaking at the shaft break. Not the king though.20160519_153950

The Grizzly Challenger

Most shovels are not made of all metal but incorporate bits of wood. There can be a wide variety in quality so we highly recommend the Grizzly. These shovels are much lighter and easier to sharpen. The durability of the King of Spades comes at a cost, it is by far the heaviest and the most difficult to sharpen due to its thick blade. The ability to sharpen the Grizzly easily due to the thinner blade helps us maintain a sharp edge in the field to cut through roots. The light weight also makes them a lot easier to hike a long distance with, making for a much more pleasant hike.20160519_153703

In the end the durability of the King of Spades wins the favor of most of us at Tree Time. In fact five out of seven archaeologists, well at least at Tree Time, agree that the King of Spades shovel is the preferred tool. Long live the king.

This would not have happened if Madeline had the King of Spades!

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Asymmetrical Knife

This week we feature a picture of an asymmetrical knife found north of Lac La Biche at a site called Buffalo Beach. The knife has one rounded retouched cutting edge and the other edge is straight. The notched knob at the bottom of the artifact is where the knife would have been attached to a handle. The handle was likely made from an organic material that does not preserve as well as stone (for example bone, antler, wood, etc.). The style of this knife does not match any previously recorded artifacts found in Alberta.

Bone Needle

This week we showcase a very unique artifact, a bone needle.  This tool is very long and thick compared to the modern steel needles that we are more familiar with, but it still very sharp at the tip. The eye of the needle is diamond-shaped and tapered, which shows us that the eye was made by gouging the bone with a stone flake, rather than using a bow drill. A bow drill would have left a round hole rather than a diamond-shaped one. This type of artifact is extremely rare in North America, especially one that is complete. Most of the time when they are found, bone needles like these are broken around the eye, or you just find the tip of the needle.

This artifact was found in a dry cave in Utah, which is filled with artifacts left behind from thousands of years of indigenous people living in the cave.  These repeated occupations left behind countless layers of juniper bark, which was laid down as a floor matting. The bone needle was found three meters below the modern surface. Talk about finding a needle in a haystack!