This week we feature an artifact found recently while conducting a survey for an Associated Aggregates gravel pit along the Nordegg River. The artifact is an irregular biface that is likely a preform. A preform is often an ovate or triangular shaped rock that has been flaked on both sides using percussion and pressure flaking techniques. This artifact was likely in the early stages of becoming some form of tool (e.g. knife or projectile point) before it was discarded by the flintknapper.
It is not clear why the flintknapper quit working on the artifact, the knapper may have made a mistake or did not like the stone material. The artifact is made from a unique red speckled chert with some fossilized plant remains embedded on the dorsal side of the artifact. We asked the consulting community if they knew what kind of chert the artifact was made from and Jason Roe, Lifeways Canada, identified the material as Paskapoo chert.
The artifact was found at a site identified by our clients, Dan Hill and Jodie Bauman, who were interested in the process of historical resource impact assessments (HRIA). While screening a shovel test, under the supervision of our archaeologists, Jodie found a large utilized quartzite flake. Further testing, revealed the site was over 200 m long and had evidence of fire (fire cracked rock) and tool making (biface).
This week we feature an artifact from a large site we found on the Pineneedle Creek valley margin, west of Caroline (a community between Rocky Mountain House and Sundre) and off of the Forestry Trunk Road. The site was found when we were undertaking an assessment for Sundre Forest Products. More than 100 stone artifacts were recovered from this site, most of which represent chips broken off when making stone tools. This one stands out from the rest. It’s not so obvious an artifact as some of the stone tools we’ve shown in previous blog posts, but it represents the other critical component of an arrow or a spear: the shaft.
Figure 1: Two sides of an ancient spokeshave.
This is a “spokeshave”. This kind of tool is used even today for shaping and smoothing wooden rods for wheel spokes, chair legs, paddles, etc. You can find a spokeshave at your local hardware store, but it will look nothing like the example shown above.
An ancient spokeshave is thought to have been used to shape shafts for arrows, spears and darts. It’s recognized by the semi-circular notch on its side where you can imagine a wooden rod fitting nicely. In the picture above, the arrows are pointing to the notch on this artifact.
In many parts of Alberta, the soil is so acidic that materials like bone and wood don’t preserve so we don’t find arrow shafts. It’s pretty exciting and humbling to find an artifact that reminds us that there were once many more materials at these sites.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1Bachusky, Johnnie 2011. Ghost Town Stories of Alberta: Abandoned Dreams in the Shadows of the Canadian Rockies.
The Brazeau Reservoir Archaeological Survey is a project hosted by the Strathcona Archaeological Society, and is sponsored by Tree Time Services. It currently is centred around a large campsite and workshop on the upper valley margin at the confluence of the Brazeau and Elk Rivers, located near Drayton Valley and Rocky Mountain House.
The main site, FfPv-1, was found in 2009 by Sandy and Tom Erikson while out on a day hike. They contacted the Royal Alberta Museum to report their finds, and the site was visited by curators Jack Brink and Bob Dawe in 2013. They conducted an exploratory survey with Sandy and Tom, and found five additional sites, FfPv-2 to 6. These sites are all located around the edge of the upper water lines of the Brazeau Reservoir, and are covered by water for most of the year.
Jack and Bob brought these sites to the attention of the Strathcona Archaeological Society as an opportunity to engage with the society’s members through the practice of archaeology. What made these sites perfect to use for a volunteer project is that all the sites were identified by the artifacts found on the surface, thanks to the reservoir water that slowly stripped the soil away. This meant that volunteers could learn how to spot the artifacts sitting on the surface.
In 2015, Madeline Coleman, one of our Permit Archaeologists, co-organized the pilot volunteer project with another SAS member, Amandah van Merlin. Volunteers travelled across FfPv-1 to figure out the site’s extent, and what type of site it was. Survey of the landforms around FfPv-1 found three new sites!! Volunteers also found projectile points that crossed almost the entire expanse of Alberta Precontact history. The cultural phases represented include Clovis, Agate Basin, Hell Gap, Oxbow, and Plains Corner-notch.
Based on the location of the sites, it is very likely that the sites are located around the whole reservoir! The construction of the reservoir began in 1910, long before developments in Alberta were examined for impacts to archaeological resources. Currently, many of the sites recently identified are only accessible by boat.
A new survey with test excavation units are planned for May 28th and 29th. To register or for more information, email Madeline at [email protected]
This is a guest post by Christina Poletto, a Master’s student with the Institute of Prairie Archaeology at the University of Alberta Department of Anthropology. She’s studying the palaeoenvironmental signature of wildfire, to look for signs of pre-historic controlled burning by indigenous societies in northeastern Alberta.
Fire is almost a constant in Alberta’s north, and its impact can be felt not only on the environment but on populations. In recent years’ fire has been seen in a negative light due to extreme fires that have impacted communities in northern Alberta. The 2016 fire in Fort McMurray has had a devastating impact on people in the area, displacing thousands and damaging houses and buildings. However, fires were not always this large and destructive.
As part of the boreal forest’s natural cycles, fires allowed for a diverse mosaic of landscapes to be re-established and helped support animal communities in the area. These natural fire cycles also help to remove ‘dead’ organic materials like fallen trees and overgrown plants. If these materials are left to build up, they become another fuel source for fire and make fires more intense. This has led fire scientists to argue that the more the forest is regulated and the more fires are suppressed, the more intense and dangerous fires become. In the years before fire suppression, fires were a crucial and positive part of the success and diversity of the boreal forest.
In addition to natural fires, northern Alberta First Nations groups had traditions of cultural burning. These fires were highly regulated; they were only started under specific circumstances and were dependent on factors like weather conditions and the amount of fire fuel in an area. Early spring was the preferred season because the ground was dry enough to burn but damp enough to prevent the fire from getting too large, whereas during the fall it was drier, making it more dangerous to begin burning. When all the conditions were right, fires would be used to create landscape features like hay meadows or to form and maintain trails, and to promote plant and animal communities re-entering into an area. Ethnographic studies like ones conducted by Henry T. Lewis and Theresa Ferguson with the Dene-Tha (Slavey) in northwestern Alberta documented the longstanding tradition of controlled burning. Elders commented that these practices would not only promote the movement of people but would encourage vegetative communities to thrive and entice animals to revisit areas. In the forest, ensuring the availability of food resources for the months ahead and for years to come was the primary goal of these activities, which is why such great care was taken with the burning process.
In an archaeological site with deep deposits, records of these traditions could be noted by multiple layers of charcoal related to occupation periods. However, in many parts of the boreal forest, the soil deposits are shallow and make it challenging to see these patterns. Instead, researchers can look at soils in lake basins to help recreate these parts of the record. With these ancient and modern records, we can understand how different plant species respond to different fire types, and model the regrowth and response of animal communities. Understanding how First Nations groups manipulated these environmental relationships enhances our understanding of past groups living in the boreal forest. IN addition to its archaeological value, this knowledge can be integrated into modern forest management practices. In some parts of Alberta, highly regimented cultural burning through collaborative efforts has been reintroduced as a way to help minimize fire risk and to promote a healthy, diverse boreal forest.
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.
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.
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!