Public Archaeology at the Brazeau Reservoir

Public archaeological programs are an excellent opportunity for people with a general interest in archaeology or amateur archaeologists to learn what an artifact is, and to practice the techniques that are used to find and interpret them. Often these programs will have a dig component, where people join for a few days or a week, and learn excavation techniques in units laid out over a buried site.

The Brazeau Archaeological Project (BAP), sponsored in part by Tree Time Services Inc., provides a unique experience. The current sites being surveyed are almost entirely exposed by the continuously fluctuating water levels of the reservoir. This also means that the entire history of the area has been deflated to one level, rather than multiple occupation levels that can be apparent in excavations. The occupation of the Brazeau River by First Nations extends as far back as 12- 14,000 years ago. This allows participants to gain a better feel of how large and spread out an archaeological site can really be. The largest site surveyed so far spans almost 1 km!

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Bob Dawe (left) discussing boiling pits. Photo Credit: Jack Brink

The project invites members of the Strathcona Archaeological Society (SAS) to come out for a day or weekend to learn survey and excavation techniques, as directed by experienced or professional archaeologists. As most of the artifacts lay exposed on the surface due to the ever changing water levels of the reservoir, the experience is relaxed, family friendly, and can be conducted over a single day or weekend, rather than a week-long commitment.

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Participants surveying, excavating, and generally having a good time!  Photo credit: Top and left – Hilary McDonald; right – Madeline Coleman

Participants learn what features to look for when looking for surface finds, such as material, shape, and modifications. By pairing participants up with experienced archaeologists we can point out the various ways an artifact, such a flake, can look; particularly how it can blend in or really stand out from its surrounding environment. For example, Amandah van Merlin, one of the co-ordinators, picked up a small, indistinct black pebble. The black pebble chert material, however, is a popular flint knapping material. As it turned out, Amandah had found a thumbnail scraper!

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A small pebble with a big surprise!  Photo credit: Amandah van Merlin; inset – Madeline Coleman

Public archaeology programs are also a great way to explore new technology or try experiments. One participant brought his drone. He was able to take photos from a bird’s-eye view of the site, providing a totally new perspective on what these landforms look like along the shore, and the distances between the sites. Madeline Coleman, the other co-ordinator, laid out various sizes of brick pieces in order to examine how artifacts are affected by water movement (or perhaps even people).

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Ariel view of FfPv-1.  Photo credit: Robert Wambold
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Laying out pieces of brick to monitor movement over time.  Photo credit: Madeline Coleman

The project is still in its infancy. The pilot survey in May 2015 occurred over one day and had 9 participants. In May 2016, the survey occurred over two days with over thirty participants joining for one or both days. This past May, there were over 20 participants that joined for the full weekend. In addition, for two days prior to the public survey, BAP worked with University of Alberta field school students. Here they practiced map making, shovel testing, and laying out excavation units.

Outreach is also a very important aspect of a public program, such to First Nations group, schools, and universities. The BAP has recently reached out to Paul First Nation, in whose traditional territory the Brazeau River lies, and whom are active in working to protect their heritage. BAP has also recently partnered with Katie Biittner at Grant MacEwan University to begin a hands-on catalogue experience for university students at Grant MacEwan and the University of Alberta. In addition, the original finders of the site, Sandy and Tom Erikson, worked to create a 3-case display at their hometown school in Edson. The case shows some of the finds and information from the periods they may have originated in.

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School display in Edson. Photo credit Sandy Erikson

Core

A core is a larger piece of stone from which many smaller flakes are removed. These flakes are then turned into tools or are utilized as they are. There are many different types of cores, but a common way to describe them is by the direction(s) flakes were removed, or by the shape of the core. For example, unidirectional cores have flakes removed all in the same direction. That has had many stone flakes removed to make other tools.

Obsidian

Obsidian is commonly known as volcanic glass. It forms when a volcano erupts and the lava is cooled extremely quickly, such as when it flows into a water body. In Alberta obsidian is considered to be an “exotic material” because it does not occur here naturally. When we find it here it tells us that people in the past engaged in long distance trade, usually with people in British Columbia or the Yukon. In 2016 Teresa found this lovely obsidian flake at site FaPr-6 located near the community of Caroline.

Working in the Winter

Specializing in forestry archaeology in Alberta, I haven’t had much opportunity to work in winter conditions. One of the nice things about forestry is its relatively long planning horizon and the flexibility to schedule our work.

Unfortunately, in fall 2012, a variety of factors conspired to push some of our fieldwork into late October, and then we got an unusually early and heavy snowfall in northwestern Alberta. The heavy snow prevented the ground from freezing, so we went ahead with our planned surveys of forestry cutblocks, conducting landform evaluation and shovel testing as normal.

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unusually deep snow (our shovels are about 1 m long!)

Trudging through 50 cm of fresh powder gave me some perspectives on moving and living in the boreal forest under winter conditions that I hadn’t previously gained. I had wondered what effect snow cover would have on mobility patterns. Summer travel in the forest tends to follow linear features like river and stream valley margins, but I’d wondered if under winter conditions that would still be the case. This week it certainly was. We were working on the Chinchaga River valley, and found that travel along the valley margin was much easier than cutting cross country or on the slopes or lower terraces. I’d say the advantage was even greater than under summer conditions. The level backcountry had deeper snow than the exposed margins, and the snow on the slopes was even deeper than that. The grey overcast sky and falling snow also obscured the sun, which made it very hard to maintain a bearing cross-country without a compass. Without a landform to follow, I could have been walking in circles and wouldn’t know until I hit my tracks.

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Trudging through the deep snow.

If I was camping under those conditions, however, I think I’d be choosing very different locations than I would in the summer. The distinct valley margins, corners and points that we tend to focus our surveys on had great views of the river and were on our preferred walking paths. But they were also very exposed to the biting wind coming out of the northwest. Even the south-facing edges were exposed. The most comfortable locations we found to break for coffee were just back from the edge, sheltered in stands of immature spruce. For the last couple seasons, I’d been suspecting that our focus on exposed corners and points was only finding one class of sites, and this experience reinforces that suspicion. I think that winter camps in particular, and possibly all larger camps, would be located back from the sharp landform edges that we’re targeting most. Drainage is still a factor, especially on warm winter days when the snow turns to mush, so we should still be looking for local elevation. But maybe we should be testing some less distinct elevated landforms a little back from the edges if we want to find sites occupied during less than ideal weather.

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Snow is a little shallower in the protected areas under the immature spruce.

(This brief article was originally published in the Archaeological Society of Alberta Newsletter Vol. 1, January 2013)

Debitage / Flakes

Debitage, or flakes, are bits of stone chips that are left behind while making or modifying a stone tool. This artifact type has distinctive features that make them easily recognizable to archaeologists and clearly distinguish them from naturally occurring broken rocks.

Why do HRIAs (Historic Resource Impact Assessments)?

“Archaeological heritage is an essential element in the affirmation of our Canadian identity and a source of inspiration and knowledge. It is the policy of the Government of Canada to protect and manage this heritage.1

This sentiment is echoed through all levels of government and most provinces2, territories, and municipalities have either a piece of legislation, regulation, policy, or official plan in place that enables the government to protect heritage resources on lands within its jurisdiction.

For example, it’s stated in Alberta’s Historical Resources Act that when the Minister thinks a proposed operation or activity is likely to alter, damage, or destroy a historic resource, the Minister may order that person to undertake an HRIA3. This means that the Minister of Alberta Culture and Tourism (ACT) has the authority to require developers to conduct studies that assess the potential impacts of their development on historic resources. In Alberta, these studies are called “Historic Resources Impact Assessments” or HRIAs.

If the HRIA determines that there are historic resources located within the development footprint that may be impacted by the proposed development, ACT may require that the impacts be mitigated before the project will receive development approval (i.e. through modification of the development plan or the completion of a Historic Resource Impact Mitigation / HRIM). The goal of HRIA and HRIM studies is to ensure that significant historic resources are preserved through the development and land use planning processes. As such, the Minister may require the authority responsible for approving the proposed development (such as Alberta Environment and Parks, Agriculture and Forestry, or the Alberta Energy Regulator) to withhold or suspend the approval (or licence/permit/etc.) until the HRIA/HRIM requirements have been satisfied.

Have you been required to obtain a permit-status archaeologist to undertake an HRIA/HRIM? We’d be happy to discuss how Tree Time Services can best help you through the approvals process so you can focus on your core business. Call Kurt at 780-472-8878 or email [email protected] 

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

1 Archaeological Heritage Policy Framework, Department of Canadian Heritage, Ottawa, 1990.

2 “We value the natural heritage and human history of Alberta because they help us understand and value the past on which our present is built, and give us a deepened awareness of our common roots and shared identity.” The Spirit of Alberta: Alberta’s Cultural Policy, 2009:3

3 Alberta’s Historical Resources Act, Section 37.2

What is Mitigative Excavation?

Mitigative excavation is the process of digging an archaeological site that is threatened either by development or natural erosion. Mitigative excavations have different goals than academic excavations. The goal of mitigative excavations is is to save as much information about the site before it is destroyed, whereas in academic digs the goal is to answer specific questions about how people were using the site in the past.

When a planned development is in direct conflict with a significant archaeological site our normal first recommendation is for a project redesign in order to avoid impacting the site. When a project redesign is not a viable option a mitigative excavation might be required.

Before the excavation begins additional shovel testing may be required to ensure that the boundaries of the site have been confidently established and to identify the most important or valuable part of the site. Using what we have learned from the shovel testing we select areas for excavation blocks. We try to target the places where we’ll get the best return, in scientific information, for the investment of time. These excavation blocks are usually excavated in 1×1 m units. During the excavation layers of a predetermined depth are carefully removed. The sediment is screened and artifacts are collected. While excavating each layer is carefully described and locations of artifacts within the layer are recorded. Any changes in the soils or unusual staining is also described in detail. As each layer is removed photos are taken to further document the process. Once the unit is excavated to its final depth photos and drawings are taken of the unit walls. These photos and drawings will help us to understand the natural formation of the site area by studying the statigraphy. Looking at the layers of the soil can help us to determine if some artifacts in the site are older than others and can help us to understand how long or often the site was used by people in the past.

Mitigative excavations in Alberta typically do not involve excavation of the entire site as you might see in academic research excavations; instead archaeologists first consult with the developer and the government and excavate a sample of the site that focuses on the area of impact, and maximizes the information value of the dig.

Once the mitigative excavation is complete and the final report describing the project has been approved by the government the development will be allowed to proceed.

Mitigative excavations usually move along at a faster pace than academic excavations. This is related to time restrictions associated with development planning and budgetary concerns, as well as our focus on efficiency, and maximizing the return on investment. Academic excavations often take place over many field seasons but mitigative excavations have to be completed before the developer begins construction.

Mitigative excavation is our best tool to preserve archaeological heritage when avoidance isn’t an option, but it’s still a net loss in heritage value. Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources, once they have been destroyed, whether by excavation or development, no more information can be collected about the site.