Conch Shell

At our Archaeology Roadshow event in Lac La Biche, in fall 2015 Allan and Juanita Gaudreault brought in several conch shell fossils. These shell fossils were heavily worn and most were down to the central spiral. This made them difficult to identify at first. These are very unusual specimens because these type of marine shells are not found in Alberta. They are native to the Gulf of Mexico. Our initial interpretation (as archaeologists, not palaeontologists) was that this could possibly be a discarded souvenir or a fossil from the Cretaceous period when an ancient seaway stretched from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Shell fossils from Gaudreault collection

Tree Time Services reached out to Alwynne Beaudoin, Curator of Earth Sciences and Quaternary Environments at the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM), for an answer. The RAM had a conch shell, also found in the Lac La Biche region, donated to the museum in 2011. She has been researching this conch shell and “has not been able to find another record of a conch in prehistoric context from Alberta, though there are records of other marine shells (and) they are unlikely to be Cretaceous.”
Furthermore, the specimen in the Royal Alberta collection was radiocarbon dated to “slightly more than 1000 years before present.” That specimen’s age debunks the discarded tourist souvenir theory. The most likely explanation for the RAM’s shell is prehistoric trade from the Caribbean to Alberta 1000 years ago. There are some artifacts found in Southwestern Manitoba, such as this shell gorget, made from a species of shellfish native to the Gulf of Mexico. However, evidence of prehistoric trade networks between the Canadian Plains and the Gulf of Mexico is extremely rare in Alberta and this would be an artifact of significant information potential.

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The Gaudreault collection of shell fossils and ancient bone fragments.

The potential that the 2015 shells represented trade or travel 1000 years ago, rather than palaeontology from millions of years ago, was pretty exciting. On September 7, 2016 Corey Cookson, Project Archaeologist at Tree Time Services, and Christina Barron-Ortiz, Assistant Curator at the Royal Alberta Museum, made the trip up to the Gaudreault’s home to view the rest of their collection. Upon another viewing of the conch fossils it was clear that our first interpretation was right, and these are remains from the Cretaceous period about 65 million years ago. With permission from the Gaudreaults, a representative sample of the shells were taken by Christina Barron-Ortiz for further study. We will post a future blog once we receive confirmation of the age of the shell fossils. Also stay tuned for another post about some other interesting fossils from the Gaudreault collection.

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Wood Bison

While doing helicopter work near Zama City in 2014 we spotted a herd of bison. We were very surprised to find out that these impressive animals are not uncommon in the area. These Wood Bison are part of the Hay-Zama herd. What is exceptional about this heard as of 2015, there is no evidence of tuberculosis or bovine brucellosis. These diseases have been found in other wild herds in Alberta.bison fom heli_resized

If you are ever lucky enough to see these creatures in the wild, please remember that they are wild animals and can be extremely dangerous. We have heard anecdotal stories of people in the area honking their horn to encourage a slow bison to move off of the road, and the bison not taking too kindly to it.Bison from air_resized

Maul

This week we feature an artifact that was found on a farm near Canora, Saskatchewan. A friend of mine sent the pictures of artifact that her father’s uncle found in a field during the mid-20th century. The artifact is known as a maul which is a large stone with a groove that would be used to haft a handle onto the stone. There were two types of mauls: a heavier one with a short handle and a smaller one with a longer and more limber handle. The heavier one was used as by women for many purposes such as: driving in tent pins, killing disabled animals, breaking up bones for marrow, pounding chokecherries, and pounding dried meat to make pemmican. The smaller one would have been used as a war club by men.

This maul was found out of context but even when found in situ mauls are difficult to date. They were often re-used by people who found them at old campsites and could have be used over thousands of years. For information about recent residue analysis on mauls found throughout Alberta read “More than meat: Residue analysis results of mauls in Alberta” by Kristine Fedyniak and Karen L. Giering in the most recent Blue Book: Back on the Horse: Recent Developments in Archaeological and Palaeontological Research in Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 36 (2016).

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Photo Credits: Kathryn Dutchak

The One That Got Away

In this blog series, we will be reviewing and summarizing recent archaeological research occurring in the province and around the world. To see the original article, and others like it check out the Blue Book Series presented by the Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

When we find animal bone in an archaeological site, we can usually tell whether that animal died of natural causes, or if they were hunted and butchered by people. Evidence of butchery is sometimes obvious. We can see cut marks on the bone that are left behind when a sharp metal or stone knife cut into the outer layer of tissue that makes up bone. We can also see different fracture patterns in how the bone breaks. You can butcher an animal with an axe, leaving behind deep gouges in the bones, or using a saw which leaves distinct striations in the cuts.

Telling how an animal was hunted is more difficult. We often have to infer how the animal died based on the surrounding evidence. If we are looking a site like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, we can make a pretty good guess that the animals died from falling off the cliff. If we find a bison skeleton surrounded by stone arrowheads, it likely was shot using a bow. Very rarely do we ever see “the smoking gun” in archaeology. However, in the case of the Pibroch Vertebra we have a unique specimen that provides an insight into how people were hunting in the past. In an article published in the Archaeological Survey of Alberta Occasional Paper Series, Dr. Jack Ives at the University of Alberta and Bob Dawe at the Royal Alberta Museum reviewed their findings from the Pibroch Vertebra.

Continue reading “The One That Got Away”

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)