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

The Brazeau Reservoir Archaeological Survey Project

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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]