The context of an artifact is extremely important to archaeologists. The context of an artifact means the precise location of the artifact and it’s association with other artifacts and landscape features. This helps us determine such things as the relationships between artifacts on a site, it’s position in time and space, and even how it is related to different archaeological sites.
Below is a picture from a site near the Brazeau Reservoir, Alberta. The lithic scatter pictured below shows the flakes in their original context. The whole scatter is in a semi circle shape outlined in red. The positions of the flakes indicate that someone likely sat near the red circle. They then flint knapped purple quartzite which went in the direction of the purple arrow. They then shifted their body and began to flint knap a grey-blue quartzite that went in the direction of the blue arrow.
This is just a small portion of the site, so when we start to put together this information with other information about the site we begin to get a greater understanding of what happened, such as where specific activities took place and even what was going on in the area at that time.
Surface exposures are areas where there is no vegetation and the mineral soils are visible. These can occur naturally (areas of slumping, beaches, blow-out, or other natural erosional processes), or be caused by human activity (ATV trails, furrows created for site prep and skid trails just to name a few). Surface exposures can be great for covering a lot of ground during survey.
One of the most common questions that I get asked is what is the coolest thing I have ever found. My default answer is this censer fragment that my excavation team unearthed back in 2009 as part of the Trent University field school in Belize, at the Minanha site.
My team was working on the excavation of a house platform. The house platform was part of a small complex of households near a ceremonial and political centre. the site was abandoned around 1000 years ago at the end of the Classic era of the Maya civilization.
One of the first things found during the excavation was a small cylinder seal next to the large tree root (pictured above). Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the artifact but I still have my notes from the field school and a quick sketch that I did.
As we continued to excavate through different occupation layers, we came upon an assemblage of broken pottery sherds. We were careful to map each artifact before we removed them from their context (as indicated by the nails at each corner of the artifacts). We could see there were holes in the ceramics but had no idea of what was waiting once we turned it over.
When the sherd with the holes was turned over, the entire team got really excited and gathered around while the professor, Gyles Iannone, explained what we found. The artifact was part of a large incense burner. When incense was burned within the vessel, the smoke would come out the holes in the censer. The smoke flowing out of the mouth likely created a very stunning effect. After the field school was completed, the graduate students catalogued the artifacts and re-assembled the censer (pictured below).
While we always prefer to survey areas prior to any impacts, the identification of artifacts in post-impact contexts can be easier because of large areas of exposed sediments. Instead of targeted shovel tests that excavate a very small percentage of a high potential area, we can potentially see everything that is under the ground. However, the context of anything we find must be taken into account because heavy equipment can break cobbles and create things that look very similar to lithic debitage. If we find an artifact in the track of heavy machinery we need to be careful we are not misidentifying what we call a “tractorfact.”
In spring of 2017, we surveyed a proposed Associated Aggregates gravel pit that was being planned in a recently harvested cutblock . We identified several sites that were within the proposed gravel pit boundary, most of which were first identified by spotting artifacts on the ground. It’s not always easy, as vegetation can trick you into thinking you’ve found something, only to realize it was just a leaf.
If you want to try your eye, try to spot the flakes in the above picture!
How many did you find? Give up?
Keep scrolling for the answer…
It can be pretty difficult to spot because of the leaves on the ground but when you really take the time to look you can see five pieces of quartzite debitage.
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!
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.
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!
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).
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.
We took this photo in the fall of 2016 while completing fieldwork for Sundre Forest Products’. It’s of the Clearwater River valley as seen from a site we found that year. The site was easily identified because artifacts were eroding out of the steep valley wall and the ATV trails that cross the landscape.
From here, one would be able to keep an eye on traffic (human, moose, deer, etc.) through the valley (if the vegetation allowed it, that is). This is probably one of the reasons it was used as a campsite in the past, and still is to this day – we found a couple of modern fire pits at the ancient site.
Views are becoming an increasingly important and interesting part of predicting site locations and are becoming easier to consider. We have GIS to thank for that. Here former Tree Time archaeologist, Tim Allan, has an update on his MA research that provides an example of what a view-shed analysis can look like.
In the case of the Clearwater River site and the Hummingbird Creek site Tim discusses, both appear to be located to command the view – look how similar the landscapes are.
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.
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.
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.
(This brief article was originally published in the Archaeological Society of Alberta Newsletter Vol. 1, January 2013)