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.
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.
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.
“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]
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
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.
You have made a plan for a development and reviewed your plan against the Listing of Historic Resources. You’ve found that you have a conflict on your land parcel, it is listed with an HRV of 4C. What does that mean?
An HRV of 4C indicates that an historic resource site is located on that parcel of land, and that one or more First Nations groups have reported that the site is of cultural significance to them. These sites are usually Traditional Use Sites with a historic component, or spiritually significant or religious sites. Some examples include historic cabins or trails, community campsites, prayer trees or other spiritual sites, burials, cemeteries, rock art sites, and mission sites.
Before you can proceed you or your historic resource consultant must submit a Historic Resource Application through OPAC (the Online Permitting And Clearance system) to the Aboriginal Heritage Section of Alberta Culture & Tourism. Aboriginal Heritage will review the development plans against their confidential records of the site and determine whether impacts are likely. If impacts to the HRV 4C site are likely, Aboriginal Heritage will issue site-specific Consultation requirements.
This means you may have to Consult with the First Nations who have Listed the site. More than one group may have an interest in the site because of shared history and land use. Be sure to consult with all interested parties in this matter. Consulting with only one group on overlapping Listings is not sufficient. Alberta Culture will inform you if Consultation is required or not, and with which groups site specific Consultation is required (Listing of Historic Resources, Instructions for Use). It’s very important to understand that any Site-Specific Historic Resource Consultation requirements are separate from and in addition to any other standard Consultation requirements regarding Treaty rights and land use. You may have to go back to First Nations you’ve already Consulted about your project in general, and may have to Consult with different groups or individuals.
Whether you are required to Consult with First Nations groups or not, an HRV of 4C may also result in a requirement for an Historic Resources Impact Assessment. The fact that a specific historic resource has been identified within your land parcel does not mean that the rest of the area has been surveyed and that there is only the one site there. It only indicates that an historic resource site has been reported. An historic resources impact assessment requirement is likely because areas that are considered culturally significant today usually have been considered important for centuries, or millennia. Areas with an HRV of 4C have a high potential to contain additional historic resources such as archaeological sites.
You may be required to redesign your project to avoid the HRV 4C historic resources site. If the site can’t be avoided, mitigation may be required. Mitigation of archaeological and historic sites typically requires extensive shovel testing, detailed block excavations proportional to the percent of the site to be impacted and detailed mapping of the site. Mitigation of impacts to a Culturally Significant site would likely be site-specific, and determined in collaboration with the affected communities.
Our recommendation for HRV 4C conflicts is to identify them early, discuss them with communities in advance, avoid them at the planning stage.
If you don’t know where to start, or would like someone to help you Consult with First Nations contact Kurt or Madeline at 780-472-8878 or toll free at 1-866-873-3846 or email us at [email protected]. We are happy to help.