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)

Expedient Tool

An expedient tool is an object that can be made quickly and easily with little or no production effort. This is a retouched flake we collected during the summer of 2016. The red arrow is pointing to where the flake has been retouched.

Tree Throw

We often inspect tree throws for artifacts. A tree throw is a bowl shaped depression that is often created when a large tree has blown over or has had its stump pulled out. This tears out soil with it creating a surface exposure for us to inspect.

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This tree throw at FbPv-12 contained hundreds of flakes. The red arrow is pointing to one.

Isolated Find

This biface came from a site that was classified as an isolated find. This term means that only one artifact was observed and/or collected.

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This biface was the only artifact recovered from IcQa-23 near Fort Vermilion.

Ground Stone Artifact

At our Archaeology Roadshow in Lac La Biche, AB in fall 2015 a local resident brought in an interesting artifact that was found on a farm near Camrose, AB in the 1940s. The artifact is a 5 and 1/2” round stone with a wide, shallow depression on one side and a smaller lipped depression on the other side. These depressions were formed by grinding or pecking at the stone with a harder stone.

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Initial interpretation of the artifact was that it was some sort of bowl or plate. However, there are some problems with this interpretation. First, it would not function well as a bowl due to the shallow depth on the “top” side of the artifact. Second, it also requires a lot of effort to grind these concave features into the stone for something as simple as a serving vessel. Traditionally it was thought that a vessel of this type would not serve much purpose to Native person prior to the arrival of Europeans. Before European contact, people were mobile hunters and it would not make sense to create a plate to be transported from location to location. However, this stereotype has been challenged by recent finds such as carved bison effigies and other robust tools, such as mauls, that were typical of the tool kit of North America’s First Nations.

The “base” of the artifact may be a clue to the age of the artifact. Upon viewing the artifact, Jack Brink, Curator of Archaeology at the Royal Alberta Museum, noted that “the bottom view (of the artifact) shows a ring or foot carved for the bowl to stand on. This is identical to a European bowl or plate. It would serve no purpose to a Native person who would be using a bowl on the ground. Makes me think this, if not made by a European, at least dates to the time after contact (with Europeans).”

The artifact could also be a grinding platform similar to a mortar and pestle or mano and metate popular in Mesoamerican cultures. These artifacts are used to grind down grains and seeds. A similar artifact was found by a farmer near Eaglesham, AB. However, This artifact differs greatly in size and shape from the artifact brought in to our Archaeology Roadshow.

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Mortar and Pestle from Eaglesham collection. Image courtesy of Todd Kristensen.

Another interpretation was suggested by Gabriel Yanicki, a PhD student at the University of Alberta. Yanicki, specializing in prehistoric gambling and games, suggests that the artifact may be a Chunkey Stone, typically associated with the Mississippi cultures in the eastern United States. The game of Chunkey involves the rolling of a stone disk while people attempt to hit the stone with spears or sticks. He went on discuss the aspects of the artifact that suggest it may be a Chunkey Stone, “at about 5 ½ inches you’re dead on for size (2-6” most common), and hard granitic or basaltic rocks aren’t unknown.” In terms of style, Yanicki states “the side where the concavity extends almost to the edge is typical of the Cahokia type, while the smaller raised concavity appears in the Salt River and Jersey Bluff types.” However, unlike typical Chunkey Stones this artifact is asymmetrical.

The artifact may also be some sort of ritual or offering platform that may have served a one time purpose. The owner of the artifact is currently talking to Augustana University in an effort to donate the artifact. The “plate” can then be tested for residue analysis to determine if there is evidence of burning or food processing. Megan Caldwell, of Augustana University is also interested in determining the origin of the rock as it appears to be similar to rocks from British Columbia.

Finding Archaeological Sites from the sky using high-tech advances in archaeology

In recent months, news feeds have been erupting with stories of “Lost Maya Cities discovered using LiDAR”, “revealing the secrets of Stonehenge using LiDAR”, “LiDAR uncovers ancient city near Angkor Wat”, and the popularity of “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak, but this technology is not limited to finding the remnants of “lost civilizations” in far reaching corners of the globe. LiDAR is used by archaeologists in Alberta to assist in the locating of potential archaeological sites that are threatened by development.

Figure 1. Marching Bear Effigy Mounds Lidar Imagery (Wikimedia Commons)
Figure 1. Marching Bear Effigy Mounds LiDAR Imagery (Wikimedia Commons)

Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) is the process of mounting a laser on an aircraft and bouncing light pulses off the ground and measuring the time it takes for the laser to return. The process can take 2000-5000 measurements per second and makes the surface appear treeless, revealing surface features that cannot be seen using simple satellite imagery or aerial photos (Figure 1). However, using LiDAR to find archaeological sites in northern Alberta is not as easy as it can be in other parts of the world. LiDAR is great for identifying building structures, walls, and other features common of archaeological sites in other parts of the world. In northern Alberta these features are absent from Indigenous archaeological sites. To study the human history of northern Alberta prior to European contact we have to look at the landscape and identify landforms that would have been suitable for camping and hunting activities.

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Figure 2. Satellite imagery of ridge overlooking marsh
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Figure 3. LiDAR hillshade of the same ridge

In the above images, the first image is a satellite image of a ridge where we found an archaeological site (Figure 2). With just satellite imagery the area appears to be predominantly flat which is not a good area to camp or hunt. This is because the area would be thought to be poorly drained and with limited visibility of the surrounding terrain. When using LiDAR imagery (Figure 3) we notice there is a complex of distinct hills and ridges that would be ideal for making camp.

This technology has revolutionized the process of finding archaeological sites in Alberta and is revealing more about the history of people in the boreal forest. The ability to pinpoint the best landforms without having to do extensive on-the-ground survey has greatly increased the inventory of sites found in northern Alberta. This benefits our clients who will pay less money for the survey of their developments and we can make more accurate predictions about site locations which allow them to modify their developments to avoid potential sites.