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

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.

The Archaeology of Wildfire

This is a guest post by Christina Poletto, a Master’s student with the Institute of Prairie Archaeology at the University of Alberta Department of Anthropology. She’s studying the palaeoenvironmental signature of wildfire, to look for signs of pre-historic controlled burning by indigenous societies in northeastern Alberta.

Fire is almost a constant in Alberta’s north, and its impact can be felt not only on the environment but on populations. In recent years’ fire has been seen in a negative light due to extreme fires that have impacted communities in northern Alberta. The 2016 fire in Fort McMurray has had a devastating impact on people in the area, displacing thousands and damaging houses and buildings. However, fires were not always this large and destructive.

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Wildfires from 1930 to 2014. This map only presents 84 years of fires in the area, but it shows the frequency and scale of fires in the region. (Fire history from Canadian Forest Service. 2011. National Fire Database – Agency FireData. Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, Northern Forestry Centre, Edmonton, Alberta. http://cwfis.cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/en_CA/nfdb.; map created by C. Poletto)

As part of the boreal forest’s natural cycles, fires allowed for a diverse mosaic of landscapes to be re-established and helped support animal communities in the area. These natural fire cycles also help to remove ‘dead’ organic materials like fallen trees and overgrown plants. If these materials are left to build up, they become another fuel source for fire and make fires more intense. This has led fire scientists to argue that the more the forest is regulated and the more fires are suppressed, the more intense and dangerous fires become. In the years before fire suppression, fires were a crucial and positive part of the success and diversity of the boreal forest.

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Dense forest cover can be both fun and challenging when accessing sites. For fires though, this can mean a faster moving and more intense burn (image C. Poletto)

In addition to natural fires, northern Alberta First Nations groups had traditions of cultural burning. These fires were highly regulated; they were only started under specific circumstances and were dependent on factors like weather conditions and the amount of fire fuel in an area. Early spring was the preferred season because the ground was dry enough to burn but damp enough to prevent the fire from getting too large, whereas during the fall it was drier, making it more dangerous to begin burning. When all the conditions were right, fires would be used to create landscape features like hay meadows or to form and maintain trails, and to promote plant and animal communities re-entering into an area. Ethnographic studies like ones conducted by Henry T. Lewis and Theresa Ferguson with the Dene-Tha (Slavey) in northwestern Alberta documented the longstanding tradition of controlled burning. Elders commented that these practices would not only promote the movement of people but would encourage vegetative communities to thrive and entice animals to revisit areas. In the forest, ensuring the availability of food resources for the months ahead and for years to come was the primary goal of these activities, which is why such great care was taken with the burning process.

In an archaeological site with deep deposits, records of these traditions could be noted by multiple layers of charcoal related to occupation periods. However, in many parts of the boreal forest, the soil deposits are shallow and make it challenging to see these patterns. Instead, researchers can look at soils in lake basins to help recreate these parts of the record. With these ancient and modern records, we can understand how different plant species respond to different fire types, and model the regrowth and response of animal communities. Understanding how First Nations groups manipulated these environmental relationships enhances our understanding of past groups living in the boreal forest. IN addition to its archaeological value, this knowledge can be integrated into modern forest management practices. In some parts of Alberta, highly regimented cultural burning through collaborative efforts has been reintroduced as a way to help minimize fire risk and to promote a healthy, diverse boreal forest.

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This map of the Clear Lake – Eaglesnest Lake area in the Birch Mountains shows how we can use current vegetation data to see how the boreal forest responds to fire. It also serves as a baseline for future research to attempt to interpret the boreal forest’s story of fire from lake records (created by C. Poletto).