When working close to an obsidian source (i.e. volcanoes), archaeologist will regularely find obsidian tools and debitage. However, in the boreal forests of northern Alberta, obsidian is a rare find indeed. So to find any evidence of it at all is pretty significant. Volcanic glass, or obsidian, is one of the sharpest naturally occurring materials on earth. It is sometimes used by surgeons who require a cutting edge that is much thinner and sharper than a stainless steel scalpel. Not only is obsidian extremely sharp, but it is also relatively easy to flint knap and is used by many beginners trying to learn this ancient skill. These features made obsidian a highly valued knapping material.
Pre-contact peoples fashioned various tool types from it, such as knives, projectile points, or composite tools. One method of knapping obsidian was blade core technology. This method involves preparing an obsidian core so that a series of small blades can be removed. This method minimizes the amount of material that is wasted and allowed people to quickly reproduce blades that were a similar size and shape. These blades were then hafted to a bone or stick to create a cutting utensil. To create larger tools, obsidian would have been knapped using normal methods as well.
Last summer, Tim and I were surveying some forestry cutblocks at the base of the southern slopes of the Marten Hills, east Slave Lake. During the screening process, I had targeted a series of small knolls that overlooked a muskeg. These knolls were close to the headwaters of the Fawcett River, where a natural pass would have allowed people to easily traverse through the hills. Tim and I walked to the top of the highest knoll and started digging test pits.
We were completely shocked when my first test contained an obsidian blade. At this point we were extremely excited, and were sure that we had just found a crazy site. However, even though we dug 40+ test pits, we never found another artifact. The site turned out to be an isolated find. Nuts!
So if there are no volcanoes in Alberta, where did this obsidian blade come from? Luckily, advances in technology allowed us to quickly solve this question. During his Master’s degree, Tim obtained a license to operate a pXFR analyzer (portable X-Ray Fluorescence), so Tree Time Services Inc. rented one of these devices. Other obsidian artifacts recovered by Tree Time services were all found to come from south of the U.S. border. However, the results of Tim’s analysis suggests that the blade was made of obsidian from Mt. Edziza, British Columbia.
That means that this piece of stone had been transported/traded by Pre-contact peoples over a distance of 1700 km! At 10 km travelling distance in a day (on foot), that is 170 days, or almost 6 months. Mt. Edziza obsidian has never been found in the Lesser Slave Lake region, however is is somewhat common in the Peace Region in northwest Alberta. GiPk-3 represents one of the furthest known Mt Edziza obsidian finds from its source. Although Tim and I were disappointed that we didn’t find more artifacts, this single find provided evidence for trade networks that spanned vast distances long before European contact.
Back in 2015 I was dropped off by a helicopter in the middle of a large muskeg to assess a cutblock for Alberta-Pacific Forest Industries. After trudging my way through the swamp to the cutblock, I found a very prominent but small hill. I put my shovel in the ground and I found one large, beautiful flake. I tested out the rest of the landform but found nothing else. I flagged the site for avoidance by harvesters and made my way back through the muskeg to be picked up by the helicopter.
When I got there I told the pilot that I found a site. He responded “Really? This is the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone be out here?” To which I replied, “People were everywhere, man.” The pilot was skeptical and asked to see what I found. He said, “That’s just a rock that was broken by your shovel.” I responded by saying, “I can give you eight reasons why this is a legitimate artifact…”
The above artifact is the “textbook flake” that I found that day. It has all the features that we typically look for in determining if it is natural or a rock that was broken by a human in the past. These features are:
1. Bulb of percussion: A bulb that forms directly below where the hammerstone struck the core. This is what causes the flake to be popped from the core. If a rock is broken by heating or freeze-thaw this bulb will not be present.
2. Platform: The flat area where the flintknapper would strike the core to pop the flake off. These areas are sometimes prepped to be struck by rubbing the hammerstone on the edge to strengthen the edge and remove any micro-fractures that may cause the rock to break in an unintended way.
3. Percussion waves: Caused by the force travelling through the flake.
4. Eraillure Scar: Small flake scar on the ventral surface of the flake which is the result of the rebounding force from the percussive force.
5. Termination: This flake has a feather termination. This is a perfect detachment of a flake from a core. Desirable because the end of the flake is sharp without need to resharpen or retouch. This means that the flake is a ready tool that can be used to cut or scrape. Other types of terminations include: hinge, step, and overshot terminations. These are usually an error by the knapper or flaws in the core.
6. Flake Scars: Areas on the dorsal surface of the flake where flakes were knocked off during earlier stages of tool making process. The coincidence of these being present on a naturally broken rock are impossible.
7. Material: The material of this flake is a fine grained chert. This is not a rock that would naturally be found in this immediate area. There were also no other rocks present in the shovel test or any of the other shovel tests that were dug that day.
8. Context: Sometimes when rocks are crushed by heavy equipment they can break in a similar fashion but this was found pre-disturbance. Additionally, the force from me putting my shovel into the ground could never possibly break a rock in this fashion. I am not that strong.
It is not often that we have all of these flake features present. Sometimes if a flake is broken we might not be able to see the bulb and platform or the termination. We usually try to find at least two of these features to call something an artifact. To convince a non-archaeologist a flake is genuine you might need all these features present. I feel like I convinced the pilot that this was a real artifact but I think he only responded by saying “interesting.”
Back in September of 2017, I found what would probably be one of the coolest artifacts that I will ever find in my field survey career. My coworker Vince and I got up one fateful morning and set out on our four hour quad ride into one of the most beautiful areas in Northern Alberta: the Swan Hills. I have been working in the Swan Hills area for a few years now and every time I come back, I am always amazed by the broad vistas and pristine valleys that cut through this segment of the Alberta Foothills.
We were checking out a cutblock on the edge of a broad muskeg flat with a small stream. It was pretty swampy on the way in, but once we got closer to the stream, the land rose up into a nice, narrow little ridge that gave a good view over the stream. After walking around for a bit, Vince and I settled on a place to start digging. Normally, it takes a bit of time going through the screen before you can find the small stone flakes that we typically find. This time, I only had to flip over the root mat to see the top half of a stone blade stuck in the rootlets. A few seconds later, I pulled out the base of the same blade from the loose sediment, revealing a complete spear point buried only a few centimeters below the surface.
You can only imagine my excitement once I pulled this beautiful specimen out of the ground (I think I was making noises akin to Homer Simpson drooling over a doughnut). It is hard enough to find artifacts in the Boreal Forest, let alone to find a tool! My first thought as soon as I pulled it out was that I had found an Alberta Point. This is a type of projectile point that dates to around 9500 and 8000 years ago and is part of what is known as the Cody Complex. Alberta Points commonly have square stems that would have been hafted into a spear shaft, along with broad distinct shoulders and wider tapered blades. It seemed to be a good fit for the style of the point that I had found so I put Alberta Point in my notes and went about my day.
Back at the lab, I started flipping through my reference books. I began to realize that what I had found didn’t really fit with what we know about Alberta Points. The shoulders weren’t as square as other Alberta Points and the blade was a little too broad and less lance-like. I also noticed that the shape of the point closely resemble ones found at Hell Gap sites, dating to between 10,000 and 9,000 years ago (before the Alberta points and the Cody Complex). During this period, we see that First Nations ancestors were making similar large spear heads, but with a broader blade and slight, indistinct shoulders. So the spearhead that I found could also belong to this time period. However, the story doesn’t end there. To complicate matters more, there are also similar kinds of projectile points being made around Lake Athabasca in the northeast corner of the province. During the Early Taltheilei Phase (2600 to 1800 years ago), the caribou hunting people living on the shores of Lake Athabasca were making similar looking large spear and atlatl dart points. The point I found could fit into any one of these three possibilities.
So what kind of projectile point had I found? If we can identify the style, we can make inferences on the age and archaeological culture that was present at the site. Being able to place an age on a site is often difficult to do for Alberta sites, especially sites in the Boreal Forest. The lack of organic preservation at many sites means that radiocarbon dating is often not possible. Also, most archaeological sites in northern Alberta have very little stratigraphy, meaning that you will find 13,000 years of history in about 20 cm of soil. Even this artifact, which may be anywhere from over 10,000 to 2000 years old, was found only 5 cm below the surface. So if I were to determine how old this site was, I would need to be able to positively identify the type of projectile point that I had found. So what did I find? How was it made? Where did it come from? The answers to these questions can tell us about the people who made the artifact.
First off, the material. The point is made of fine-grained quartzite, a lithic raw material that was frequently used in Alberta all throughout history. There are a lot of advantages to working with quartzite. As a material it is very strong and durable, which means that the edge of the blade will hold longer than other materials like obsidian. This also means that it is extremely difficult to work with. When we try our hand at flintknapping today, we often start with obsidian, chert, or flint because these materials will fracture more easily and predictably than others. Pick up a raw quartzite cobble, and you’ll find that you be bruised from trying to crack it open.
Quartzite is also very common. Almost every stream, creek, and river valley is filled with a variety of quartzite cobbles. You don’t need to import it thousands of kilometers, unlike Knife River Flint or obsidian. Not all quartzite is the same quality, but there are well documented sources of high quality quartzite and sandstone throughout the province, like the top of the Grizzly Ridge by Swan Hills or in the Oil Sands around Fort McMurray.
In fact, this point is made from a type of quartzite that is commonly known as ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ because of the small black specks in the largely white stone. This material has been found all over Northern Alberta, but it is most commonly reported around Fort McMurray. While no source has been officially documented, archaeologists who work in the Oil Sands region often report seeing raw cobbles and boulders of ‘Salt-and-Pepper’ quartzite in the creeks flowing into the Athabasca River. It is very likely then that this point was made from a cobble that came from the Fort McMurray region. Whether the person who made the point carried from Northeastern Alberta or if it made its way by trade, we don’t know. However, it does show us the vast ancient networks that connected the First Nations across Alberta.
So we know where the raw material for the point came from, what about how it was made? What can the shape and design tell us about the people who made it? One way to study this is to look at the flake scars, the ridges and concavities left when pieces of quartzite were struck from the point. Most of the time with finished projectile point, or those that have reached the end of their life as a usable tool, we will see that the edges will be very uniform and straight, with small flake scars along the blade where the tool was resharpened. However, this artifact is very rough, the edges are irregular and chipped and the blade has large long flake scars covering the surface. Based on these traits, it appears that this point was unfinished, and looking at where the break is, it was likely broken when they were trying to make the blade thinner. This point is what would be called a ‘Preform’, a roughly worked projectile point that has not been attached to a haft yet. Preforms can take a variety of shapes and forms, but they often resemble the final point style.
So now that we understand that we are looking at an unfinished point, it better explains why the shape of the artifact does not perfectly match other Alberta points. However, that doesn’t help us to determine if it is an Alberta, Hell Gap, or Taltheilei projectile point. The implications of assigning the point one of these time periods is significant, because it would move the occupation of the site from a period where Giant Bison and Ice Age mammals roamed Alberta during the Hell Gap Phase, to an environment more similar to what we see today during the Taltheilei Phase. Personally, I think that the point from GfQa-5 is more similar to projectile points and preforms that have been dated to the Hell Gap period. The shape of the shoulders, base, and the blade all seem to better match the style of these points than Alberta Points, and the points found at Taltheilei sites tend to be smaller and narrower. A cache of similar looking spear points were found near Eaglesham in northwestern Alberta, and the archaeologists who studied these points concluded that they were likely unfinished Hell Gap points. It seems likely then that the spear point I found would fall into this time period. However, this is still based on very general characteristics, and it could still easily fit within all three of these categories. Until we have more information, and we excavate more archaeological sites, we are often left with our best guess.
In the summer of 2016, this tool was identified while inspecting the exposures along an in-block road for Boucher Bros Lumber. It is likely the bottom portion of a biface that broke during manufacture or use. It is made from Peace River Chert, a material common to the Peace River region.
Here is an example of a unique artifact type – it is a large metal can that once contained blasting powder. We often find these cans associated with the old historic railways found throughout the province. This particular can has an inscription on the base which helps us to identify the contents of the can. In this case it also has the name of the producer. This information can help us to narrow down the age of the can.
This week we feature a picture of an asymmetrical knife found north of Lac La Biche at a site called Buffalo Beach. The knife has one rounded retouched cutting edge and the other edge is straight. The notched knob at the bottom of the artifact is where the knife would have been attached to a handle. The handle was likely made from an organic material that does not preserve as well as stone (for example bone, antler, wood, etc.). The style of this knife does not match any previously recorded artifacts found in Alberta.
This week we feature a stone tool found upstream on Fall Creek, about 55 km west of the community of Caroline, AB. We were undertaking an assessment for Sundre Forest Products and testing a flat area overlooking the creek (shown below) when Ryan found the end scraper shown above.
A “scraper” is a type of tool that is usually unifacial, meaning the stone was worked on one of its sides (or faces) only. Compare the two sides shown in the image above and you’ll see the one shown on the left is much smoother, except for a small piece that may have been broken off when digging the shovel test. The face of the scraper that is worked typically has pieces chipped off on the side or end in order to make a thick and strong edge. This is the scraping edge that could be used to prepare hides.
Unifacial working and a thick edge are the two main criteria used when identifying an artifact as a scraper, so as you can imagine there are a lot of different styles of scrapers found at archaeological sites. Just take a look at the beautiful example Reid describes in this blog post.
Regardless of what style of scraper you’ve found, a close look at the edge of these artifacts can reveal some “use wear,” when the edges become chipped, polished or worn down through the process of scraping hides, bone, wood or other softer materials. As a result of this wear, scrapers would occasionally need to be resharpened and the tools would become smaller and smaller through the resharpening process. It’s possible this scraper was considered too small to be of any more use and so was thrown away only to be found by us, perhaps thousands of years later.
This week we feature an artifact found recently while conducting a survey for an Associated Aggregates gravel pit along the Nordegg River. The artifact is an irregular biface that is likely a preform. A preform is often an ovate or triangular shaped rock that has been flaked on both sides using percussion and pressure flaking techniques. This artifact was likely in the early stages of becoming some form of tool (e.g. knife or projectile point) before it was discarded by the flintknapper.
It is not clear why the flintknapper quit working on the artifact, the knapper may have made a mistake or did not like the stone material. The artifact is made from a unique red speckled chert with some fossilized plant remains embedded on the dorsal side of the artifact. We asked the consulting community if they knew what kind of chert the artifact was made from and Jason Roe, Lifeways Canada, identified the material as Paskapoo chert.
The artifact was found at a site identified by our clients, Dan Hill and Jodie Bauman, who were interested in the process of historical resource impact assessments (HRIA). While screening a shovel test, under the supervision of our archaeologists, Jodie found a large utilized quartzite flake. Further testing, revealed the site was over 200 m long and had evidence of fire (fire cracked rock) and tool making (biface).
This week we feature an artifact from a large site we found on the Pineneedle Creek valley margin, west of Caroline (a community between Rocky Mountain House and Sundre) and off of the Forestry Trunk Road. The site was found when we were undertaking an assessment for Sundre Forest Products. More than 100 stone artifacts were recovered from this site, most of which represent chips broken off when making stone tools. This one stands out from the rest. It’s not so obvious an artifact as some of the stone tools we’ve shown in previous blog posts, but it represents the other critical component of an arrow or a spear: the shaft.
Figure 1: Two sides of an ancient spokeshave.
This is a “spokeshave”. This kind of tool is used even today for shaping and smoothing wooden rods for wheel spokes, chair legs, paddles, etc. You can find a spokeshave at your local hardware store, but it will look nothing like the example shown above.
An ancient spokeshave is thought to have been used to shape shafts for arrows, spears and darts. It’s recognized by the semi-circular notch on its side where you can imagine a wooden rod fitting nicely. In the picture above, the arrows are pointing to the notch on this artifact.
In many parts of Alberta, the soil is so acidic that materials like bone and wood don’t preserve so we don’t find arrow shafts. It’s pretty exciting and humbling to find an artifact that reminds us that there were once many more materials at these sites.