What’s in Your Bag?

Gear choice can have a big effect on your comfort level and efficiency while working in the forest. New workers, may have never been in the field and may not know what you really need to take for a full 12 hour day in the boreal forest. We expect to spend the entire day away from motorized vehicles so we need carry in everything needed for the day by hand, backpack, or vest. And if you don’t want to feel like your carrying around the kitchen sink, you need to be very selective in what you pack!

There are three basic categories I have on me at all times: archaeological (A), safety (S), and personal (P). The archaeological items are what I need to do the job. The safety are what I need to stay safe, and to meet the OHS Regulations in Alberta. The rest is what I need to enjoy/tolerate my day. These are not always mutually exclusive. For example, I need a radio to communicate with co-workers about the survey we are doing, but also in case of an emergency.

Time of year is also a factor. In spring, crews have encountered snow, rain, and sun all in the same day. Changing weather conditions may allow some items to be dropped, but other things, such as warm gloves, may need to be added. I never leave my rain gear behind, and also carry a survival kit and warm clothes, just in case I end up stranded overnight in the bush.

Load bearing equipment is an important consideration. I personally wear a True North Vest, but others may prefer a more traditional cruise vest. Many companies produce quality backpacks, but not all companies have the same level of warranty. Companies such as Osprey, make a durable lightweight backpack and fully stand behind their product with a stellar warranty. I prefer a 35-45 litre backpack as this size pack fits nicely inside our screens and gives me room for all my gear with a bit of extra space to put extra layers as the temperature rises. Make sure that you get a bag with a rain-cover. Most good bags come with one.

Keep in mind that I generally carry more stuff than most people, but I like to be prepared and don’t mind the weight. Adjust gear accordingly, and try to decide whether you really need something or not.

Things In My Vest

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All of this fits into the various pockets of the TrueNorth vest. A combination of safety and archaeology specific equipment.
  • iPad Mini (A, S)
    • Tethered to a Bluetooth GPS we use this for data collection, navigation, safety documentation.
  • In-Reach/Bluetooth GPS (A, S)
    • Emergency satellite communication device that increases the accuracy of the iPad’s location.
  • Handheld GPS (A, S)
    • Navigation, important waypoints (truck, quads etc.) data backup (shovel test locations).
  • VHF Radio (A, S)
    • Communication with co-workers and other crews. Great for notifying other nearby workers of hazards, or when we found a site!
  • Compass (A, S)
    • Navigation and orienteering. GPS are notoriously bad at telling you which way is north.
  • Tape measure (A)
    • Measuring shovel test depth. Scale for photography.
  • Pen and Sharpie (A)
    • Always need writing implements
  • Artifact Bags and Tags (A)
    • For  storing artifacts and labeling them with their provenience.
  • Gloves (S)
    • I keep the gloves I am using in my vest. Screening destroys gloves fast so I keep extras in my bag.
  • Multi-tool (S, P)
    • I keep my multi-tool in my vest so I have quick access to it if the need arises.

Things In My Bag:

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Definitely more than in the vest! Many of these is “just in case” items we hope we won’t need, but could safe your life if conditions change. They are useless if they are left in the truck 3 hours away.
  • Water (S, P)
    • Bladder for hiking and Nalgene bottles for lunch and reserve. I find that I go through a lot of water, but may leave some at the quad if I know I will not need it. Very import to have extra if it is hot outside!
  • Food (S, P)
    • Enough food for the day and a little extra just in case you have to spend the night in the forest. I usually have 3 or 4 Cliff Bars squirreled away somewhere.
  • Knife (A, S, P)
    • Never go into the bush without one. Check out this blog if unsure about which type of knife is best to have.
  • Bear Spray (S)
    • Should never go into areas with bears undefended. It is always a good idea to have a Bear Awareness training before wandering into their backyard. I attach the holster to my bag when on the ATV, but put it on my belt when hiking.
  • Rain Gear (S, P)
    • I never leave my rain gear behind even if the forecast looks good. Our weather is too unpredictable and I rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.
  • Head lamp
    • Small, lightweight form of illumination. It can get dark quick in the fall, and it sucks stumbling around the forest in the dark.
  • First Aid Kit (S)
    • Everyone at Tree Time Services Inc. carries a Type P (Personal) first aid kit and supervisors carry a Type 1.
  • Neck Brace (S)
    • I never ever want to have to use this! I will carry it regardless as it could be the difference between life and death.
  • Survival Kit (S, P)
    • I carry a small survival kit with some basic supplies just in case. I don’t plan on having to survive for more than a night without help. It all fits in a Nalgene, which keeps it waterproof. Bonus extra water container! It includes:
      • Extra knife
      • Mirror
      • Whistle
      • Small bundle of paracord
      • Fire starter
      • Bic lighter
      • Water purification tablets
      • Small plastic sheet
      • Cliff bar
  • Extra Clothes/Gloves (S, P)
    • Never know when you may need extra dry clothes or an emergency thermal layer. Extra warm clothing is useless wet, so I keep it dry bags. I bring:
      • Lightweight thermal baselayer
      • Extra warm gloves
      • Socks
      • Extra Bama socks
      • Buff or neckwarmer
      • Lightweight belaclava
        • Particularly important for cold quad rides
  • Bug Spray/Sunscreen (S, P)
    • For when the bugs get bad and the sun is out!
  • Toilet paper (P)
    • No explanation needed. Unless you really want the full nature experience of using leaves and moss.
  • Axe file (A, P)
    • For sharpening shovels and trowels. I hate a dull shovel. Most people sharpen at the truck and leave the file behind.
  • Trowel (A)
    • I usually only bring this on excavation jobs.
  • Bungie-cord (A, P)
    • I use this to attach my screen to my backpack.

Other Items:

  • Cellphone (S, P)
    • (Not pictured) I always keep my phone sealed in a ziplock bag and secured in my vest so that it cannot get damaged or lost.
  • Portable battery charger and Extra Batteries (A, S, P)
    • Can’t do much if our electronics don’t work
  • Flagging (A, S)
    • Always need multiple different colors of flagging for marking hazards, shovel tests and flagging site buffers.
  • Bug net (S, P)
    • Most people will carry a bug net either in their vest or bag depending on how much they use it. Bugs in the boreal can get pretty terrible at times.
  • Collapsible hand saw (A, S, P)
    • For clearing trails or roots out of test pits

Along with all of this we also need to carry a screen and shovel! Most people attach the screen to their backpack and everyone has their preference of shovel. Check out these shovel reviews (Grizzly vs. King of Spades, Bulldog spades) to determine what type you may like best! Enjoy your summer and happy hiking!

Sourcing with pXRF (portable X-Ray Fluorescence)

“Sourcing” is the study of associating artifacts with their geologic origin in order to infer human transport of materials. This field of research has revealed networks of trade and exchange among indigenous peoples in pre-contact times. But how do researchers figure out the actual source?

One method is with Portable X-Ray Fluorescence (pXRF) analysis. These instruments are used by geologists, archaeologists, and other specialists to gather chemical data of materials in a non-destructive manner. When the results are compared to known sample locations, archaeologists can infer how far the material an artifact was made from has traveled from its geological source. Take obsidian, for example. Obsidian has been found at archaeological sites thousands of kilometers from any volcano. Since there are several volcanoes in North America, identifying which artifact comes from which source affects the interpretation of trade networks.

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A pXRF analyzer

The analyzers themselves are a very intricate piece of technology that use radiation to gather chemical data of samples. The two main components are the X-Ray tube and the detector. Radiation is emitted down the X-Ray tube towards the sample object and interacts with its surface atoms. This interaction consists of radiation knocking an electron from the atom out of place, creating a vacancy in the electron cloud. This vacancy is filled by other electrons in the atom. The electrons shed energy in the form of X-Rays as they fill that vacancy, which is emitted out and collected by the detector.

The spacing between the orbital shells of electrons in the atom is unique to that element. An atom of potassium for instance, has different spacing between the electron shells than gold or iron. So, when an electron fills the vacancy and emits X-Rays, the emitted X-Rays are equivalent to the distance that is unique to that element. The detector collects these x-rays which are diagnostic of the elements present in the sample. Internal software then calibrates the readings into proportions of all elements in the sample.

How XRF works
Simplified diagram of an XRF. Left, an X-Ray tube emits radiation onto a sample, which interacts with the surface. The emitted X-Ray data is collected by a detector. Right, The radiation ejects an inner electron from the atom. This vacancy is filled by a 2nd (a) or 3rd (b) layer electron. This movement of the electrons emits X-Rays.

pXRF analyzers are useful tools for archaeologists since we study culturally significant objects, and do not want to alter or destroy the artifacts we wish to analyze. They are also relatively easy to use. Although users require a certification, they are safe when operated correctly, and the data can be downloaded and interpreted quickly.

A recent study of 750 obsidian artifacts has showed that indigenous trading networks spanned thousands of kilometers. Archaeological sites in Alberta contain obsidian which originated from north, central, and coastal British Columbia, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, spanning a trade network almost 2,000 km across.

Gear Guide – Knives

If you take a survival coarse, read outdoor living manuals like Northern Bush-craft, or talk to people who spend a great deal of time in the wilderness, one of the first items they suggest always having is a good knife. A good bush knife can be the difference between life and death in a survival scenario, much like a means of water purification and starting a fire (multiple BIC lighters is king!). When surveying the Boreal forest most of what we find are the remnants of First Nations Peoples making cutting implements out of stone. Unless you are an expert flint knapper, I would not recommend making stone tools in a survival situation and instead just follow the experts advice. However, with so many different types of knives on the market today, choosing which knife is best for you may be very daunting. So I asked the archaeological staff at Tree Time Services Inc. what type of knife they carry, why they carry that knife, and what they like/dislike about it? With this information, and my own personal experience, I wrote this guide on knives to share with our followers. Keep in mind, that not all clients allow knives on projects, so occasionally we have to leave them at home.

Folding Knives

Although I would not a consider a folding knife (a.k.a. pocket knife) the best choice for bush-craft, they do have certain qualities that make them quite useful when compared to other options. They key aspect that make folding knives a decent option is right in the name: they fold. Folding knives are the best type of knife for every day carry (EDC) because they are portable, usually lightweight, pack-able and easy to deploy like a Spyderco Paramilitary II. I would not buy a heavy or bulky folding knife. I want to put the knife in my pocket or pack and forget that it is there until I need it. I also would not buy a folding knife that cannot be operated with only one hand. Folding knife technology has advanced enough that knives that require two hands to open (or close) are now obsolete, but some people just fancy the more traditional style and aesthetic of a Buck 55 or Opinal #8. However, when buying any knife, especially folding knives, it is important to buy one that has a comfortable handle. While they may be aesthetically pleasing, many folding knives are very uncomfortable to hold and will cause hotspots and blisters during extended use.

The major downside to folding knives is that the fold is an inherent weak spot, which makes them far less durable than fixed blades, although perfectly adequate for small cutting tasks. Many people would choose lightweight and easy to carry over heavy and bulky. When doing archaeological survey, we have multiple means of communication (cellphone, radio, and In-Reach), and it is extremely unlikely that we would spend any longer than 24 hours stuck in the bush. Both Reid and Elenore think a pocket knife is perfectly adequate for what we do and don’t bother carrying a fixed blade knife. In my 10+ years of forest life, I have never been in a true survival situation, but I carry a fixed blade knife nonetheless, because I want to have it if I need it and I find it useful for tasks unsuited for a folding knife.

Fixed Blade Knives

When choosing a fixed blade over a folding knife, you need to decide whether you want portability or durability. Fixed-blade knives don’t fold, and therefore they need to be carried in a sheath on your belt or attached to a pack. While both types of knives are very proficient at cutting things (provided the edge is well maintained), fixed blade knives are much more versatile. They are universal tools that can be used for many things that would break a less durable folding knife. Digging holes, chopping down trees and cutting firewood, can all be done with a good fixed-blade knife, but would quickly destroy a folding knife. However, keep in mind that not all fixed blade knives are created equal, and a good bush-craft knife should have a full tang (the metal of the blade extends all the way to the base of the handle). This makes the knife substantially stronger than a knife that only has partial tang, or no tang at all, like those “Rambo”-style knives that have a hollow handle. Sure it may seem nice to be able to store matches and snare wire inside your knife, but that hollow-handle knife will break long before a full-tang knife will.

Before choosing which fixed-blade knife to buy, you need to decide what you will be using the knife for, and how much weight are you willing to carry? For instance, Tim carries a Gerber Vertebrae, which is small 3 inch, lightweight blade. In contrast, I carry a Ka-Bar, which is not small (7 inch blade) or lightweight, but I can use it as a small machete to clear helipads, cut roots out of test pits, and baton it through firewood with ease. However, when it comes to fine jobs requiring manual dexterity, the Gerber Vertebrae shines, while the Ka-Bar is just too big for precision cuts. Jay carries an older Gerber knife similar to the Gerber LMF-2 Infantry, which is probably a happy medium between what Tim and I carry. With a 5 inch blade, Jay’s knife is still light enough to be dexterous, while still being large enough to chop and baton.

Morakniv Companion

Vince carries the now discontinued Gerber Guardian, which is a double edged knife that is extremely cool, but not the most useful for anything other than Tactical Forest Operations. Vince admits that while two edges do not dull out as fast as one, his knife cannot baton through wood and is somewhat awkward to use since you can’t put your thumb on the spine while whittling. If price is a concern, but you still would like a good fixed-blade knife then look no further than the Morakniv Companion. These knives are very durable and come highly recommended by many outdoor and survival enthusiasts. Not to mention that you could buy 10 of them for the price I paid for my Spyderco Paramilitary II! Brittany lost her Morakniv Light My Fire this year and doesn’t seem to feel too bad about it.

Multi-tools

The usefulness of multi-tools is undeniable and most of the archaeologists at Tree Time carry one into the bush. Swiss Army knives are great, but Leatherman’s addition of pliers to the “boy scout knife” in the 1980’s changed the multi-tool forever. Since then the multi-tool market has exploded and many different variations with different types of tools are produced by many different manufactures. When buying a multi-tool it is important to keep in mind that when carrying gear through the forest all day “ounces become pounds”. Like other knives, you need to balance weight with usefulness. Ask yourself “do I really need that tiny pair of scissors when I am already carrying a multi-tool with two knife blades and a fixed-blade on my belt?”. Do this for every tool, and soon you will realize that a lightweight multi-tool with 10 functions is likely better. Sure it may seem like a good idea to get the Leatherman Surge with 21 different tools, but it also weighs in at a whopping 12.5 ounces, which is nearly a pound. Luckily many multi-tool manufactures have realized that weight is a concern for many people and have designed tools, such as the Leatherman Signal, with backpacking in mind.

Personally, I would refrain from getting a micro multi-tool like the Gerber Dime or Leatherman Micra. While these are extremely lightweight, I’ve always found that the pliers just don’t generate enough force and the knives just aren’t big enough. If force generation is a must, SOG recently designed the “Power-” line of multi-tools that have a mechanism the doubles the force applied to the pliers. Another important thing to consider when buying a multi-tool is whether you can access the tools with the pliers in the closed position and whether it can be operated one-handed. Like knives, not all multi-tools are created equal and it is important to do a bit of research before you buy a product to ensure you made the right choice.

Digging Knives

While I like to carry a knife that I can use for digging if need be, Kurt likes to carry a knife that was especially designed for the task. When conducting archaeological survey, Kurt carries a folding knife, a multi-tool and a Hori Hori Knife. The Hori Hori knife is a Japanese knife that is part trowel, part knife and is traditionally used for gardening. The dished shaped knife features a serrated blade on one side and a straight blade on the other, although Kurt wishes these were reversed so that the straight blade faced down when held in the right hand. The Hori Hori knife is large enough to be used as a small machete, and is very useful for cutting sod, removing roots from test pits and troweling through tree throws. According to Kurt, the major downfall of the Hori Hori knife is that it does not have a full tang, and the blade becomes loose with heavy use. Since the handle is riveted, there is no way to tighten the handle once it slacks off. Kurt says he may replace the rivets with screws so that he can periodically tighten it up.

In the past, Kurt has also carried a Lesche knife, which is another knife designed primarily for digging and loved by the metal detector community. Although Kurt was fond of this knife, he says that he gave it up for the Hori Hori, due to the offset handle making it awkward to carry. Like trying to carry a trowel on your belt, the offset handle sticks out from your body and gets caught on branches and trees while navigating dense forests. However, he was very fond of the sheath and it fit his Hori Hori knife perfectly.

Folding Saw

I will mention one other tool that is extremely useful and hard to do without. Folding saws are an excellent tool that are a necessity for anyone doing archaeology in the Boreal forest. There have been countless times where a tree or large branch is totally blocking a cutline that we need to quad down to access our work area. Instead of walking for an extra 3 km, we simple deploy a folding saw and cut the tree out of the way. If I know there will be lots of deadfall, I bring a chainsaw, but sometimes one small tree can mean the difference between a 200 m or a 2000 m hike if you can’t get your quad around it.

The two main types of folding saws we use are the “folding” type and the “collapsible” type. Both of these saws work, but a folding saws is more portable and easy to deploy, whereas a collapsible saw is better at actual cutting. Madeline uses her Kershaw folding saw so much she actually keeps it in her vest. She uses it to clear trails and get those pesky roots out of her test pits. Last year Tree Time bought 4 of the collapsible Agawa Boreal 21 Saws for people to take with them on the quads. We found that these saws were extremely useful, and cut through fairly large trees with ease.

Closing Remarks

When purchasing knives, multi-tools or saws for work, or pleasure, remember to ask yourself “do I actually need this?”, and better yet “do I really want to carry this around all day?”. This is what you have to remember when buying a folding-knife versus a fixed-blade knife, a 7 inch blade versus a 4 inch blade, a 21 function versus 12 function multi-tool or a folding versus collapsible saw. Weight adds up very fast when you have to carry it around for 12 hrs a day, every day, so it is these small choices that make all the difference. You cannot leave your food, water, GPS or first aid kit at home, but you can choose a multi-tool that is 5 ounces lighter, or a knife that fits in your pocket. However, always remember that outdoor living is always a trade off, and conscious well thought out decisions should always guide you when choosing your kit.

Gear Review – Load-Bearing Equipment

Anyone that works all day in the wilderness knows the importance of having a quality piece of Load Bearing Equipment (LBE) that accommodates all the odds and ends that are required of your profession, while being comfortable enough to wear for prolonged periods. LBE comes in a variety of styles, from the standard Cruise Vest, to the more tacticool modular equipment based off military style plate carries and H-harnesses that employ MOLLE attachment systems. Archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. have tried and tested a whole gambit of systems over the years, and everyone but a few outliers (Reid loves his cruise vest), have adopted the True North Aero Vest – Wildland as our LBE of choice.

Before I start the review section, there is one important aspect of our job that influences what type of LBE we prefer. We need to carry more gear than can be accommodated by LBE alone, so that a good backpack (30-50 Litre) is a necessity. Even though some people have tried to fit all the required equipment in their cruise vest, you can only fit the bare minimum of what we need to bring, and have to abandon some items that aren’t necessarily required, but are extremely valuable in certain situations. Things like rain gear, extra thermal layers, extra socks, survival kits, extra food and extra water will not easily fit in a cruise vest when it is filled with all the items that are required for archaeological survey in the boreal forest. Also, if you do try to fit all those things in your cruise vest, you will no longer be able to work effectively while wearing it. Furthermore, attaching your screen to your backpack with a bungie cord is arguably the best way to carry your screen for long hikes, and allows you to stow things such as a hoodie or jacket between the screen and backpack. For these reasons, almost every archaeologist at TTSI uses a combination of some type of LBE and a backpack.

The Cruise Vest

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Cruise vests have been around for a long time, are widely available, and come in a variety of colour and materials. In my opinion, they are fine if your profession requires you to be mobile in the field and your profession does not require much equipment. Reid uses a cruise vest made from a plastic mesh and considers this to the best vest as it is durable and breathable. Cruise vests can be expensive ($100+), and even more so if they have an internal frame. Yet they still don’t accommodate all the extra gear needed for adverse conditions. Teresa and Tim have both used the cruise vest with internal backpack frame, but Teresa has since switched to the True North Aero and hasn’t looked back.

  • Pros
    • Comfortable if not carrying much equipment
    • Variety of colours and fabrics
    • Widely available
  • Cons (With no backpack feature)
    • Not enough storage space
    • Very uncomfortable when overloaded
    • Very uncomfortable while riding ATV
    • Cannot wear while digging
    • Secondary HiVis still needed
    • Bad screen attachment
  • Cons (With backpack feature)
    • Less gear retention
    • Uncomfortable with backpack
    • Full pockets impede pack waist straps
    • Not adjustable for winter layers
    • Flimsy and wear out quickly
    • Non-breathable and hot

The Modular Vest

Modular vests have been around since the 1990’s and have generally replaced what was typically referred to as “web gear” by many Armed Forces groups around the world. They employ a Pouch Attachment Ladder System (PALS), also referred to as MOLLE, which allows the user to change what types of pouches they use based on personal needs without changing the base vest. Most modular vests also act as plate carriers (body armour) and allow the user to change their load-out while still utilizing their body armour as a base. Although modular vests are widely available, most are in neutral colours or camoflage and are therefore not suited to working with a HiVis requirement. With hunters in mind, a few companies have produced modular vests that are blaze orange, and thus work as HiVis provided the rules concerning HiVis clothing are not super strict (some companies would not consider any of these options to be sufficient HiVis clothing). Kurt used a modular vest for a couple field seasons, but has since switched to the True North Aero. He provided the following list of pros and cons:

  • Pros
    • Modular and adaptable
    • Very durable
    • Equipment-specific pockets
    • Can wear while digging
    • Very adjustable and can fit winter layers
    • No zippers
    • Super Tacticool!
  • Cons
    • Expensive
    • Most are not HiVis
    • Non-breathable and hot
    • Heavy
    • Bulky
    • Not comfortable with backpacks

True North Aero – Wildland

AeroVest_Urban_Black

True North is a company that primarily produces gear for Wildland Fire Fighters and First Responders. The True North Aero was designed as a primary piece of LBE that could be worn comfortably with a backpack. Although True North makes specific products that compliment the Aero, we at TTSI have found that this particular LBE to work with a variety of backpacks. The Aero has a specific spot for radios, GPS, flagging, tape measure and has a fleece lined pocket that fits a iPad Mini perfectly. Essentially, the Aero can accommodate all the equipment need while actually working, and in conjunction with a 30-50 L backpack, provides all the space you will ever need. A further benefit of using the Aero in conjunction with a backpack is that since all your survey equipment fits in the vest, one does not have to unpack their backpack to survey a target. Kurt was able to obtain several Aero vest in blaze orange, but unfortunately they seem to have discontinued so only the black version is widely available. While wearing the black version, TTSI employees usually opt to wear a HiVis work shirt.

  • Pros
    • Very durable
    • Lightweight
    • Comfortable to wear with backpacks
    • Breathable and cool
    • Fits all survey equipment
    • Holds gear secure
    • Can wear while digging
    • Protected inner fleece pockets
    • Few zippers, but high quality
    • Sheds water and dries out fast
    • Very adjustable and can fit over winter layers
  • Cons
    • Not true HighVis
    • Zippers can get clogged with mud

There are many options when it comes to LBE and like most things, not everyone will agree on what is the best. Reid stands fast as a die hard proponent of the mesh style cruise vest as it is durable, breathable and works well with his system. Similarly, Tim continues to use the internal frame cruise vest even though he has had the option to switch. However, the rest of us archaeologists at TTSI have chosen the True North – Aero as our LBE champion and never looked back. I personally think it will be a very sad day when my blaze orange version finally wears out and I am unable to get a replacement. On that day, I will regrettably don a HiVis undershirt, strap on a black True North – Aero and head off into the boreal wilderness.

Muddy Lab Secrets

The mud we slog through in the field doesn’t always stay in the field. It’s wrapped around a lot of the artifacts we find, and ends up in our sample bags. Once we get back from the field, we start the process of washing all the artifacts. As the sediment is brushed away, some of the artifact’s secrets are slowly revealed!

The mud can really hide what colour an artifact is. This flake was a dull grey brown until a “wet brush” made it’s way across one side. Underneath this layer is a beautiful pale quartzite that transitions into a orange-reddish pink the further washing was completed.
quartzite flake_blog

Washing all artifacts in water is not possible. Bone just absorbs the water, which makes it take longer to dry fully. Putting wet bone into a bag will ultimately end up destroying the artifact with mold. Tools we find in the field are also only “dry brushed”. This helps preserve any residue left on tools, which can be used in various residue analyses. A good brushing will help pull out little details though. This thumbnail scraper has been worked around almost its entire edge. The brushing (left) really helps it stand out.
scraper edge_blog

Sometimes, however, a tool is only discovered after washing the mud away. Retouched flakes (as opposed to a formed tool) are often only discovered as the edges are cleaned, allowing the knapped edge to be fully exposed.  The same goes for a utilized flake.  These are flakes that look like a regular flake, but with closer inspection the edge has been chipped and worn from use.  These are often called expedient tools.  The flake’s sharp edge is used until it is dull, after which it is discarded.
retouched_blog

Gear Review – Bulldog Spades

As a CRM archaeologist, my shovel is one of my most utilized pieces of equipment. Delicate excavation requires the fine touch that a trowel provides and archaeologists that do a great deal of this type of work are generally very picky about their trowels. Similarly, those of us that spend their days digging test pits in the wilderness, usually have strong feeling concerning our primary excavation tool, the spade.

What people value in a spade changes from person to person, so Tree Time Services Inc. actually has quite a few different types of spades on hand. The TTSI archaeologists that place the highest value on durability tend to gravitate towards the “King of Spades”. While the King’s all steel construction makes it extremely durable. I feel that it is unnecessarily heavy and because it is all steel, there is none of the shock absorption that is provided by a wooden handle. Alternatively, people that don’t feel like carrying a 4 kg shovel around all day usually choose what we at TTSI refer to as “the Grizzly”. Although these shovels are made by a variety of companies, the name typically refers to what people consider a normal garden spade, but are a little more robust than what you will generally get from Home Depot. They are definitely lighter than the King, however, they suffer in the durability department. If too much leverage is applied to the handle they tend to break where the shaft meets the tang, and I personally have “taco’d” (when the blade bends while trying to stomp through a root) more Grizzlies than I can count. Being the gear snob that I am, I went looking for a spade that combines the durability of the King, with the portability and comfort offered by the Grizzly.

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Everyone has a preference: Madeline with the Grizzly on the left, Elenore with the King on the right!

My search for the perfect blend of durability and portability ended when I came across the Boys Irish Bulldog! The Bulldog line of garden tools are produced by Clarington Forge (founded in 1780), which is the only forge in England that still makes garden tools. Their tools are hand forged from a single piece of steel, have American ash handles, are powder coated (not painted) and come with a lifetime warranty. In my opinion they are a very good compromise between the durability of the King of Spades and the portability/ergonomics of the Grizzly. While they are not common in Canada, some varieties can be found at Lee Valley Tools, and they have an American distributor that will ship to Canada. Be prepared to phone them though, as their website is not set up to take Canadian orders.

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The Boys Irish Bulldog

I purchased my first Bulldog from Lee Valley Tools, and opted to try the standard Garden Spade. I likely would have opted for the Border Spade since it is lighter weight with a smaller head, but I am a taller individual and the border spade has a shorter handle. The Garden Spade is honestly a little heavy for packing around all day long. Although it is not as heavy as the King of Spades, the forged blade and handle are both quite thick. Despite it being a little heavier than I would like, I was still impressed by the craftsmanship and durability of the spade. In my opinion the Garden Spade is far superior to both the King of Spades and the Grizzly.

I was not planning on ever getting another shovel, however I ended up breaking the handle of my prized shovel while Corey and I were trying to scare away two grizzly bears that we crossed paths with. We were making noise by smashing our shovels against trees as hard as we could, and this became the true test of durability. While Corey’s King of Spades had not a scratch or dent, the handle of my shovel broke where it meets the tang. I contacted Lee Valley Tools to try to obtain a replacement handle, however I found out that they don’t even carry them since no one had ever broken one. The lady on the phone was flabbergasted that I had accomplished this seemingly impossible task and was able to put me in contact with the American distributor. After recounting the bear story to the very kind lady on the other end of the phone, and her father, they offered to send me a new handle for free! They also suggested that I try the Boys Irish Spade that they had on sale, as they believed it would be very well suited to my profession. Boy were they right!

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Boys Irish Spade

Unfortunately the Boys Irish spade was on sale because it was discontinued, but I was able to get the replacement handle and the Boys shipped from San Francisco for under $90. Although I was skeptical of the traditional “ T ” handle and narrow blade on the Boys Irish Bulldog, I soon fell in love with both of these features. Following the design of an old fashion trenching spade, the Boys Irish is very lightweight and maneuverable while digging small holes like test pits. The long handle makes the shovel very ergonomic for a taller person, however Teresa used the Boys for a shift and she also considered it to be better than both the King and the Grizzly. The “ T ” handle fits well in the hand and adds a historical appearance to the spade. As an archaeologist I find the historical look of the Boys Irish very pleasing. Although the forged blade and ash-wood handle are extremely durable, I don’t think I want to put the Boys up against the King in a tree bashing competition any time soon. In my opinion, tree bashing is the only realm where the King has the upper hand on the Bulldog!

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Brian in action!

King of Spades – https://www.gemplers.com/product/W419/King-of-Spades

Grizzly – http://www.fransyl.com/1-83-79-Garden_Spade_Short_Handle_-_GRIZZLY_productCatalogue.html

Garden Bulldog – https://www.claringtonforge.com/spades/border-spade

Boys Irish Bulldog – https://www.amazon.ca/Bulldog-Premier-Irish-Treaded-Spade/dp/B004NT050O

The Alook Site – HaPl-1

Although the Wabasca-Desmarais regions is rich in cultural heritage, very few in-depth archaeological investigations have been conducted. HaPl-1, also known as the Alook site, is one of the few sites in the region that has actually been excavated or received any interest past its initial identification. In the 1960s and again in the 1070s, a team from the University of Alberta did preliminary excavations at the site. The results speak of a very long history!

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Archaeological sites around Wabasca-Desmarais

The Alook Site was found on a small knoll along the north shore of the North Wabasca Lake. The site is named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. In the early years of archaeology in Alberta sites were often named after the landowner or the person who reported the site, although it is unclear if John Alook was one of these people or named in his honour. Test excavations were conducted by the University of Alberta in 1969, but the band did not receive a report of the initial findings until 1977. Later that summer additional excavations were conducted under the direction of Cort Sims.

Excavations at the Alook Site included three 1×2 meter test trenches excavated in 1969, and a 4×8 meter excavation trench that was placed directly east of these in 1977. These trenches focused on the undisturbed western part of the knoll, as the eastern part was a little disturbed by a garden, and the reported possible location of the original house. The 1969 excavations recovered a total of 891 artifacts. The types of artifacts found suggested that HaPl-1 was an indigenous campsite that had seen substantial use. The artifact types included projectile points, biface fragments, scrapers, and an assortment of lithic debitage. One of the most significant finds was a McKean projectile point, found in the garden. The McKean point suggested that the site dates to the Middle Prehistoric period, or approximately 4200 to 3000 years before present.

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Examples of McKean projectile points from Alberta (modified from “Record in Stone”, Archaeological Society of Alberta, 2012).

The 1977 excavations helped us understand more of the site and its use by past peoples. A total of 131 stone tools and tool fragments were recovered. The recovered artifacts reinforced the initial suggestion that HaPl-1 is a campsite that had seen significant use. Seventeen projectile points and 11 projectile point fragments were found at the site. Points are also considered “diagnostic” artifacts, because variations in style can reflect change over time, or points made by different cultural groups. Some of the projectile points were also of the Plains arrowhead type, which generally date from 1100 to 250 years before present. These can tell us what kinds of hunting activities were being done in the area. That fact that both McKean and Plains projectile points were recovered is significant, as it shows this site was occupied at multiple times throughout the past.

Almost 40 scrapers were found, which tell us that hide processing was likely a major activity at the site. The other tool types found include utilized flakes, hammer stones, anvils, an adze and adze fragment, core fragments, bifaces, and worked pebbles. The number and variety of tools found at the site were what led researchers to suggest that this site was a major campsite, since these artifacts suggests that a multitude of different activities occurred at this location. These tools probably reflect activities as diverse as making stone tools, drying meat or fish, and wood-working. These activities are all consistent with traditional life at a major lakeshore campsite or summer settlement.

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Some of the artifacts from the Alook Site.  Artifacts B and D are examples of side-notched points, estimated to be 1100 to 250 years old.  Artifact C is possibly a Beasant point that dates from 2500 to 1350 years old (modified from “Archaeological investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site”, by C. Sims. 

During the 1977 excavations a midden feature, or refuse pile, was also uncovered. Since one of the goals of the work that year was to recover some organic material for radiocarbon dating, this was a substantial find. Radio carbon dating provided an age of 2165 to 1815 years before present, which places the site within the Besant phase. This date, combined with the McKean and side-notched projectile points found, show that this site was likely in use from at least 4000 years ago to the present. To put this in perspective, HaPl-1 was likely occupied long before the Roman Empire came into existence and is still in use today, as at present the site contains a modern house. Talk about continuity!

Although a substantial amount of information was learned from the excavations at HaPl-1, there is still much more work needed to gain a better understanding of the past life-ways of people in the Wabasca-Desmarais region. Cultural heritage is important for bringing people together and creating a dialogue of openness and acceptance in the region. First Nations people have inhabited the region surrounding the modern town of Wabasca-Desmarais for more than 4000 years (and more likely 10 000 years). This is an aspect of our heritage and history shared by all Albertans. Stories like this are a part of all of our heritage we are all treaty peoples and share a collective history.

Archaeology Around the Wabasca-Desmarais Area

The Wabasca-Desmarais region is rich in heritage of all types, such as archaeological, palaeontological and historic sites and trails. In addition, there are unexplored landscapes that have the potential to contain countless unrecorded sites. Early archaeological research in the area was conducted through government surveys or University funded projects. Over the last 10 to 15 years most of the sites in the area were recorded by Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies, like Tree Time Services Inc., working for industry, primarily the forestry sector.

At least 300 First Nations historic and archaeological sites have been identified within 100 km of Wabasca-Desmarais, AB, and 13 sites within 10 km. These sites are located throughout the landscape and shed light on indigenous life over at least 4,500 years.

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Most of the archaeological sites in the region have only had limited excavation done, usually less than 20 “shovel tests”. These are 1 foot square holes dug and screened for artifacts. The most common artifacts are stone chips or flakes, called debitage, that are left behind by someone making or sharpening stone tools. Sometimes stone tools, like scrapers, knives or projectile points (arrow or spear-heads) are found, which let us say more about the site. Rarely, animal bone or charcoal is found that will let us do radiocarbon dating to find out how old a site is.

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A sample of tools found at sites in 2017 located southwest of Wabasca.

Until recently, the Wabasca-Desmarais was considered to be low in archaeological potential due to the abundance of low lying areas and muskeg. Although this type of terrain is difficult to survey, and therefore it may appear to have been largely uninhabited in the past, recent efforts have discovered that there was actually a substantial amount of past activity throughout this region. In the vast muskeg, archaeological sites can be found on elevated areas within the low lying terrain, showing that small water courses and lakes were also extensively inhabited. Many of these small water courses were likely used as transportation corridors between the more productive lakes, and elevated areas within wet lands would make ideal camping locations during resource gathering. In addition, many medicinal plants grow in the muskeg, making this environment invaluable for resource gathering.

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View of a beaver pond on our way to a site in 2017, southwest of Wabasca.

The most-studied site in the region is the Alook Site (HaPl-1), named after John Alook, a band council member who lived in the area. It is located on the north shore of North Wabasca Lake and was excavated by teams from the University of Alberta in the 1960’s and 70’s. These excavations determined that the site was likely a 4200 – 3500 year old indigenous campsite. Archaeologists were able to recover a multitude of stone tools, including McKean atlatl dart points, Side-Notched arrow points and hide scrapers. The excavation also identified a midden feature which contained a concentration of broken bone, stone artifacts and charcoal. Stay tuned for our next post to read more about this site!

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A few artifacts from HaPl-1 Alook Site (Sims  1981.   Archaeologicla Investigations in the North Wabasca Lake area: The Alook Site.  In: Archaeology in Alberta, 1981, pp. 12-16.  Occasional Paper No. 19, Archaeological Survey of Alberta.

With the limited archaeological research conducted in the Wabasca-Desmarais region to date, we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of past life-ways and traditional land use in this diverse landscape. It is important to note that even though people have lived in this area for several millennia, very little research has been done in the last 40 years. Further archaeological investigation is this area would be a great opportunity to bring together local communities, educators, academics and industry to further our understanding of its past inhabitants in an inclusive environment in the spirit reconciliation. There is definitely more work to be done!

We Know How Old Stone Points Are, Right?

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.

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On the trail near Goose Tower, Swan Hills, AB.

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.

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The point seconds after I pulled it from the ground.

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.

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The two pieces fit perfectly together, but it’s a bit awkward holding it like this!

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.

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Both sides of the spear point.

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.

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Corey standing on a stream bed full of quartzite cobbles.

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.

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Possible pathway for Salt and Pepper quartzite from Fort McMurray.

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.

Publicly Reported Sites

In 2016 two members of the public contacted Tree Time Services to report archaeological sites that they had discovered. Our Archaeological Roadshow was being hosted by the Sundre Museum, during which we were approached by the first person who had found a side-notched projectile point while planting her garden. We arranged to meet her at her home to record the site. We took photos of her garden and recorded the location using a hand-held GPS unit of where she recalled finding the projectile point. We also took photos of the projectile point itself. Our time with her allowed us to collect the data we needed to report the site as EkPp-18. While the site is highly disturbed due to the construction of the subdivision it is still important to record the location of her site and what was found. This information will help future archaeologists to predict where other similar sites in the area can be found.

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Side-notched point found in the garden.

The second community member to contact us got in touch with Kurtis to let him know about six sites he found while hiking and hunting in the region. Teresa and I took a day off from working for our client to spend with him visiting the sites he had found. While we were there, we recorded the locations of where he had found artifacts, took photos and conducted surface inspections resulting in the identification of additional artifacts. The artifact collection is being catalogued by Tree Time so that we can record data to the standards required by the Royal Alberta Museum. This way we can submit site forms to the government of Alberta, just as we did for the previous person’s site. These site forms will have a detailed description of the archaeological sites found and a full listing of the number and types of artifacts found at each site. A copy of these catalogues will be sent to the Royal Alberta Museum when we have completed the reporting process. The museum needs a copy of the catalogue so that if any future work is completed at these sites they will be able to provide the researchers with a starting catalogue number, avoiding duplicates in the database. This way it is easy for researchers to know how many and what kinds of artifacts have come from a particular site, even if the museum doesn’t have the artifacts themselves.

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Bifacial fragment found while hiking.

We are always happy when people are willing to share their archaeological finds with us because the government cannot protect sites they don’t know exist. Researchers also need this information to build predictive models and to choose what areas would be interesting to conduct more research at.

If you have found an archaeological site and would like help to record it please contact Kurtis at 780-472-8878 or email [email protected].