For this installment of the Edible Plant Series we will showcase wild mint. Mentha arvensis is a fairly common flowering plant that is found all over the world. It likes to grow in low-lying poorly drained areas, and will commonly be found along creeks and rivers, or in grassy areas bordering muskegs. It can be hard to spot as it may be hiding amongst taller grasses and weeds. You will usually smell it long before you see it, as it gives off a distinct, pungent, but pleasant aroma.
A quick cautionary note: Always be sure to correctly identify wild plants before you ingest them. There are plants, such as water hemlock (Cicuta spp.), that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Like wild mint, water hemlock grows in poorly drained areas and they are often found in the same locations. I was raised in cattle country in northern Alberta, and I remember a couple instances when local cows died from accidentally ingesting water hemlock. Mature plants vary greatly in size, with water hemlock reaching heights of 2.5 m tall, but all plants start off small. So when it comes to eating wild plants, it is best to just assume everything will kill you, unless you know for certain that it won’t.
I was first introduced to this fragrant little plant by my friend Jonah while we were conducting an HRIA south of Kinuso, AB. We were quading through a muskeg and Jonah caught a wiff of wild mint. We stopped for lunch, and Jonah showed me the source of the smell. We then proceeded to pick as much as we could find during our break. After work we dried the mint by hanging it in bunches around our hotel rooms. I don’t know what the hotel staff thought when they cleaned our rooms the next morning, but Jonah said his grandma would be super happy when he brought her a bounty of her favourite tea. My girlfriend, now wife, didn’t seem very impressed when I brought her a container of dried weeds from the field, but she does enjoy the tea.
Wild mint is mainly prepared as a tea, and is traditionally used by First Nations people as a delicious hot beverage and a herbal remedy. The tea was used to treat a variety of ailments such as digestive issues and coughs, and an ointment made of mint could alleviate aches and pains. Northern Bush Craft, suggests that it can be used to flavour other food, and sprinkling powdered leaves on berries and drying meat will repel insects. Jonah said that if you are out of bug spray, you can rub mint on yourself to keep the mosquitoes away (I’ve actually heard the same about juniper berries).Varieties of mint are still used today to produce a variety of chemicals, like menthol, which has many pharmaceutical applications.
I appreciate this knowledge that Jonah shared with me, as I now know the source of this mysterious forest odour. I generally pick a bit each year to keep our supply topped up and while working, fresh wild mint provides a nice treat to refresh your mouth when you’ve been drinking tepid water that tastes like dirt all day.
If you follow our blog, or have read any of the other installments of the Edible Plant Series, you will notice some repetition in the following cautionary note. Do not eat any wild plants that you can not identify with 100% certainty! Berries are generally safer than plants like mushrooms, since most edible berries do not have poisonous look-alikes. However, there are still some berries that are extremely toxic and can be fatal if ingested. Black nightshade (Solanum americanum, Solanum nigrum) and Baneberry (Actaea rubra) both have toxic berries that can be extremely harmful if eaten, especially to small children. Luckily, the two berries I will discuss in this post are both fairly common and easily recognizable.
Wild Strawberries – (Fragaria virginiana)
In my opinion, these little gems are one of the most delicious naturally occurring foods in Alberta. While not being super easy to spot, they are immediately recognizable due to the fact that they look exactly like a strawberry, but tiny. Wild strawberries are much smaller than their cultivated counter-parts, but both the plant, the flower, and the fruit, closely resemble the garden variety. They look like strawberries, and they taste like strawberries, yet I find that the little wild variety has much more flavour. Strawberries grow in varied environments and seem to like open, well-drained areas. I rarely see more than a few berries at a time under the dense forest canopies, but cutblocks that are a few years old are usually ripe with them (pun completely intended).
If you’re stranded in the bush, don’t plan on surviving off wild strawberries. They are delicious, but individual plants will only produce a few berries at a time. They do not grow in clumps like many other berries, and you will spend an hour trying to get a handful of them. But what a handful!
Prior to my parents doing some landscaping on the farm, the southern edge of their lawn next to the creek had a substantial wild strawberry patch. It really was a large patch, but it would still take my grandma almost an entire day to pick enough wild strawberries to fill a small bucket. Out of this, she would make about four small jars of jam, three of which my dad would quickly hide so that us ‘damn kids’ didn’t eat it all up in a week. This coveted preserve would slowly be brought out of its hiding place throughout the winter, usually when company was over for breakfast. Worth the work and perfect for a special occasion, but definitely not to be wasted on PB&J sandwiches!
Wild Blueberries – (Vaccinium spp.)
According to Northern Bush Craft, several different species of wild blueberry are prevalent across Canada. I’ve never really noticed a difference between the species, but this is probably because I’m too busy filling my face with them! They grow on a small, low lying, woody shrub that somewhat resembles bear berry or kinnikinnick. Similar to strawberries, wild blueberries look similar to, but are generally much smaller than their cultivated counterpart. However, wild blueberry plants are generally very productive and you can gather a large quantity relatively quickly. Be careful how many blueberries you consume in one sitting, as they have an extremely laxative effect when eaten in large quantities. I’ve seen them growing in a variety of environments, but they seem to be most abundant in well drained, open, coniferous forests. As a kid I remember picking blueberries with my grandma in the muskeg, but it is quite possible that these were the ‘bog’ variety (V. uliginosum), which prefer wet, acidic soils.
I will end this blog post with another cautionary note. Bears love blueberries, and they can be extremely protective of a productive patch. Bears in a blueberry patch may be too busy chowing down to even notice you’re there, yet they may also see you as competition for their prized berries and act very aggressive. It is not uncommon in the late summer to see bear scat that is almost entirely composed of blueberries. Bears need to eat an obscene amount of calories per day to ensure that they have enough fat stores to make it through winter hibernation, and a good berry patch is a very cost-effective means for them to get these calories. Picking a bucket of blueberries is extremely gratifying, but never forget that there are much bigger, faster, and stronger things in nature that also find them delicious, and they may be terrible at sharing!
In July of 2017, some forests in the vicinity of Slave Lake experienced catastrophic blow down when a fast moving storm swept through central Alberta. The large storm system caused high winds and localized flooding in many areas, including Slave Lake and Edmonton. It also dropped golf ball sized hail on Drayton Valley and spawned a tornado near Breton. Whole sections of forest were devastated by winds in excess of 100 km/hr. It was speculated that the severe wind and heavy rainfall may have resulted in a reduced number of juvenile birds, from both ground and tree nesting species, in the Slave Lake region.
The archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. conduct Historic Resources Impact Assessments (HRIA) for many of the forest product companies that operate in the Slave Lake region. Prior to the commencement of any harvest activities, these companies must ensure that their operations are not going to adversely impact any archaeological, historic or cultural sites.
A few of the cutblocks that Vanderwell Contractors (1971) Ltd. had scheduled for harvest in 2017, were completely flattened by the storm. Although archaeological survey is usually conducted prior to harvest, the heavy blow down caused by the storm made it extremely hazardous to work in these areas. Pre-impact survey allow forest companies to avoid the historic resources identified by archaeologists and ensure that they are not disturbed by harvest activities. However, the chance of the archaeologists being injured by falling trees and ‘widow makers’ was much too high. The archaeologists had to wait till the timber was salvaged. Even though many of the trees were broken, Vanderwell Contractors was still obligated to complete the HRIA. In some rare circumstances such as this, or salvaging timber from forest fires, archaeologists may have to conduct their survey post-impact, or after the harvest is complete.
The timber was salvaged during the winter by Vanderwell Contractors, and Tree Time’s archaeologists returned in the summer of 2018 to conduct their search for historic resources. The timber salvage had slightly impacted the area, but it was apparent that many of the trees had been uprooted by the wind storm. Usually cutblocks are full of stumps, which are still rooted in the ground, but these cutblocks were filled with stump piles. Instead of cutting down the trees, the harvesters were simply picking them up and cutting off the ends. To access the salvaged timber, Vanderwell Contractors had to build a small temporary road. The tree throws created by the blow down, as well as harvest operations, led to a substantial amount of exposed sediment, which allowed archaeologists to quickly identify a very large archaeological site: GgPm-7.
GgPm-7 is a large pre-historic campsite that occupies a long north to south trending sand ridge next to the Athabasca River. The archaeologists found the site while looking for artifacts in the surface exposures created by tree throws on the south end of the ridge. They found four stone flakes (debitage) in the second tree throw they inspected. As they worked their way down the ridge, they continuously examined the surface exposures as they went. They did not stop finding artifacts until they reached the north end of the ridge. The archaeologists then used shovel tests to investigate areas along the ridge that did not have many surface exposures, or where no artifacts were found during the initial sweep. When the delineation was complete, GgPm-7 measured approximately 800 meters in length and 128 artifacts had been collected.
This site is designated as a prehistoric camp based on the variety of artifacts found. A campsite is a somewhat encompassing term given to archaeological sites that display evidence of a variety of different activities including a hearth or other evidence of fire. Stone flakes, or debitage, are found at almost a pre-contact archaeological sites and provide evidence that tool production, or re-sharpening. The presence of stone cores suggest that early stage stone tool production, or the production of flakes that could be turned into tools at a later time, had occurred.
The discovery and delineation of GgPm-7 highlights an important issue facing CRM archaeologists working in the forestry sector. Although pre-impact survey allows for sites to be identified before they have been disturbed, the work at GgPm-7 clearly indicates that not only are sites much easier to find post-impact, but they are also much easier to delineate. Of the 27 surface inspections that were conducted by the archaeologists, artifacts were observed in 22. In contrast, of the 22 shovel tests that were dug, artifacts were only recovered from 3. There is little doubt that a pre-impact survey of this landform would have identified an archaeological site. However, there is a very good chance that shovel tests alone would have failed to display the extensive size of the site. Although surface exposures can compromise site integrity, they allow archaeologists to quickly assess an area without conducting labour intensive shovel tests.
For this installment of the Edible Plant Series I decided to take a bite out of mushrooms. Before I get into the bread and butter of this topic, I must first do what everyone must do when they are discussing eating wild mushrooms. I must state: DO NOT EAT ANY MUSHROOMS THAT YOU CAN NOT CORRECTLY IDENTIFY WITH 100% CONFIDENCE. This is not mere cautionary note, and yes, I did mean to use ALL CAPS and BOLD when I wrote it.
Mushrooms are not something to mess around with. There are literally thousands of different species of mushrooms in Alberta, yet the list of mushrooms that are edible and have no poisonous look-alikes is actually quite short. In North America, a few people die each year by incorrectly identifying and ingesting poisonous mushrooms. The main culprits are usually members of the genus Amanita and have super ominous names like the Destroying Angel (A. bisporigera, A. ocreata, A. virosa), Death Cap (A. phalloides) or the little less scary, Fool’s mushroom (A. verna). These unassuming looking mushrooms have a toxin that does not show symptoms until its already too late. By the time you feel ill, you may already need a liver transplant, and death will shortly follow without intense medical treatment.
Even some edible mushrooms have toxins that are destroyed by cooking so unless you know for sure, it is always best to cook wild mushrooms. Some varieties of edible mushrooms have a toxin that interferes with alcohol metabolism. So again, unless you know for sure that the edible mushroom you picked does not do this, it is best to abstain from that bottle of wine with supper.
The surest way to avoid being poisoned is not to eat mushrooms unless you are completely sure they are edible. The best way to do this is to learn from those with the experience and knowledge, not to try to identify a mushroom by comparing to a picture on the internet. Mushrooms are abundant, and wild mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but you must put in your time and learn what is edible while assuming everything else will kill you. If you’re interested in learning this skill, mushroom picking classes are offered by the Alberta Mycological Society.
So now that you’re thoroughly scared (as I intended), lets discuss two of the mushrooms that I personally feel confident picking and eating. I grew up on a farm and have spent an obscene amount of time in the forest. I know of a few mushrooms you can eat because I learned from my dad and my grandma. This knowledge was supplemented by taking survival courses and reading Northern Bush Craft several times. Even with this knowledge, I only feel completely confident identifying and eating four types of mushrooms. In this blog post I will share two of them with you. I chose the first, because it is very common, has easily identifiable characteristics and no close look-alikes. The second I will share because they are damn delicious, and one of the most sought after mushrooms in the world.
Boletus edulis – King Bolete aka. Porcini, Penny Bun, Cepe
The King Bolete (Boletus edulis) is a very common mushroom in the boreal forests of Alberta, or basically any wooded area in the northern hemisphere. The mushroom forms a symbiotic relationship with trees, which makes it difficult to cultivate, but abundant in forested regions. These mushrooms grow all summer starting in the spring, but they spoil and get infested with worms as they age. The mushroom varies greatly in size, but will grow fairly large, with its red to brownish-yellow cap reaching up to a foot (30-35 cm) in diameter.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of this mushroom, is that it does not have gills under the cap. Instead, there are tiny spore tubes that give the underside a spongy appearance. This will be white when the mushroom is young, darkening to an olive or brown color as the mushroom ages. My family always removed the sponge on larger mushrooms before cooking them, but the sponge is perfectly edible and we wouldn’t bother removing it on the smaller ones.
The stem is usually white to light brown and the lack of a sock, or volva, is an important characteristic. When we pick these mushrooms we always bring a knife and cut the bottom of the stem. This not only removes the dirt, but also allows you to check if the mushroom has worms. The stem should be completely solid and white. If you see small brown holes when you cut the stem you know that the mushroom is infested and should not be eaten.
Our favorite way to eat these mushrooms is to cook them with butter, garlic and a little salt and pepper, as an accompaniment with steak, but they dry quite nicely and are good in soup, gravy and stock. These mushrooms have no toxin so they can be eaten raw and you don’t have to set aside the beer.
Morchella spp. – True Morels aka. Black Morels
The True Morels (I believe Morchella elata is the most common in Alberta) have a very short growing season and like forests that have been opened up in some way. They can be found from May to early June in old forest fire burns and cutblocks, but we mainly looked for them in bush around the farm where the cows reside.
They are an odd looking mushroom that has a ribbed or honeycomb cap that varies from light yellowish-brown to dark brown. They are small, which makes them difficult to spot. True Morels will only have a single, somewhat uniform, conical cap, which in my mind, makes them resemble little spruce trees from an alien planet.
These little mushrooms have a hollow stem that is light brown. The stem and the cap form a continuous hollow chamber. This is the easiest way to tell them from their look-alikes, the False Morels. Not all False Morels are poisonous if properly prepared, but many have a toxin that accumulates in your body and can be fatal at high doses. The stem and cap of False Morels do not form a single hollow chamber, so this characteristics can help discern True from False. I personally know a few people who have mistaken False Morels for the True ones. No one died, but a couple of them got fairly sick.
Technically, True Morels are still a poisonous mushroom, but the toxin is broken down by heat, so they should always be cooked before consumption. The toxin, even when cooked, can react with alcohol leading to an upset stomach and increased impairment. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect, but Morels are rare, and I have only ever consumed a small amount of them in one sitting.
Although any mushroom is delicious fried in butter and garlic and served on steak, my family usually only ate Morels this way on the day we picked them. Because Morels have a very short growing season, we would pick as many as we could find, as fast as we could find them. We would eat a small amount of them on steak, and dry the rest. They dry very well and keep for a very long time. Dried Morels are an excellent flavour base for soup, stew and gravy. They are highly sought after worldwide and fetch an extremely high price if you can find them.
Mushroom picking can be an extremely gratifying and delicious pursuit, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to get proper guidance before partaking. Take a course and learn from others, and remember not to rely on visually comparing mushrooms to pictures. Good hunting!
In recent years, wildfires in Canada and the United States have brought devastation to many communities. In the last 10 years, wildfires have burned nearly two million hectares of land in Canada alone. Human intervention, aimed at stemming the destruction wrought by wildfires during the last century, has actually increased the threat of large fires by fuel loading forests throughout North America. In the past, unchecked wildfires would naturally remove the built up fuel loads, and indigenous peoples also used fire as means to rejuvenate old growth areas so that food producing plants and animals would flourish. Increasing global temperatures and fire suppression activities have created an environment that promotes larger, more destructive and more intense wildfires.
I decided to write this blog post because I am keenly interested in the interaction between wildfires and archaeology. As a permit holding CRM archaeologist in Alberta, I am obviously curious about the effects wildfires can have on historic resources, and what they mean for my industry as a whole. But before becoming an archaeologist, I was a Type I Helitack Wildfire Fighter for 6 years. I have seen the awe-inspiring ferocity of wildfires first hand, and have a fairly good understanding of the nature of wildfires, their effects on the environment, and the destruction they can reap when they impact inhabited areas.
Let’s start with the BAD. It is no surprise that wildfires can negatively affect archaeological sites in a variety of ways. For example, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, the Los Conchas Fire, impacted over 1000 archaeological sites. The associated loss of vegetation, and the flash flooding that resulted, further devastated many archaeological sites. Any prehistoric or historic site that contains above ground structures will be the most affected by wildfires. Historic buildings made of wood will likely be completely consumed, but stone structures can also experience a massive amount of damage. As stone is heated it can crack, and repeated heating and cooling events can cause stone to disintegrate entirely. If a stone is heated and then rapidly cooled, catastrophic fractures can occur. Water can also enter the cracks and speed up the degradation process, and this problem is exasperated by sub-zero temperatures. Freeze-thaw cycles are why there are so many potholes in Edmonton and why we only have two seasons – winter and construction. This process is especially damaging to archaeological sites with rock art, as fire, in combination with freeze-thaw, can cause large portions of the rock surface to spall and break off (Figure 2). The smoke and heat associated with forest fires can also stain rock surfaces and obscure the pictographs. This can irreparably damage these stone canvases that have lasted for thousands of years.
Individual artifacts at archaeological sites can also be damaged by wildfires. Surface artifacts such as stone flakes, pottery sherds or animal remains can all be severely damaged by fire, although it is important to note that this does not generally lead to a total loss of information. The stone artifacts may be potlidded and ceramics (Figure 3) may be stained, but archaeologist can still gain valuable information from their study. Subsurface artifacts (buried more than 15cm deep) are more insulated from the damaging effects of heat, but can still be affected , especially if the fire burns deep into the organic soil layer, through roots or if the artifacts are near heavy fuels like old tree stumps. A scraper I found last year while conducting an HRIA for Sundre Forest Products exhibited some potlidding that may have been caused by forest fire (Figure 4).
The vertical context of artifacts can be lost at archaeological sites that experience deep burning, or experience repeated burning. Archaeologists must be aware that sites with multiple occupations, spanning several thousand years, may appear as a single occupation if they experience a deep burn. A deep burn can remove the organic sediment and move all of the artifacts down to the surface of the mineral soil. About 15 years ago my crew fought a fire that started one summer and burned through the entire winter. The next summer we were surprised to find that the fire burned more than 2 metres into the ground! A site impacted by that burn would have lost all of its vertical context and the artifacts would have been affected to a great depth. Needless to say, fighting that ground fire was extremely difficult and required a lot of heavy machinery.
Although wildfires can be directly damaging to archaeological sites, the heavy equipment used in suppression activities may be the biggest source of impacts. In archaeologically sensitive areas like southern California, archaeologists trained to fight forest fires accompany fire crews and monitor the use of heavy equipment in an attempt to lessen the impact of suppression activities to archaeological sites.
In areas with valuable timber, salvaging partially burnt timber can also cause irreversible damage to archaeological sites. In Alberta, logging companies still need to complete a historic resources impact assessment (HRIA) when salvaging burnt forests. I have personally been involved in fire salvage HRIA’s that were conducted pre and post-impact. While conducting a pre-impact HRIA near Anzac after the devastating Ft. McMurray wildfire, I found a Besant point (Figure 5), and last year we found 3 new sites while conducting a post-impact HRIA in a burn near Rocky Mountain House.
This brings us to the GOOD. I know what you’re thinking: how could any good come from devastating wildfires! But aside from the rejuvenating effect that wildfires have on the ecosystem, they also make it substantially easier for professionals to locate new archaeological sites, increasing and expanding our knowledge of the archaeology of the area. The fire that tore through Waterton National Park last year burned close to 50% of the park’s area,. While this area was known to be archaeologically sensitive, the removal of the vegetation allowed researchers to study the extent of the past habitation by Blackfoot peoples to a degree that was previously impossible. Archaeologist were able to re-visit many on the 250+ sites that were located within the burn area, most of which had not been studied since the 1960’s and 70’s. It also allowed archaeologist to easily find many new sites without conducting labour intensive (and unreliable) shovel tests. Similarly, the Elephant Hill fire near Kamloops, B.C., opened up the forest, which aided archaeologists in identifying over 100 new sites in a relatively unexplored area. Both these fires provided archaeologists with valuable insights into the past and we all gained a wealth of information to help us understand how past peoples utilized and interacted with their environment.
Herein lies the OPPORTUNITY. It is important that we recognize that although wildfires are destructive, the removal of surface vegetation gives archaeologists and researchers unique opportunities to quickly gather a lot of information. This is especially important in archaeologically sensitive areas, as well as areas that are difficult to access, or where there is not the usual motivating factor for identifying archaeological sites, namely industry. In the future, we should take the opportunity to assess any fires that naturally occur within National Parks, such as Jasper or Banff, for historical resources. Prescribed burns that occur within the parks to reduce fuel loads, or to rejuvenate forests ravaged by the pine beetle, present a special and rare chance to increase our knowledge of how these areas were used in the past.
It is also becoming more apparent that there needs to be an increased effort by government agencies to minimize the impact that fire suppression activities can have on historical resources. As someone who has actively participated in fighting forest fires, I realize that decisions concerning the suppression of a fire traveling 10+ km/hr must be made fast, and there may not be time to consider the impact to historical resources. However, once the fire has been controlled, not assessing the potential damage to sites caused by suppression activities is somewhat irresponsible and a missed opportunity. Furthermore the reclamation of heavy impacts, such as dozer guards, further damages sites, and may damage sites that were not disturbed by the fire. The monitoring of these activities by archaeologists could increase the number of sites found, and thus increase our future understanding of peoples in the past, and protect our heritage from further disturbance.
*Buenger, B.A. 2003. The impact of wildland and prescribed fire on archaeological resources. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas. 345 p. Dissertation.
**Johnson, C. 2004a. Archaeological sites and fire-induced changes. In: Brunswig, R.H.; Butler, W.B., eds. Ancient and historic lifeways in North America’s Rocky Mountains: Proceedings of the Sixth biennial Rocky Mountain Anthropological Conference; 2003 September 18-20; Estes Park, CO. 16p.
Forest Fire image courtesy of Skeeze from Pixabay.
Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was used by pre-European contact people all over North America. Known for its natural sharpness, ancient peoples sought the material for making tools for cutting and slicing. Additionally, it is easier to flintknap than the harder and more readily available materials local to Alberta.
As many of our readers know, there are no volcanoes in Alberta, so the obsidian is getting here either by trade or by the movement of people. Luckily for archaeologists, each source of obsidian in North America has a unique chemical signature, allowing us to trace where the material is coming from.
The results show that two of the flakes (FbPX-10 and FaPr-6) track well with Yellowstone and one flakes tracks to Bear Gulch which is just outside of Yellowstone to the west. The source within Yellowstone is unknown, but it is assumed that it is the Cougar Creek source, which is the most wide used source.
When we input the distance from FbPx-10 to Yellowstone National Park, we can see this artifact traveled 1,136 km and would take 231 hours to travel that distance by foot. Similarly, FaPr-6 was 1,033 km from Yellowstone National Park and FePr-4 was 979 km from Bear Gulch. This reinforces how valuable this material was for the First Nations of Alberta.
It’s the little things that keep you going during a 10 day survey shift, and we archaeologists at Tree Time Services Inc. all have our own favorite go-to food depending on where we are in the province. For this week’s post, I decided to ask my fellow archaeologists what their favorite on the road food is so that I can share it with this blog’s followers. So if you are ever in the neighborhood, we suggest you check out these spots!
Brittany – When asked what her favorite on the road food is Brittany instantly replied “Peace River Mexican”. According to Brittany and Reid, the Su Casa Cafe, located in Peace River is the best Mexican food they ever had and that is saying a lot, since they ate there directly after returning from their Mexican honeymoon. If you don’t want to take their word for it, just look up Su Casa on Trip Advisor or Yelp, both of which rank Su Casa as the best resturant in Peace River. Brittany says that the quesadillas were the best she ever had and Reid has nothing but good things to say about the mole chicken. Brittany also added that after a cold day in the field, the french onion soup at the Walking Eagle Hotel in Rocky Mountain House is pretty good too!
Reid – At the end of the day Reid’s comfort food is a big helping of northern Alberta poutine. The type of poutine that I grew up with in the North doesn’t use cheese curds, but instead comes with mozzarella cheese baked on top, similar to lasagna or baked spaghetti. Although this concoction is sure to make purists roll their eyes, this is the style of poutine that Reid loves. It actually wasn’t until I moved to Edmonton that I found out that this is not the traditional form of the dish. Reid says he is definitely not a poutine purist and thinks that The Ridge Taphouse in Slave Lake has the best poutine he has ever eaten. The fries are lightly breaded and crispy, the gravy is fake, and the cheese is plentiful! It may not be everyone’s favorite poutine, but in Reid’s opinion it is the best accompaniment to a cold beer after a long hard day in the bush.
Corey – When asked what his favorite food on the road is, Corey admitted that he really doesn’t eat out that much while on shift, since as a vegetarian, much of the time your choices are very limited in small towns. However, he said that Ernie O’s Restaurant and Pub, in Fox Creek has really good food and is very accommodating to vegetarians. While Corey and I were in there for the first time, the waitress told us that the chef would be willing to cook a veggy friendly version of most things on the menu. For Corey that is a big deal, since usually the only thing he can eat at many places is fries and nachos.
Elenore – At the start of a shift, the TTSI archaeologists aren’t very far down the road when they stop at Elenore’s favorite on the road spot. As a former employee of A&W, Elenore knows when a franchise location is on point, and she says that of all the A&W’s that she has been to, the Acheson location is the best! The TTSI warehouse is located in Acheson, and so at the start of every field shift, that is our jumping off point. Elenore’s favorite road food is early morning breakfast picked up from the Acheson A&W and eaten in the truck on the way to the field. It’s not A&W breakfast in general, but specifically the breakfast at Acheson, since according to Elenore, this location is the best A&W in Canada!
Vince – Like Elenore, Vince’s favorite food on the road comes from a place where you can also gas up your vehicle. In the small town of Smoky Lake, there is a Centex service station, and they make some ridiculously good chicken! Vince admits that his hunger level may influence this choice, as usually by the time you are driving past Smoky Lake on your way to Edmonton from Ft. McMurray, you are usually pretty hungry. However this does not change the fact that Crispy Fried Chicken (CFC) is very good and extremely satisfying. Another plus is that this gas station also has a free sanitary dump for RV’s. There is nothing like enjoying some hot and crispy fried chicken after finishing using the sanitary dump after a 10 day trailer shift. YUM!
Teresa – Sometimes at the end of a long day you are cold and want a hot meal, but sometimes, especially during the hot summer months, all you want is a nice cold treat. Teresa’s favorite food on the road is ice cream from The Grandview Stage Tempo, which is located at the southwest of Rocky Mountain House on Highway 752. TTSI archaeologists do a substantial amount of work for Sundre Forest Products and so we usually spend a fair bit of time around Rocky Mountain House throughout the summer. Located about 20 min southwest of Rocky, the Grandview Stage is a perfect place to stop and get a treat on the way back to the hotel. The ice cream is divine, and the perfect refreshment after a long day in the sun! The Stagecoach restaurant also has some very good food and I for one really enjoy their chicken wings.
Madeline – Reid and Madeline both hold permits that place them in Slave Lake for a large portion of the field season, so it is of no surprise that both of their on shift favorites come from The Ridge Taphouse, which is right next door to the hotel we usually stay at. Madeline says that the ginger beef at The Ridge is some of the best that she has ever had and is the meal that stands out the most for her. She says that the beef is crispy and that the sauce contains a lot of ginger, but not enough that it becomes over powering. Served with rice, she says it is a very delicious, satisfying meal that usually provides her with enough food for two suppers!
Kurt – Although Kurt’s choice for favorite food on the road can be procured many places, he specifically mentioned the Swan Palace in Swan Hills as the place to go. Kurt’s predicament is that while he loves what we in Alberta know as Chinese food, his family does not. So when on the road, Kurt’s food of choice is something that he doesn’t get to have at home, all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Those of us that have been to Swan Hills know that there isn’t a lot of choice of restaurants. While not the best Chinese I have eaten, I can definitely attest to the draw of a Chinese buffet. The food at the Swan Palace is always hot, plentiful and quite good. I also understand Kurt’s choice of a buffet style eatery, as nothing is worse that getting out of the bush, going for food, and then having to wait for over an hour for it to arrive in front of you. At a buffet, you just roll in, fill up your plate and within 30 min your full and ready for bed!
Brian – As previously mentioned, I grew up in a small northern town, and the only fast food we had was Burger Baron. When I am in the city, I rarely eat at Burger Baron, mainly because there are so many options. However, when in a small town with a Burger Baron, the Dad Burger is one of my go to favorites. Sundre, Rocky Mountain House, and Wabasca all have very good Burger Baron restaurants that are very close to the hotels we stay at. The pizza is usually very good a Burger Baron, and Madeline says that the chicken fingers at the Wabasca Burger Baron are the best. While Burger Baron may not be everyone’s go to for road food, I am a big fan of the franchise. It is fast food, but it is also made to order and you don’t have to worry about how long your burger has been sitting in a tray. Not all Burger Barons are created equal, but most of the locations I have eaten at do burgers and pizza well, and some locations even have pretty good fried chicken. It is definitely one of my favorite places to get food on the road!
Now that all the reporting is done, we thought it was a good time to look back on some of the exciting sites we worked on from the past year. We find over 100 sites every year but these sites stand out either because we found interesting artifacts or the site is unique. It doesn’t matter how many points an archaeologist has found throughout their career, they will still get really excited when they pull a projectile point out of the their screen! In fact, compiling this list got me really excited to get out of the office and back into the field where an archaeologist belongs.
FbPv-29: Found while assessing a proposed cutblock for Sundre Forest Products near Fall Creek. The site is located on a small knoll overlooking a tributary stream. In our final test at the site we identified a feature in the corner of the test (Figure 2). This hearth/cooking feature has fire-cracked rock, several pieces of calcined bone (Figure 1), and discoloration of sediments. We sent a sample of the calcined bone recovered for carbon dating and received dates of: 2770-2750 Cal BP (820-800 BC) and 2845-2787 Cal BP (895-837 BC). That is one old camp fire!
Figure 1: Corner of positive test with feature
Figure 2: Calcined recovered at FbPv-29
FcPf-26: Found while assessing a new phase for the Paradise Shores RV Resort on Buffalo Lake (Figure 4). The site is located on a small rise overlooking the lake to the north (Figure 3). While the site is small, we identified the tip of projectile point (Figure 6, Figure 5) and a variety of lithic materials including petrified wood. A number of different stone materials is a good indication that the area was used more than once to create a tool. When see the views from the Paradise Shores RV Resort, you can definitely see why a hunter would want to hang out here!
Figure 4: View of Buffalo Lake from south shore
Figure 3: View along the Buffalo Lake margin
Figure 5: Kristen holding the point tip
Figure 6: Projectile point tip
FcPs-14: Found while assessing a gravel pit for Pidherney’s along the North Saskatchewan River valley margin. The site is interesting for the layers of history represented at the site including a precontact First Nations campsite (Figure 8) and an early 20th century dwelling. The dwelling is identified by the presence of depression, ceramic, metal, and glass artifacts. One piece of the glass has a purple tint which tells us the site probably dates to Pre-WWI. (Figure 7).
Figure 7: Purple glass found at FcPs-14
Figure 8: Sample of lithic artifacts recovered at FcPs-14
Found in the South Horburg region of the Sundre Forest Products FMA, the site is interesting for the recovery of two large tools and the large extent of the site (200 m). The tools were a quartzite cobble spall with a unifacial retouched edge and a large quartzite biface. In addition to the tools we found a variety of different lithic materials which suggests this was an area that was revisited year after year.
Figure 9: Biface recovered at FcPt-15
Figure 10: Unifacially retouched cobble spall
Identified on the relict valley of the Baptiste River for Sundre Forest Products. Eric found the base of a large tool, likely a knife or spear point (Figure 11). He was pretty excited to find it as we can see in the photo below (Figure 12)!
Figure 11: Tool base recovered from FdPv-8
Figure 12: Eric holding the tool base
FeQa-5 was found overlooking a tributary to the Brazeau River for Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands. The site is extensive with beautiful views of the valley margin below. While testing the site out we found a variety of lithic materials including possible Knife River Flint.
Figure 13: View south from the site to the valley below
Figure 14: Possible Knife River Flint recovered from FeQa-5
A very interesting site identified for Weyerhaeuser Pembina Timberlands near Edson, AB. The site was initially identified when we found an old corner of a cabin (Figure 15) on the crest of a small knoll. The knoll was quite prominent compared to the surrounding terrain and close to a lake, so we thought it had pretty high potential for a pre-contact component as well. A test near the cabin corner identified fire cracked rock, two hammerstones, and several pieces of lithic debitage (Figure 17, Figure 16). Sites like this either show that people at different times used the same landforms, or they may be evidence of continuous use by Indigenous people from pre-contact times through the fur trade. It would take more work to figure out which.
Figure 15: Cabin corner found at FkQa-10
Figure 17: One of the hammerstones recovered
Figure 16: A sample of the quartzite debitage recovered
Found while assessing a cutblock for Vanderwell Contractors Ltd. Along the Athabasca River (Figure 19). This precontact campsite is huge (800 m) with great views of the River to the east. The site was found in a post-impact context (Figure 20). While it is normally required to obtain HRA approval prior to harvest, this block was assessed post-impact because a recent blowdown event made the block hazardous. The risks to the site are balanced by better visibility and artifact recoveries. We found lots of different materials, fire-cracked rock, a biface, two cores, and one Besant projectile point (Figure 18)!
Figure 18: Besant Projectile Point recovered
Figure 19: View toward the Athabasca River
Figure 20: Flake found in the exposed sediments
Pinto Creek Plateau:
Rather than a single site, this entry is for a group of sites on the Pinto Creek Plateau found for Sundre Forest Products this year. We found several sites on a variety of landforms ranging from low hilltops overlooking beautiful alpine meadows (FbPx-10, Figure 22) to high steep cliffs overlooking alpine stream valleys (FbPw-17, Figure 21). The coolest artifacts include a piece of obsidian (Figure 23) and a beautiful chert end scraper (Figure 24). The obsidian was sourced and the chemical signature matches the obsidian source in Yellowstone. The scraper narrow at the proximal end, indicating the use of a hafting element. Stay tuned for articles about the scraper and the obsidian sourcing!
Figure 22: View north of a meadow from FbPx-10 and the location of the obsidian artifact
Figure 21: View from FbPw-17 and a deeply incised river valley
Figure 23: Obsidian flake recovered from FbPx-10
Figure 24: End Scraper recovered from FbPw-17
FcPt-16 and FcPu-27:
Found on the old valley margin of the North Saskatchewan River for Strachan Forest Products. These two sites are separated by a steeply incised stream channel, located back from the current valley. At FcPt-16 over 70 artifacts were recovered from one 40 x 40 cm hole! Additionally we found a very unique spokeshave. Spokeshaves are usually made by retouching a flake, but this one was chipped and ground out of a smooth tabular rock (Figure 26). At FcPu-27 we found a large site with a variety of lithic materials, including one piece of salt-and pepper quartzite. Most interesting is a large Siltstone preform that we found (Figure 25).
In honour of International Women’s day we will explore the life and studies of Birgitta Wallace. She is a Swedish-Canadian female archaeologist and expert on Norse archaeology in North America.
Born in 1944, Birgitta Wallace studied and received her degree in her home country, Sweden. She studied at Uppsala University and underwent field training in Sweden and Norway. In 1975, after receiving her masters degree in Pittsburg, Wallace moved to Canada and started her work with Parks Canada. She would continue to work with Parks Canada until retirement and she is best known for her work on the archaeological site L’anse aux Meadows.
Figure 1: Recreated Sod House at L’anse aux Meadows (Wikimedia Commons)
While it was long accepted that Christopher Columbus was the first non-aboriginal to set foot in the Americas, the Viking settlement of L’anse aux Meadows predates the landing of Christopher Columbus in North America by almost 500 years (dated around the year 1000 CE). L’anse aux Meadows was established as a Norse site due to definitive similarities between it and settlement structures found in Iceland and Greenland. While there are other suspected Norse sites in the New World, it si currently the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America south of Greenland. The area that the Vikings settled along the Atlantic coast is referred to as “Vinland” in Norse lore by explorer Leif Erikson. The exact locations and reach of Norse settlement remains a mystery. In particular, the location of a lost settlement referenced in Erik the Red’s saga continues to elude researchers. The story of this settlement, referred to as Hop, captured Wallace’s attention and, even after her retirement, she continues to theorize about Hop.
Figure 2: Birgitta Wallace in Greenland (National Post)
In 2018, Wallace claimed only a particular area of New Brunswick can accommodate all the criteria found in the saga writings. Wallace theorized that due to the “(abundant) lumber, masses of salmon, halibut, and grapes” referenced in Erik the Red’s Saga, New Brunswick is the most likely candidate for the location of Hop. Other areas theorized as possible locations – New York, Maine, New England – lack one or more of these resources. Perhaps her most compelling argument, was that she identified a species of plant at the site of L’anse aux Meadows which is exclusively native to New Brunswick.
While we may never know the true locations of Vinland or Hop, rest assured Birgitta Wallace will continue to search for us. Her story is one of a career archaeologist who continues to stoke the fires of our curiosity well after retirement. If you would like to know more about the adventures of Women in Archaeology you can read “Ladies of the Field: Early Women Archaeologists and their search for Adventure.”
If you share Wallace’s insatiable interest in Vikings, you can read her many works on the topic and make sure to visit the Vikings exhibit at the new Royal Alberta Museum in April.
Ever wanted to combine a hobby you enjoy with work you are passionate about, like scuba diving and archaeology? In 2013 Vince and I did just that. Archaeologists tend to be naturally curious people, always wondering “what’s over there?” or “what’s under that?”, so its not surprising that many archaeologists also enjoy scuba diving. There are plenty of opportunities for the public to try their hands at archaeology right here in Alberta (such as at Bodo or Brazeau) but as avid scuba divers Vince and I decided to try our hands at underwater archaeology at a more exotic location.
For two weeks in April-May 2013 Vince and I attended the Sanisera underwater field school at the Cap de Cavalleria on the island of Menorca, Spain. This field school was conducted by the Ecomuseum de Cap de Cavalleria (now called the Sanisera Archaeology Institute for International Field Schools). This is a large field school with something for everyone and we met people from all over the globe who shared our interest in archaeology. In addition to the underwater fieldschool, there were two other fieldschools being held on land at the same site. One excavation was taking place at the Roman city (Sanisera), and the other was at one of the seven Roman necropolises located near the city. Our group was underwater investigating shipwrecks in the harbour. The site was diverse and included not only the areas mentioned above but also a Roman military camp which predated the Roman city, a quarry and an 18th century British watch tower.
We started each morning by hopping into the van and driving to the dive site. On the beach before diving we would discuss which survey methods we were going to use that day and what our objectives would be (since we couldn’t speak once we were under). Then we would gear up and hit the water. Some days we would have to swim a fair distance before submerging and some days the sea was too stormy (or too many jellyfish) to dive at all.
Four different underwater survey strategies:
1. Snag line – two divers swim in the same direction with a weighted rope pulled tight between them dragging it along the bottom and stopping if it “snags” an object. When an object is snagged the ends of the rope are pinned to the bottom and the divers follow the rope to the object. If it is an artifact they record it, if it is something like a rock they unpin the rope and continue.
2. Circular search – to perform a circular search one end of rope is tethered to something that won’t move (a datum) then either multiple divers can space themselves out along the rope and survey a circle around the datum, or one diver can make multiple circles around the datum moving down the rope with each new circle to cover the same amount of space as the multi-diver scenario.
3. Swim-line search – a linear method, the swim-line search sees divers hold onto a rope to make sure they and maintain a consistent speed and keep their distance between each other as they move together in a line. A tug on the rope indicates that someone along the line found something and for everyone to stay put until it is recorded.
4. Jack-stay search – this type of survey is useful for carefully covering a predetermined area. Two parallel lines are fixed to the seabed (called jack-stays) and a movable rope is laid out spanning the distance between them. Divers then use the movable rope as a guide for their search starting at opposite ends, where it meets the parallel fixed jack-stay lines, and swim towards one another. When finished surveying the ground below the movable rope is adjusted along the length of the stationary jack-stays as the survey progresses slowly working from one end to the other effectively creating temporary survey corridors. When the search is midway through, the rope system will resemble a capital “H”. The two fixed jack-stay lines running parallel to each other form the vertical lines and the movable rope, perpendicular to the other two, would form the middle part of the “H”.
We practiced all of these survey techniques with the exception of the snag line and also practiced mapping artifacts underwater and taking photos. The artifacts we found were mostly amphorae that had spilled out of wrecked cargo ships, but we also found two anchors. We finished our dives around noon, got out of our gear, packed it back into the van and then returned to the Ecomuseum.
Once at the museum we would have a debriefing about what we found, compare our notes and maps and have a short lecture. While we were doing this the students from the terrestrial field schools were cleaning and cataloging artifacts. We didn’t collect any artifacts from our underwater survey as keeping them underwater is the best way to preserve them at present. After our short lecture we would sometimes have a longer lecture that all three field schools would attend, these lectures were useful to all the groups as they usually discussed topics such as the history of the site, findings of previous excavations or focused on specific artifact types (for example how to tell where an amphora was manufactured based on vessel shape, temper type or colour of the clay).
We had a few days that we didn’t do any diving, lectures or excavation. On those days all three field schools were taken on tours of the island to visit other archaeological sites relating to the pre-Roman inhabitants of the island – the Talaiotic. We were also taken to the island’s capital city Mahon (Maó) to visit the museum where our instructors gave talks about some of the artifacts on display and we visited the back rooms to see some unique artifacts that were not currently on display. At the end of the field school each student gave a presentation to our specific field school group and to all the instructors.
If you know anyone who is interested in giving archaeology a try it is definitely possible to get your hands dirty no matter where in the world you live. Joining your local Alberta Archaeological Society chapter is the best way to hear about great (and often free or kid friendly!) ways to get involved and to learn from the experts.