Where we find archaeological sites in the province is often strongly tied to the physical environment. We look for the different physical characteristics such as distance to water and if an area is high and dry. These features are indicators, which tell us that there could be an archaeological site in the area. This approach to finding archaeological sites is useful, but there are problems when we start considering how the landscape might change over time. The top of a hill set really far from a stream today, might have been beach front property in the past.
This is important in regards to our work on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta. The Lesser Slave Lake basin has undergone extensive changes over the past 13,000 years, largely due to the retreating front of the glacial ice sheets at the end of the last ice age, and the incision and creation of the modern river valleys. Understanding how this environment changed over time is useful for identifying new archaeological sites in the region, as it helps us to understand how First Nations used the landscape in the past. Older archaeological sites may be on ancient beaches and meltwater channels that don’t look like they would be suitable for a campsite today, but were actually prime real estate 10, 000 years ago. These sites could be missed during an archaeological review and survey based on the modern landscape, so it is important that we understand how an area has changed, so that we can better predict where archaeological sites are going to be.
On Friday, April 15th at 7 PM Tree Time Services Sr. Project Archaeologist Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt will be presenting at the High Prairie and District Museum on ongoing research on Deer Mountain, Alberta. On the weekend, Tree Time will be at the High Prairie Gun & Sportsmen’s show with a display of artifacts and replicas to help identify your finds.
Early archaeological research on northern Alberta was focused on big lakes. Large campsites were found on major lakeshores and were assumed to be related to seasonal fisheries. It was assumed that past people’s hunting forays into the hills and hinterlands wouldn’t have left much of an archaeological trace. When we started doing archaeological surveys for forestry cutblocks in 2001, we didn’t expect to find very much. The typical sites we’d find would be small scatters of stone chips and flakes left from making stone tools like arrowheads. Even those sites were almost always very close to major streams or other waterbodies.
In 2005, I was part of a crew that did some pre-harvest archaeology surveys for Alberta Plywood on Deer Mountain (Figure 2). Earlier surveys had found a few sites there, more than would be expected in a place so far from major waterbodies. Even knowing there were sites there, our findings in 2005 surprised us. We found quite a few sites, they were richer than expected, included a unique local stone called Grizzly Ridge Chert (Figure 3), and we found a spear point similar in style to ones that date to 8000 years ago (Figure 1). Deer Mountain was an unusual place, archaeologically speaking, and was very eye opening to me.
Last year, I got to revisit some of the same areas for Alberta Plywood, with the benefit of another 10 years of experience, high resolution LiDAR imagery, and significant improvements in survey and site evaluation methods. We found more sites, bigger sites, and more interesting sites in places we didn’t even think to look in 2005. I came away with an even greater appreciation for how interesting Deer Mountain is, and for how much I’ve learned over the intervening years.
In this talk, I’ll touch on careers in archaeology, archaeological methods, how industry and government manage risks to archaeological sites, and a really interesting area in Alberta archaeology that’s barely been studied.
2006 Heritage Evaluation of West Fraser Slave lake (Alberta Plywood Ltd. Division) 2005/2006 Annual Operating Plan Forest Harvest Developments, Slave Lake, Alberta. Archaeological Research Permit No. 2005-378. Report on file, Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Edmonton.
From 1979 to 1982, Dr. Ray LeBlanc, then Boreal Archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, conducted baseline surveys of the Lesser Slave Lake region. Before that time there were less than 1000 archaeological sites recorded in the entire Green Zone of northern Alberta (including the Grande Prairie region). Within the Lesser Slave Lake basin there were only 39 known sites (Figure 1, in yellow). These were mostly surface scatters of stone artifacts identified by members of the public and the Archaeological Survey during early reconnaissance work. Known sites included scatters at the Marten Mountain and Deer Mountain fire towers, several sites in Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, and a few sites scattered around the shores of the lake. Besides their locations, very little was actually known about these sites, because little to no testing or excavation was done.
Starting with preliminary surveys in 1979, followed by systematic surveys in 1980 and ’81 and test excavations in 1982 Dr. LeBlanc recorded 89 new sites on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake and the surrounding area. The majority of these sites were located on the northwest shore of the lake, and on the north side of Buffalo Bay. Most of the sites were identified in surface exposure, including some large collections of artifacts from ploughed fields. Private collections west of Lesser Slave Lake included some rare artifacts from the earliest occupation of the province, such as Clovis period macroblades and large lanceolate points (Figure 2). Some examples of these finds can be seen today in the High Prairie & District Museum.
Some other notable finds came from a site on the south shore of the lake, near Joussard. Mr. Frank Madsen had collected a large number of artifacts from his farm on the shore. His collection included a number of projectile points (arrowheads and spear points) from the middle and late periods of occupation of the province (about 5000 to 250 years ago), as well as a number of oval tools made from quartzite cobbles. These tools had worked ends and chipped notches on the sides. They’ve been interpreted two ways. They may have been stone axe or adze heads. Archaeologists call these celts when we don’t know if they were hafted parallel to the handle, as axes, or perpendicular, as adzes. Alternatively, they’ve also been interpreted as stone net sinkers or weights, with the notches used to tie them to the bottom of fishing nets. The most interesting finds in the Madsen Collection are examples of ground-stone artifacts, which are rare in Alberta: a jade adze, and a steatite (soapstone) pipe bowl (Figure 3). The jade adze is typical of the type made and found in British Columbia. Only about a dozen of these have been found in Alberta, and the current Boreal Archaeologist, Todd Kristensen, is researching them.
These surveys in the early 1980’s made the Lesser Slave Lake region one of the best studied parts of Alberta’s boreal forest, but we still knew very little about the history of human occupation in the region, and how people lived at various times in the past. We would start getting the answers to some of these questions in the later 1980’s, when Dr. LeBlanc, as a professor at the University of Alberta, returned to some of these sites with students for a field school excavation.
LeBlanc, 2004 Archaeological Research in the Lesser Slave Lake Region. Mercury Series Archaeology paper 166, Canadian Museum of Civilization. Gatineau, Quebec.