The context of an artifact is extremely important to archaeologists. The context of an artifact means the precise location of the artifact and it’s association with other artifacts and landscape features. This helps us determine such things as the relationships between artifacts on a site, it’s position in time and space, and even how it is related to different archaeological sites.
Below is a picture from a site near the Brazeau Reservoir, Alberta. The lithic scatter pictured below shows the flakes in their original context. The whole scatter is in a semi circle shape outlined in red. The positions of the flakes indicate that someone likely sat near the red circle. They then flint knapped purple quartzite which went in the direction of the purple arrow. They then shifted their body and began to flint knap a grey-blue quartzite that went in the direction of the blue arrow.
This is just a small portion of the site, so when we start to put together this information with other information about the site we begin to get a greater understanding of what happened, such as where specific activities took place and even what was going on in the area at that time.
Surface exposures are areas where there is no vegetation and the mineral soils are visible. These can occur naturally (areas of slumping, beaches, blow-out, or other natural erosional processes), or be caused by human activity (ATV trails, furrows created for site prep and skid trails just to name a few). Surface exposures can be great for covering a lot of ground during survey.
One of the most common questions that I get asked is what is the coolest thing I have ever found. My default answer is this censer fragment that my excavation team unearthed back in 2009 as part of the Trent University field school in Belize, at the Minanha site.
My team was working on the excavation of a house platform. The house platform was part of a small complex of households near a ceremonial and political centre. the site was abandoned around 1000 years ago at the end of the Classic era of the Maya civilization.
One of the first things found during the excavation was a small cylinder seal next to the large tree root (pictured above). Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the artifact but I still have my notes from the field school and a quick sketch that I did.
As we continued to excavate through different occupation layers, we came upon an assemblage of broken pottery sherds. We were careful to map each artifact before we removed them from their context (as indicated by the nails at each corner of the artifacts). We could see there were holes in the ceramics but had no idea of what was waiting once we turned it over.
When the sherd with the holes was turned over, the entire team got really excited and gathered around while the professor, Gyles Iannone, explained what we found. The artifact was part of a large incense burner. When incense was burned within the vessel, the smoke would come out the holes in the censer. The smoke flowing out of the mouth likely created a very stunning effect. After the field school was completed, the graduate students catalogued the artifacts and re-assembled the censer (pictured below).
While we always prefer to survey areas prior to any impacts, the identification of artifacts in post-impact contexts can be easier because of large areas of exposed sediments. Instead of targeted shovel tests that excavate a very small percentage of a high potential area, we can potentially see everything that is under the ground. However, the context of anything we find must be taken into account because heavy equipment can break cobbles and create things that look very similar to lithic debitage. If we find an artifact in the track of heavy machinery we need to be careful we are not misidentifying what we call a “tractorfact.”
In spring of 2017, we surveyed a proposed Associated Aggregates gravel pit that was being planned in a recently harvested cutblock . We identified several sites that were within the proposed gravel pit boundary, most of which were first identified by spotting artifacts on the ground. It’s not always easy, as vegetation can trick you into thinking you’ve found something, only to realize it was just a leaf.
If you want to try your eye, try to spot the flakes in the above picture!
How many did you find? Give up?
Keep scrolling for the answer…
It can be pretty difficult to spot because of the leaves on the ground but when you really take the time to look you can see five pieces of quartzite debitage.
Public archaeological programs are an excellent opportunity for people with a general interest in archaeology or amateur archaeologists to learn what an artifact is, and to practice the techniques that are used to find and interpret them. Often these programs will have a dig component, where people join for a few days or a week, and learn excavation techniques in units laid out over a buried site.
The Brazeau Archaeological Project (BAP), sponsored in part by Tree Time Services Inc., provides a unique experience. The current sites being surveyed are almost entirely exposed by the continuously fluctuating water levels of the reservoir. This also means that the entire history of the area has been deflated to one level, rather than multiple occupation levels that can be apparent in excavations. The occupation of the Brazeau River by First Nations extends as far back as 12- 14,000 years ago. This allows participants to gain a better feel of how large and spread out an archaeological site can really be. The largest site surveyed so far spans almost 1 km!
The project invites members of the Strathcona Archaeological Society (SAS) to come out for a day or weekend to learn survey and excavation techniques, as directed by experienced or professional archaeologists. As most of the artifacts lay exposed on the surface due to the ever changing water levels of the reservoir, the experience is relaxed, family friendly, and can be conducted over a single day or weekend, rather than a week-long commitment.
Participants learn what features to look for when looking for surface finds, such as material, shape, and modifications. By pairing participants up with experienced archaeologists we can point out the various ways an artifact, such a flake, can look; particularly how it can blend in or really stand out from its surrounding environment. For example, Amandah van Merlin, one of the co-ordinators, picked up a small, indistinct black pebble. The black pebble chert material, however, is a popular flint knapping material. As it turned out, Amandah had found a thumbnail scraper!
Public archaeology programs are also a great way to explore new technology or try experiments. One participant brought his drone. He was able to take photos from a bird’s-eye view of the site, providing a totally new perspective on what these landforms look like along the shore, and the distances between the sites. Madeline Coleman, the other co-ordinator, laid out various sizes of brick pieces in order to examine how artifacts are affected by water movement (or perhaps even people).
The project is still in its infancy. The pilot survey in May 2015 occurred over one day and had 9 participants. In May 2016, the survey occurred over two days with over thirty participants joining for one or both days. This past May, there were over 20 participants that joined for the full weekend. In addition, for two days prior to the public survey, BAP worked with University of Alberta field school students. Here they practiced map making, shovel testing, and laying out excavation units.
Outreach is also a very important aspect of a public program, such to First Nations group, schools, and universities. The BAP has recently reached out to Paul First Nation, in whose traditional territory the Brazeau River lies, and whom are active in working to protect their heritage. BAP has also recently partnered with Katie Biittner at Grant MacEwan University to begin a hands-on catalogue experience for university students at Grant MacEwan and the University of Alberta. In addition, the original finders of the site, Sandy and Tom Erikson, worked to create a 3-case display at their hometown school in Edson. The case shows some of the finds and information from the periods they may have originated in.
We took this photo in the fall of 2016 while completing fieldwork for Sundre Forest Products’. It’s of the Clearwater River valley as seen from a site we found that year. The site was easily identified because artifacts were eroding out of the steep valley wall and the ATV trails that cross the landscape.
From here, one would be able to keep an eye on traffic (human, moose, deer, etc.) through the valley (if the vegetation allowed it, that is). This is probably one of the reasons it was used as a campsite in the past, and still is to this day – we found a couple of modern fire pits at the ancient site.
Views are becoming an increasingly important and interesting part of predicting site locations and are becoming easier to consider. We have GIS to thank for that. Here former Tree Time archaeologist, Tim Allan, has an update on his MA research that provides an example of what a view-shed analysis can look like.
In the case of the Clearwater River site and the Hummingbird Creek site Tim discusses, both appear to be located to command the view – look how similar the landscapes are.
Specializing in forestry archaeology in Alberta, I haven’t had much opportunity to work in winter conditions. One of the nice things about forestry is its relatively long planning horizon and the flexibility to schedule our work.
Unfortunately, in fall 2012, a variety of factors conspired to push some of our fieldwork into late October, and then we got an unusually early and heavy snowfall in northwestern Alberta. The heavy snow prevented the ground from freezing, so we went ahead with our planned surveys of forestry cutblocks, conducting landform evaluation and shovel testing as normal.
Trudging through 50 cm of fresh powder gave me some perspectives on moving and living in the boreal forest under winter conditions that I hadn’t previously gained. I had wondered what effect snow cover would have on mobility patterns. Summer travel in the forest tends to follow linear features like river and stream valley margins, but I’d wondered if under winter conditions that would still be the case. This week it certainly was. We were working on the Chinchaga River valley, and found that travel along the valley margin was much easier than cutting cross country or on the slopes or lower terraces. I’d say the advantage was even greater than under summer conditions. The level backcountry had deeper snow than the exposed margins, and the snow on the slopes was even deeper than that. The grey overcast sky and falling snow also obscured the sun, which made it very hard to maintain a bearing cross-country without a compass. Without a landform to follow, I could have been walking in circles and wouldn’t know until I hit my tracks.
If I was camping under those conditions, however, I think I’d be choosing very different locations than I would in the summer. The distinct valley margins, corners and points that we tend to focus our surveys on had great views of the river and were on our preferred walking paths. But they were also very exposed to the biting wind coming out of the northwest. Even the south-facing edges were exposed. The most comfortable locations we found to break for coffee were just back from the edge, sheltered in stands of immature spruce. For the last couple seasons, I’d been suspecting that our focus on exposed corners and points was only finding one class of sites, and this experience reinforces that suspicion. I think that winter camps in particular, and possibly all larger camps, would be located back from the sharp landform edges that we’re targeting most. Drainage is still a factor, especially on warm winter days when the snow turns to mush, so we should still be looking for local elevation. But maybe we should be testing some less distinct elevated landforms a little back from the edges if we want to find sites occupied during less than ideal weather.
(This brief article was originally published in the Archaeological Society of Alberta Newsletter Vol. 1, January 2013)
“Archaeological heritage is an essential element in the affirmation of our Canadian identity and a source of inspiration and knowledge. It is the policy of the Government of Canada to protect and manage this heritage.1”
This sentiment is echoed through all levels of government and most provinces2, territories, and municipalities have either a piece of legislation, regulation, policy, or official plan in place that enables the government to protect heritage resources on lands within its jurisdiction.
For example, it’s stated in Alberta’s Historical Resources Act that when the Minister thinks a proposed operation or activity is likely to alter, damage, or destroy a historic resource, the Minister may order that person to undertake an HRIA3. This means that the Minister of Alberta Culture and Tourism (ACT) has the authority to require developers to conduct studies that assess the potential impacts of their development on historic resources. In Alberta, these studies are called “Historic Resources Impact Assessments” or HRIAs.
If the HRIA determines that there are historic resources located within the development footprint that may be impacted by the proposed development, ACT may require that the impacts be mitigated before the project will receive development approval (i.e. through modification of the development plan or the completion of a Historic Resource Impact Mitigation / HRIM). The goal of HRIA and HRIM studies is to ensure that significant historic resources are preserved through the development and land use planning processes. As such, the Minister may require the authority responsible for approving the proposed development (such as Alberta Environment and Parks, Agriculture and Forestry, or the Alberta Energy Regulator) to withhold or suspend the approval (or licence/permit/etc.) until the HRIA/HRIM requirements have been satisfied.
Have you been required to obtain a permit-status archaeologist to undertake an HRIA/HRIM? We’d be happy to discuss how Tree Time Services can best help you through the approvals process so you can focus on your core business. Call Kurt at 780-472-8878 or email[email protected]
1 Archaeological Heritage Policy Framework, Department of Canadian Heritage, Ottawa, 1990.
2 “We value the natural heritage and human history of Alberta because they help us understand and value the past on which our present is built, and give us a deepened awareness of our common roots and shared identity.” The Spirit of Alberta: Alberta’s Cultural Policy, 2009:3
Mitigative excavation is the process of digging an archaeological site that is threatened either by development or natural erosion. Mitigative excavations have different goals than academic excavations. The goal of mitigative excavations is is to save as much information about the site before it is destroyed, whereas in academic digs the goal is to answer specific questions about how people were using the site in the past.
When a planned development is in direct conflict with a significant archaeological site our normal first recommendation is for a project redesign in order to avoid impacting the site. When a project redesign is not a viable option a mitigative excavation might be required.
Before the excavation begins additional shovel testing may be required to ensure that the boundaries of the site have been confidently established and to identify the most important or valuable part of the site. Using what we have learned from the shovel testing we select areas for excavation blocks. We try to target the places where we’ll get the best return, in scientific information, for the investment of time. These excavation blocks are usually excavated in 1×1 m units. During the excavation layers of a predetermined depth are carefully removed. The sediment is screened and artifacts are collected. While excavating each layer is carefully described and locations of artifacts within the layer are recorded. Any changes in the soils or unusual staining is also described in detail. As each layer is removed photos are taken to further document the process. Once the unit is excavated to its final depth photos and drawings are taken of the unit walls. These photos and drawings will help us to understand the natural formation of the site area by studying the statigraphy. Looking at the layers of the soil can help us to determine if some artifacts in the site are older than others and can help us to understand how long or often the site was used by people in the past.
Mitigative excavations in Alberta typically do not involve excavation of the entire site as you might see in academic research excavations; instead archaeologists first consult with the developer and the government and excavate a sample of the site that focuses on the area of impact, and maximizes the information value of the dig.
Once the mitigative excavation is complete and the final report describing the project has been approved by the government the development will be allowed to proceed.
Mitigative excavations usually move along at a faster pace than academic excavations. This is related to time restrictions associated with development planning and budgetary concerns, as well as our focus on efficiency, and maximizing the return on investment. Academic excavations often take place over many field seasons but mitigative excavations have to be completed before the developer begins construction.
Mitigative excavation is our best tool to preserve archaeological heritage when avoidance isn’t an option, but it’s still a net loss in heritage value. Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources, once they have been destroyed, whether by excavation or development, no more information can be collected about the site.
You have made a plan for a development and reviewed your plan against the Listing of Historic Resources. You’ve found that you have a conflict on your land parcel, it is listed with an HRV of 4C. What does that mean?
An HRV of 4C indicates that an historic resource site is located on that parcel of land, and that one or more First Nations groups have reported that the site is of cultural significance to them. These sites are usually Traditional Use Sites with a historic component, or spiritually significant or religious sites. Some examples include historic cabins or trails, community campsites, prayer trees or other spiritual sites, burials, cemeteries, rock art sites, and mission sites.
Before you can proceed you or your historic resource consultant must submit a Historic Resource Application through OPAC (the Online Permitting And Clearance system) to the Aboriginal Heritage Section of Alberta Culture & Tourism. Aboriginal Heritage will review the development plans against their confidential records of the site and determine whether impacts are likely. If impacts to the HRV 4C site are likely, Aboriginal Heritage will issue site-specific Consultation requirements.
This means you may have to Consult with the First Nations who have Listed the site. More than one group may have an interest in the site because of shared history and land use. Be sure to consult with all interested parties in this matter. Consulting with only one group on overlapping Listings is not sufficient. Alberta Culture will inform you if Consultation is required or not, and with which groups site specific Consultation is required (Listing of Historic Resources, Instructions for Use). It’s very important to understand that any Site-Specific Historic Resource Consultation requirements are separate from and in addition to any other standard Consultation requirements regarding Treaty rights and land use. You may have to go back to First Nations you’ve already Consulted about your project in general, and may have to Consult with different groups or individuals.
Whether you are required to Consult with First Nations groups or not, an HRV of 4C may also result in a requirement for an Historic Resources Impact Assessment. The fact that a specific historic resource has been identified within your land parcel does not mean that the rest of the area has been surveyed and that there is only the one site there. It only indicates that an historic resource site has been reported. An historic resources impact assessment requirement is likely because areas that are considered culturally significant today usually have been considered important for centuries, or millennia. Areas with an HRV of 4C have a high potential to contain additional historic resources such as archaeological sites.
You may be required to redesign your project to avoid the HRV 4C historic resources site. If the site can’t be avoided, mitigation may be required. Mitigation of archaeological and historic sites typically requires extensive shovel testing, detailed block excavations proportional to the percent of the site to be impacted and detailed mapping of the site. Mitigation of impacts to a Culturally Significant site would likely be site-specific, and determined in collaboration with the affected communities.
Our recommendation for HRV 4C conflicts is to identify them early, discuss them with communities in advance, avoid them at the planning stage.
If you don’t know where to start, or would like someone to help you Consult with First Nations contact Kurt or Madeline at 780-472-8878 or toll free at 1-866-873-3846 or email us at [email protected]. We are happy to help.