Historic Archaeology at Edmonton’s Mill Creek Ravine – Volunteers Welcome!

Attention Edmontonians!

Have you ever wondered about archaeology in your own city? Have you ever wanted to be an archaeologist? This summer an archaeologist from the University of Chicago is leading an archaeological investigation in the Mill Creek Ravine! Haeden Stewart is looking for remains from historic settlements to learn more about daily life in the early 20th century, as the city was industrializing. In the early 1900’s, the Mill Creek Ravine was home to several mills, meat packing plants, a railway line, and homes of the ravine’s workers.

mill creek crossing
Early industrial Edmonton – View of the C.N.R. crossing Mill Creek, 1900-1925. Library and Archives Canada MIKAN 3335022

Haeden will be excavating two locations this summer. The first is a shanty town located at the north end of the Mill Creek Ravine. This town was one of many that settlers built in the first few decades of the 20th century. Some shanty towns were more temporary, but some, like the Ross Acreage in Mill Creek, were more substantial and housed settlers for many years. Haeden’s team has already been working at the shanty town for several weeks, where they have unearthed some great finds, including animal bones, glass bottles, and the remains of two chickens buried in a pit!

Glass bottles excavated at a historic shanty town in Mill Creek, Edmonton. Photo credit: Haeden Stewart
Toy saucer from a historic shanty town in the Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton. Photo Credit: Haeden Stewart.
Chicken bones buried in a pit in a Shanty Town in Mill Creek Ravine, Edmonton. Photo credit: Haeden Stewart

Next, Haeden plans to excavate at Vogel’s meatpacking plant in the south end of the ravine. Vogel’s was one of three large meatpacking plants built by 1910 in the Mill Creek Ravine.

Vogel’s meatpacking plant in 1902. Image credit: Edmonton – A City Called Home EA-10-1134 http://www2.epl.ca/edmontonacitycalledhome/EPLEdmontonCityCalledPhotosSingle.cfm?id=51

Haeden will be excavating every day of the week, from approximately 830am-530pm, except for Tuesday.  If anyone is interested in volunteering to help out with the excavation please contact Haeden at haedenstewart@uchicago.edu, or call\text him at 773-827-4004 to make arrangements.

Archaeology and Development: Statistics from the Historic Resources Management Branch

Have you ever wondered about how development impacts heritage sites in Alberta? Today’s post is for you! Check out the following infographic, which presents data collected by the Archaeological Survey at the Historic Resources Management Branch.


Written by: Colleen Haukaas, Regulatory Approvals Coordinator, Archaeological Survey

Flint Knapping with the Archaeological Society of Alberta

The Archaeological Society of Alberta (ASA) is an amateur organization of over 400 members who are dedicated to promoting, protecting, and preserving Alberta’s heritage. The society regularly holds events that allow the public to actively experience archaeology in the province.

In March the Strathcona chapter of the ASA held a flint-knapping and tool-making workshop in Edmonton. The ASA workshop allowed members to get first-hand experience making the stone, or lithic, tools that are among the most common artifacts found in archaeological sites in Alberta. Prior to the arrival of metals with Europeans in North America, First Nations people created tools such as blades, knives, axes, and projectile points, by knapping stones. Knapping technology is not unique to Alberta, but was used by humans and our ancestors in all parts of the world beginning as early as 3.3 million years ago in Africa. Today many archaeologists practice knapping to better understand the material culture recovered from archaeological sites. Knapping is also a common hobby among archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike.

Creating Stone Tools

First, cores of lithic raw material are precisely broken using hammerstones (stones and antler) to produce large, flat flakes. At the workshop, participants knapped obsidian and dacite, two types of stone that are easy to use for beginners. When knapping, safety is always top priority. Striking stones such as obsidian produces tiny shards of the material, which tend to scatter and can easily cause injury. To prevent accidents, knappers use hand and eye protection, and always have plenty of bandages at the ready. The scattered waste flakes produced when knapping are called ‘debitage’ by archaeologists.

Photo 1
ASA participants using hammerstones to produce lithic (stone) flakes and debitage.

Next, smaller flakes of stone can be worked into tools. Instead of striking the stone, smaller flakes can be removed by applying consistent force in a process called pressure flaking. In the picture below, a knapper is using a copper pressure flaker to work the edge of a projectile point.

Photo 2
A knapper using a copper pressure flaker to work the edge of a projectile point.

Finally, the knappers were able to haft their new tools onto wood or antler shafts and handles. The stone tools were affixed into the wooden handles using pine pitch, and then fastened using animal sinew and hide glue. In archaeological sites the organic shafts, handles, and fastening materials have usually decayed, leaving only the stone tools behind.

Photo 3
Some of the tools created at the ASA Flint Knapping workshop

Becoming a good knapper takes a lot of patience and practice, and it helps to have a good teacher. If you are interested in learning how to knap stone tools, there will be two knapping events in Alberta this year in July and September.

Photo 4

Written by: Colleen Haukaas, Archaeological Permits & Digital Information Coordinator.

Alberta’s First Archaeological Permit: The Nottingham House Trading Post

In 1973, the Government of Alberta assumed a central role in the management of archaeological research. In the 42 years since then, the Archaeological Survey at Alberta Culture and Tourism has been busy. More than 9,000 archaeological research permits have been issued and as a result, archaeologists have discovered over 40,000 archaeological sites in Alberta.

So where did it all begin? The first archaeological research permit in the province was issued to Karlis Karklins in 1973 by Alberta Culture, Youth, and Recreation. The permit was for his research at Nottingham House, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post near Fort Chipewyan, as a part of the Western Fur Trade Research Programme. The programme was initiated by Parks Canada in 1968 to explore the history and archaeology of the fur trade in the Athabasca region. As part of that project, Karklins began researching Nottingham House in the early 1970s.

Alberta Map

Historical Setting

Nottingham House was a fur trade post established by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1802. The HBC hoped to compete with the North West Company (NWC), who held a 20 year monopoly on the famed fur-rich areas of the Athabasca region. Peter Fidler, an experienced HBC surveyor, along with his Swampy Cree wife, Mary, their children and 17 other explorers arrived at Fort Chipewyan in late 1802 to set up the new trading post, Nottingham House. In the style of competitive exploration that characterized the fur trade in western Canada, Nottingham House was erected less than a mile from Fort Chipewyan, a successful NWC trading post established in 1788.

Despite the best intentions of the HBC and Fidler’s crew, Nottingham House was not a successful trading post. The NWC at Fort Chipewyan took every chance to sabotage trade at Nottingham House, even going so far as to burn HBC canoes and to have individuals that were known to trade with the HBC beaten. In their first year, the HBC at Nottingham House generated a return of only six bundles of fur, which did not come close to covering the costs of their expedition. Fidler and his company remained at Nottingham House for four years, during which they struggled with dwindling trade, starvation and increasingly aggressive attacks from the NWC. On June 9, 1806, Nottingham House was abandoned and the HBC traders moved on to other posts.

Fig. 90Archaeological Research

The Nottingham House archaeological site was excavated by Karklins, an employee of the National Historic Parks and Sites Branch of Parks Canada during the 1970s. Karklins and seven others began their first 14-week excavation season in June 1972, returning for a lengthy field season each summer until 1977.

The archaeological crew unearthed just over 1,072 square meters of the site, revealing the remains of several buildings and work areas. The main house, measuring about 15 meters by 5 meters, was made up of four rooms with fireplaces, storage pits and a cellar. The site surrounding the main house included a storehouse, a provisions shed, a garden and several outdoor working areas, storage pits and trash pits. The structures were made from the locally-available wood, stones and clay. Most of the structures showed evidence of burning, which suggests that the NWC may have burned the camp after the HBC abandoned it in 1806.

Fig. 7The archaeology crew also uncovered 5,707 complete artifacts and a further 1,006 broken fragments of artifacts during their field seasons. The artifacts are typical of a fur trade post from that era. Most artifacts were personal items that would have been used by those living at the post or were kept as items for trading. These included beads, combs, mirrors, books and glass and ceramic containers.

The other artifacts reflect what would be needed to construct and maintain a fur trade post in undeveloped territory in 19th century Boreal Forest Alberta, such as tools and hardware (axes, nails and saws), hunting and fishing gear (gun parts and ammunition) and household items (cookware, furniture and sewing supplies). The historical record suggests that the HBC crew relied on a protein-rich diet, consisting mostly of animals and birds such as moose, bison, caribou, dog/wolf, snowshoe hare, swans, ducks and cranes that were traded from the local Aboriginal population. Other animals identified from the faunal remains included Arctic fox, muskrat, marten, wolverine and lynx, all of which were hunted for their furs and may have been eaten as well. The crew was also able to fish in Lake Athabasca and grow potatoes and turnips in their gardens.

Examples of gun parts and accessories that were found by Karklins at the Nottingham House archaeological site.
Examples of gun parts and accessories that were found by Karklins at the Nottingham House archaeological site.

Karklins’ research in the 1970s served to build a better understanding of the economy and material culture of the Nottingham House fur trade post. The site has not been excavated by archaeologists since the 1970s, but Karklins’ research has proved valuable for other archaeologists and historians studying the fur trade in western Canada, and especially in the Athabasca region of Alberta. The archaeological site of Nottingham House remains protected by the Historical Resources Act as an Alberta Significant Archaeological Site.

References and Figures: Karklins, K. (1979). Nottingham House: The Hudson’s Bay Company in Athabasca, 1802-1806 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Idaho).

Written by: Colleen Haukaas, Archaeological Permits & Digital Information Coordinator.