Rocky Mountain Alpine Project: Willmore Wilderness Park

From August 8-12th, 2016, Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist), Robin Woywitka (Cultural Land Use Analyst), Courtney Lakevold (Archaeological Information Coordinator) and graduate student Timothy Allan visited Willmore Wilderness Park as part of the Rocky Mountain Alpine Project (RMAP). RMAP is focused on the recovery of archaeological artifacts and other organic remains (e.g., feathers, bones, caribou antlers and dung) from melting ice patches. Amazing artifacts have been found melting out of ice patches in alpine areas in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, United States and Norway. These finds have been very important for understanding how people used alpine areas in the past.

Alberta has vast stretches of alpine environments, many of which are quite fragile. One element of those fragile alpine habitats are ice patches that are currently melting at a rapid pace. The goal of RMAP is to explore Alberta’s ice patches to see how people in the past used alpine environments and see how it compares to that of people in other parts of Canada and the world. Last summer, the first RMAP expedition took place in Jasper National Park where many organics were found, as well as a piece of leather that was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1670. Read more

The Borden Number System: What the FcOq?

In a previous post we talked about how Alberta has almost 40,000 recorded archaeological sites. Each of these sites has its own record and associated artifacts so, you can imagine, it is a lot to keep track of. One of the most important tools we use to organize site data is a Borden number. You may have heard sites referred to by their Borden number before; for example Head-Smashed-In is also known as DkPj-1. The Borden number is actually more important than the site name as the Borden number is what is used to organize all site records and for cataloguing artifacts. In fact, the majority of sites in Alberta do not have a name at all, they are known solely by their Borden number.

Borden number DlPd-3 (Ross Site) is used as the unique identifier for this archaeological site (left). Borden numbers are also used to catalogue artifacts that are recovered from archaeological sites (right).
Borden number DlPd-3 (Ross Site) is used as the unique identifier for this archaeological site (left). Borden numbers are also used to catalogue artifacts as a way to identify what site they came from (right). (Photo Credits: Royal Alberta Museum)

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Archaeology and the June 2013 Floods in Southern Alberta

In June 2013, heavy rainfall triggered catastrophic flooding in southern Alberta that has been characterized as some of the worst in the province’s history. Areas along the Bow, Elbow, Highwood, Red Deer, Sheep, Little Bow and South Saskatchewan Rivers, and their tributaries, were affected. Estimates of property damage from the flood make it one of the most costly in Canadian history. Personal property, however, was not the only casualty. The torrents of water accelerated natural erosional and depositional processes, resulting in significant alteration to many of southern Alberta’s river systems.

Debris-flow fan on the Highwood River, caused by the June 2013 flood.
Debris-flow fan on the Highwood River.
Erosional exposure on the Sheep River, caused by the June 2013 flood.
Erosional exposure on the Sheep River, caused by the June 2013 flood.

The potential for finding archaeological sites along southern Alberta’s river systems has always been high. The distribution of known archaeological sites in Alberta indicate the importance of the major river systems to precontact and historic people as sources of fresh water, food resources and travel corridors.  As a result of these associations, a number of archaeological sites were also identified as casualties of the June 2013 flood. Read more

Paleoindian Archaeology, Pleistocene Extinctions and Mongolian Use of Space: An Interview with Dr. Todd Surovell

The University of Alberta Association of Graduate Anthropology Students will be hosting the 24th Annual Richard Frucht Memorial Lecture Series from March 2-4, 2016. The distinguished speaker for this year’s conference is Dr. Todd Surovell of the University of Wyoming. I had a chance to interview Dr. Surovell about his research ahead of his upcoming visit to Alberta and he offered some fascinating insights into North American colonization, the extinction of North American megafauna, and his observations of household space use by Mongolian reindeer herders as a means to inform archaeological interpretations.

Dr. Todd Surovell at the Barnes Site, Hot Springs County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)
Dr. Todd Surovell at the Barnes Site, Hot Springs County, Wyoming (Photo: Todd Surovell)

How long have you been doing archaeology? What got you interested in it?

I have been doing archaeology for about 23 years. I got interested in archaeology somewhat by accident; I always thought I would be a biologist, zoologist, or ornithologist as I was an avid bird-watcher, but I registered for a course called Introduction to Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin and the teaching assistant was advertising an archaeology field school in western Wisconsin. I did the field school and fell in love with field archaeology. Read more

Yellowhead Townsite and Mine: Archaeology in Alberta’s Coal Branch

Alberta’s Coal Branch region, southwest of Edson, was once an area bustling with activity, not only due to coal production, but also with the day-to-day goings-on of communities. In its heyday, the Coal Branch supported a population of almost 3,000 people spread out among several towns including Cadomin, Mercoal, Mountain Park, Luscar, Lovettville, Coalspur, Robb, Coal Valley, and Beacon Hill. These communities, though small, had many amenities including stores, community halls, sports fields, schools, churches, and hospitals. Today, many of them have been completely abandoned or are only used for part of the year.

Part of the Yellowhead site, likely during the mid-to-late stages of mine development (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Edmonton, PR1991.0312 A19987)
Part of the Yellowhead Townsite and Mine which was in operation from 1909-1919 (Photo Credit: Provincial Archives of Alberta, PR1991.0312 A19987)

Yellowhead Mine and its associated “stag camp”, and later townsite, was the first mining operation in production in the Coal Branch. Run by the Yellowhead Pass Coal and Coke Co., the mine began operations in 1909, before railroads or roads reached the area. Since the only way in and out of Yellowhead was by pack trail, the settlement was fairly isolated and difficult to get to. When mining first began, the coal could not be shipped out due to lack of rail access, so coal was stockpiled. The railroad Read more

Rocky Mountain Alpine Project Update

In an earlier post we showed a video of the fieldwork undertaken for the Rocky Mountain Alpine Project in August of 2015. This was a pilot project to determine the potential for finding organic archaeological artifacts in ice patches in the Jasper National Park area. One of our most exciting finds was a leather strip that had recently melted out from the edge of an ice patch. However, we also found and collected a significant number of other naturally occurring organic materials melting out from the ice. While most of these are not archaeological, they are valuable for understanding how this environment and the animals living in it have changed over time. The pilot project revealed that ice patches in Jasper and neighbouring Mount Robson Provincial Park have great potential for archaeological research but also for biological, environmental, and climate research. See below for some of our other finds and their potential to contribute to our knowledge of this landscape’s past.

Natural Organics

Caribou antlers were the most abundant organic materials found. Antlers can be used to reconstruct caribou populations in the past by recovering DNA from them and using genetics to track population growth and decline. It is important to understand how populations change naturally so that we can interpret what effect human activity might have on caribou. We may also be able to detect the impact of past ecological events (like volcanic eruptions) on caribou populations. Similarily, caribou dung present in the ice patches can also be used to track caribou populations and diet. Some researchers have also used finds like this to track the evolution of viruses.

A sample of some of the caribou and elk antlers found at the edge of the ice patches.
A sample of some of the caribou antlers found at the edge of the ice patches.
Caribou dung melting out of the ice.
Caribou dung melting out of the ice.

Bone is another important archaeological and ecological find. Any bone that was encountered was examined for evidence of human modification such as breaking or fracturing of the bones from hunting and processing. Read more

Rocky Mountain Alpine Project

In August of 2015 members of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta undertook fieldwork in Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. This work had a focus on ice patch archaeology – that is, surveying melting alpine ice patches to recover ancient cultural and natural material revealed by retreating ice and snow. The video below showcases this fieldwork and explains its importance. A more detailed blog post will follow in the next few weeks to provide more information about this important initiative that was spearheaded by our Northern Archaeologist, Todd Kristensen. Enjoy!

00044 from Courtney Lakevold on Vimeo.

Video footage, audio and photos by: Courtney Lakevold (Archaeological Information Coordinator), Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist), Mike Donnelly (Archaeologist), and Travis Jones (Ph.D. Student, University of Georgia/Center for Applied Isotope Studies)

Video and summary by: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator