Megafloods and Layered Pasts: Exposing Alberta’s Oil Sands

On a cold January day researchers from the University of Alberta and the province’s Archaeological Survey huddled on a frozen lake near Fort McMurray waiting to extract long cores of mud. Layered throughout the cores are environmental indicators, like pollen and microorganisms, that span thousands of years. Geologists have tried to map the boundaries of hydrocarbon reservoirs in the oil sands for over a century but they have only recently focused on the natural forces that exposed bitumen to human eyes. The mystery of this exposure event is what continues to draw researchers to remote frozen lakes in northeast Alberta. Read more

Alberta’s Ancient Darts and Atlatl Hunting

How did people kill animals before guns and the bow and arrow? One of the oldest weapons in Alberta is called an atlatl or dart thrower. The atlatl increased in popularity around 8000 years ago and was the trusted technology for roughly 300 consecutive generations of hunters. It was replaced by the bow and arrow around 2000 years ago.

What’s an Atlatl? 

The atlatl is a carved wooden board, up to 1 m long, with a hook on one end that inserts into a divot at the end of a ‘dart’ shaft (about 1 m in length).

Figure 1. Atlatl and weight Amanda Dow
An atlatl throwing board (by Amanda Dow)

The hunter throws the dart in a motion similar to a baseball pitch. A flick of the wrist at the end of the throw increases the speed and power. Is the use of an atlatl better than just throwing a spear? The world record for a hand-thrown javelin is 104 m while the record for an atlatl thrown-dart is 258 m! Read more

Birch Bark Buccaneers and Prairie Paddlers: An Illustrated Look at Alberta’s Early Boating (Part 2)

This is the second of two blogs about some of the unique evidence of early boating in Alberta. The first blog explores First Nations boats and the second discusses the earliest Euro-Canadian vessels from the adoption of the birch back canoe to steamboats.

Boating in the Fur Trade

The first European fur traders adopted an eastern Algonkian-style of birch bark canoe. Every year, hundreds of men and women in Alberta gathered supplies and moulded lightweight ‘Express’ canoes at major fur trade boat building centres like Fort Chipewyan, Fort Edmonton, and Rocky Mountain House. While canoes and other physical traces of boat building at these forts have long since decayed, other lines of evidence of early boating are preserved. Trading posts needed Read more

Birch Bark Buccaneers and Prairie Paddlers: An Illustrated Look at Alberta’s Early Boating (Part 1)

It takes patience to fold steaming hot birch bark into a canoe and it takes power to hammer the planks of a lumbering sternwheeler. The products of Alberta’s early boat building were vessels that delivered families safe and sound to hunting grounds, glided fishermen over teaming shoals, and carried trade goods in an economic system that forged our province. This is the first of two blogs about some of the unique evidence of early boating in Alberta. The first blog explores First Nations boats and the second discusses early Euro-Canadian vessels from the adoption of the birch back canoe to steamboats.

Dug-outs and Bull Boats

First Nations’ boats on the plains were often made of buffalo hides stretched over willow or pine frames. This ‘bull boat’ was a small, circular craft quickly built from tipi hides and recycled shortly after. It enabled safe river crossings Read more

Tracking Ancient Connections: The Alberta Obsidian Project

Obsidian is a natural glassy rock that was produced by volcanoes and used by pre-contact people across North America for making stone tools. Obsidian is the sharpest naturally occurring substance on earth, which made it ideal for making tools such as arrowheads and knives that were designed to slice animal flesh. Many obsidian tools have been found in Alberta despite the fact that there are no natural sources of it in the province. This means that obsidian was traded or carried into Alberta from long distances away. Research on obsidian tools at archaeological sites in Alberta has been conducted on a small scale since the late 1980’s. The current Alberta Obsidian Project (AOP) is the first large-scale attempt to analyse our province’s obsidian; it began in 2014 when a research plan was developed by members of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the Center of Applied Isotope Studies (CAIS) at the University of Georgia. Read more

Frozen Finds in the Alpine

Recent archaeological research from Alaska to Yellowstone has revealed rare and delicate tools preserved in high altitude ice that tell of a deep human history in some of the most remote alpine habitats on the continent. These artifacts were lost by ancient hunters of alpine animals (like caribou and sheep) and had been encased in a barrier of ice that warming temperatures have recently unlocked. A race is now on to find frozen relics from the past before they, and the icy archives that house them, disappear.

This stone dart is over 4000 years old and is preserved in its original wooden shaft (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).
This stone dart is over 4000 years old and is preserved in its original wooden shaft (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).

The story of prehistoric alpine hunters in North America owes its existence to Yukon biologists who discovered an odd piece of wood above the treeline. The find was reported to local archaeologists who realized that it was a wooden tool lost on the ice thousands of years ago. First Nations across the North still remember stories of traditional life in the alpine, but until that lucky Yukon find, archaeologists didn’t expect that much physical evidence of old activities could be preserved in the harsh high altitude conditions. It is very rare to find wooden tools that are thousands of years old, so the artifact triggered a series of research programs in the North.

An archaeologist surveying a melting ice patch for artifacts (courtesy of Mike Donnelly).
An archaeologist (Todd Kristensen) surveying a melting ice patch for artifacts (courtesy of Mike Donnelly).

On a daily basis, caribou migrate upslope to colder heights during the hottest time of day only to return to the valleys at night. Alpine ice features provide animals relief from insects and hot temperatures. This long-lived habit of ice patch use makes these animals predictable. And so, as long as caribou and other animals have been gathering at ice patches in the North (for over 9000 years), people armed with sturdy moccasins and stone-tipped weapons have followed them.

Caribou gather on the upland ice features to stay cool in the midday heat (Todd Kristensen).
Caribou gather on the upland ice features to stay cool in the midday heat (Todd Kristensen).


The perfect ice patch borders a round top that enabled hunters to lurk from above undetected (Todd Kristensen).
The perfect ice patch borders a round top that enabled hunters to lurk from above undetected (Todd Kristensen).

Archaeologists have found remnants of prehistoric hunting trips including possible broken spear shafts near Jasper, arrows, bows, darts, and  an excellently preserved 1400 year old Yukon moccasin. Some arrows even retain the feathers that were tied to their shafts, which helped create drag that kept the arrows flying straight. (This is called ‘fletching’ and is the origin of the common European surname ‘Fletcher’. Arrowmaker is also a common First Nations family name for this reason.)

This moccasin held the foot of an alpine climber over a thousand years ago (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).
This moccasin held the foot of an alpine climber over a thousand years ago (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).
Figure 7. Arrow materials
Modern science is pin-pointing the materials used in ancient weapons (Todd Kristensen).

Archaeologists in N.W.T. have also found a snare in an alpine ice patch that was used to capture ground squirrels, the skins of which were stitched together to form beautiful robes. Based on First Nations traditional knowledge, up to 200 snares were set in a single alpine area and this could produce enough food to last for months. Add to this the supply of caribou, sheep, ptarmigan, and berries, and alpine life from late summer to early fall was good.

This barbed lance is a carved piece of antler from a Yukon ice patch (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).
This barbed lance is a carved piece of antler from a Yukon ice patch (courtesy of the Government of Yukon).

Ice patches that lasted for over four millennia have vanished in the last 50 years and scientists are monitoring the implications for alpine ecology. While the causes of ice retreat are debated, the impact on the archaeological record is clear. Melting ice has unlocked a story of prehistoric hunting but at the same time, it has exposed those very clues of the ancient past to destructive high altitude weather. A book is opening and quickly closing and much remains to be learned before the fragile alpine artifacts decompose. If modern climbers find old bones, wood, or a potential artifact, please leave them in place and contact the authors with some photographs or map coordinates so we can continue to learn about the deep past of life in the alpine.

Ice patches in the North West Territories. (Tom Andrews, Government of N.W.T.).
Ice patches in the North West Territories. (Tom Andrews, Government of N.W.T.).

A full version of this article appeared in the October issue of Alberta Outdoorsmen.

Written by: Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist, Alberta’s Archaeological Survey); Tom Andrews (Territorial Archaeologist, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre;, and Darryl Bereziuk (Director, Alberta’s Archaeological Survey)

Preserving the Past at Writing-on-Stone

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is nestled into the winding valleys and coulees along Milk River in Southern Alberta. Painted and carved on its fragile sandstone walls are one of the largest collections of rock art in North America. Appropriately named, Writing-on-Stone is a rocky canvas of ancient and historic art that spans many centuries.

To increase awareness of this unique piece of the past and to encourage the preservation of sensitive historic resources, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork, like the piece depicted above, that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.

Rock Art in Alberta

Alberta’s rock art includes pictographs (paintings), petroglyphs (engravings), carved boulders, and effigies (rocks arranged to form shapes). Art that was applied to rock walls has a variety of functions and there are six major types in Alberta.

Rock Art Map
This map depicts the general extent of recorded First Nations rock art in Alberta.


‘En Toto Pecked’ involves figures that were entirely pecked out of the rock wall and this tradition of art appears in Alberta from 2500-1500 years ago. It is thought to have originated in Wyoming.

‘Vertical Series’ may be a type of rock art that acted as a communication system that related events and actors. It may be ideographic (like Egyptian hieroglyphs) with name glyphs like the Mayans of Central America.

‘Columbia Plateau’ refers to vision quest or hunting ritual art thought to be made by people originally from interior B.C. This style of rock art ranges from a few hundred to several thousand years old.

‘Foothills Abstract’ is a rock art style that consists of enigmatic shapes and motifs that may be the work of religious figures. Subjects include handprints, animals (and their tracks), and stylized humans.

‘Plains Biographical’ refers to rock art that documents events, important figures, or tallies of things acquired/exchanged by the Blackfoot and their ancestors.

Lastly, ‘Plains Ceremonial’ refers to spiritually important rock art that is still of great significance to modern Blackfoot Nations. Out of respect for the power of these and other rock art images to modern First Nations, photographs of the various styles of rock art are not included here.

The Milk River Valley Through Time

First Nations pursued buffalo herds in the Milk River region and view the valley as a sacred place where stories and dreams were recorded on the rock walls. The earliest Europeans included a mix of traders, coal miners, and Northwest Mounted Police, the early history of which is still recorded in modern place names.

Milk River valley map


Milk River Valley photograph

Cattle quickly replaced a vacancy left when buffalo were eliminated in the late 1800s. In addition to ranchers, new irrigation techniques and canals opened up the area to more intensive cultivation. Modern users of the Milk River landscape include farmers, Kainai First Nations, oil and gas operators, ranchers, and people in the tourism industry associated with Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and National Historic Site (the photograph below is of the morning light on the park’s sandstone hoodoos, courtesy of Robert Berdan). Just as the uses of the Milk River region have changed in the past, they will continue to evolve in the future.

Writing-on-Stone photograph

The above painting by Anne McCartney is a textured narrative of landscape change in the Milk River Valley. The background is from an aerial photograph showing irrigated fields creeping to the valley’s edge. At lower right is a looming sandstone cliff that has witnessed a steady flow of First Nations, traders, miners, explorers, and farmers passing through the valley. In the upper left is a rock art panel depicting a battle scene from the deep past. Recent vandalism of that very panel highlights the need to protect and appreciate the landscape of Writing-on-Stone.

Protecting Rock Art Landscapes

The evocative and significant collection of art at Writing-on-Stone is under constant threat. Sadly, vandalism and graffiti have defaced some of the park’s art but through education and restricted access, much of the vandalism has now been curtailed. Instilling visitors with a healthy respect for the spiritual importance of the area to the modern Blackfoot will help ensure that the landscape is protected. Natural erosion, however, is unstoppable.

Much rock art has disappeared over the centuries from weathering of soft sandstone. New technologies are helping to better document the art and may lead to long term methods that slow rates of erosion. The park has been a key site in North America for experimentation with techniques to protect rock art.

Laser scanner
Archaeologists use laser scanners to accurately record rock art panels.

Portable laser scanners have been used to record high-quality images and to produce near-perfect replicas. Artificial drip-lines and plastic caps are diverting water from some exposed panels and a consolidant has been applied in experimental non-rock art locations to test the ability to strengthen rock and prolong the life of rock art images. Note that none of the preservation measures will be applied directly to ancient images without thorough review and cooperation with the Blackfoot people. Rock art left in its natural setting will eventually be lost, but there is much that can be done to enable a prolonged period of appreciation and enjoyment from viewing the hopes and dreams of early artists.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Jack Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

Early Cabins in the West

Cabins performed a variety of functions in Alberta’s past from homesteading to hunting and post offices to ranger cabins. Many events and daily challenges that defined our province unfolded on the wooden floors of early cabins. Just like the characters they housed, each cabin’s architecture and associated artifacts are unique.

Cabin and tobacco tin

To encourage an appreciation of cabins and the surviving record of them, as well as other historic resources in the province, a collaborative team from the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum initiated the Heritage Art Series. The goal is to create artworks that depict scenes from Alberta’s past that captivate public audiences. We hope that these artworks, like the cabin painting above, stimulate an interest in learning about our province’s heritage, which will in turn instill a greater respect for the past.

Cabins were typically made of raw timbers with a variety of corner joints, roofs, sawn floorboards, and chimneys. Associated features include outhouses, garbage pits, ice houses (for storing food), cellars, and drying racks. What can the archaeological record tell us about cabins and their occupants? Maps of cabins and associated structures reveal how people utilized landscapes and interacted with each other within cabins. Our modern homes are often relatively large with multiple rooms and levels, which is drastically different from the single-room cabins that many Albertans spent their lives in. An historical perspective informs us that changes in domestic architecture have had a real impact on the way Alberta’s families interact with each other and with their neighbours.

Cabin map

Cabins are often associated with historic trails that influenced how regions were settled and how goods were transported across the country. Cabin modifications over time tell stories of trial-and-error adaptations to new landscapes while artifacts can indicate the types of activities conducted around cabins, cultural affinities, number of occupants, and the season of occupation. Outhouses and garbage pits can reveal past diets, wealth, access to luxury goods, hygiene, medical conditions, and entertainment.

Cabin and bottle

Aside from cabins’ phsycial make-up and artifact assemblages, they are significant heritage resources because they were often the first permanent structures to appear on many of Alberta’s landscapes. They represent a new adaptation and a new way of life for the people who first built them. There are over 550 recorded archaeological sites in Alberta with cabin components. Over 115 of these sites also have a pre-contact First Nations component, which suggests that many of the good spots for cabins have always been good places to make a living on the land.

Homestead photograph

The painting at the top of this article by Gregg Johnson is of a trapper’s cabin in the autumn foothills. It captures the solitude of the trapper’s life. Autumn was a busy time as trapper’s geared up for winter. Supplies were brought in, trap lines were re-established, and wood was cut for the long winter ahead. Like many of Alberta’s industries, modern trapping has an interesting past and an informative historic record. Archaeology offers a unique opportunity to learn about the past lives of people who may not be represented in historical accounts. In this sense, the study of historic resources gives a voice to people who have not been given the chance to speak for hundreds of years.

Miners cabin

An example of a current research project about cabins that will illuminate the past record of a poorly understood group of people is that by Dr. Kisha Supernant at Buffalo Lake. Dr. Supernant and her research team from the University of Alberta are studying the adaptations of Metis and First Nations people who occupied Buffalo Lake in the 1800s in order to acquire meat that supplied neighbouring trade posts like Fort Edmonton. Her excavations and mapping program will uncover an important way of life that helped shape our province.

Mapping crew
Dr. Supernant and a graduate student use GPS equipment to map archaeological features.

The next blog of the Heritage Art Series will be about the changing landscape and rock art of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Kisha Supernant, University of Alberta

Ancient and Early Historic Fishing in the North

In the boreal forest, where big game animals were often hard to find, fish were a life-saving staple for thousands of years. Archaeological and historical records reveal a wide variety of fascinating angling techniques used by Alberta’s First Nations.

Figure 9. Fishing techniques edit


To increase awareness of these practices and other elements of Alberta’s past, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.

The second painting in the series is a symbolic depiction of a mother teaching her daughter about the relationship between people and fish. First Nations survived in Alberta by passing down immense amounts of knowledge, which this image by Jenny Keith illustrates. The artwork also celebrates the role that women make to traditional diets. Fishng was primarily a women’s task in Northern Alberta. Women needed to know where to catch fish, how to make nets, how often to check them, and when to repair them.

The largest catch of fish was traditionally by gill net during fall spawning runs of whitefish. Whitefish were particularly important because they are high in fat, which becomes scarce in the north during long winters. Gill nets are long rows of interconnected squares that capture fish by the gills. What were nets made of before twine? Amazingly, women spent hundreds of hours weaving twisted willow bark or animal sinew into long nets.

Figure 10. Net IMG_1047
This is an example of a willow bark net from the Royal Alberta Museum.

Gill nets were set across rivers or narrow channels during warmer months or were strung through holes under the ice in winter. Large fish were also shot with bow and arrow or were speared by canoe. Some First Nations made fishing arrowheads out of pike jaw bones: nothing catches fish better than fish! Jigging with hooks made of bone and wood was also done, primarily in winter. Hooks were baited with meat scraps, hair, feathers, and beaver oil.

Fishing increased in importance when Europeans arrived. Fur traders in Northern Alberta made a living on pelts but they lived on fish. At Fort Chipewyan in Northeast Alberta, traders caught 33 000 fish from October to January in 1822. The ration was four fish a day (and a potatoe if they were lucky). Some northern trade posts even had to be relocated because they lacked good access to fisheries.

The archaeological record of fishing is sparse because fishing tools are often organic while fish bones tend to be fragile: very little of this survives in Alberta’s acidic soils. Some interesting fish-related fnds include possible stone fish hooks, bone prongs used on fish spears, sinkers (weights) that weighed down nets, and fish vertebrae that were drilled to make beads.


Artifact compilation
This is a collection of pre-contact fish-related artifacts from Alberta that span several thousand years.

Recently developed scientific techniques have also enabled the recovery of fish blood from the edges of stone tools like arrowheads and knives. Even though fish bones don’t survive, archaeologists studying blood residue have been able to determine that fish like pike, walleye, and whitefish were caught thousands of years ago. Lastly, fur trade forts have yielded an interesting array of early hooks. Some are entirely metal while others, like the example below, are a combination of bone and iron.

Figure 4. Fish hook
This fur trade fish hook was found by Jack McIntosh at Dunvegan near Grande Prairie.

When asked to imagine ancient life and food harvesting practices, people often think of men stalking mammoths or stampeding buffalo over cliffs. In reality, for much of Alberta’s human history, women have made just as important if not more important contributions to traditional diets. The painting above is intended to broaden perspectives of hunting and fishing practices while emphasizing the social dimension of food harvesting. People didn’t just survive by capturing food; they persisted for thousands of years by acquiring generations of knowledge that was passed down from parent to child year after year after year.

Stay tuned for the next installation of the Heritage Art Series, which will present the physical record of cabins and their significance in Alberta’s early history.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Jack Ives.

Ecological Catastrophes in Alberta’s Past: The Mazama Volcanic Eruption

Did you know that one of the largest ecological catastrophes in Alberta’s human history was a volcanic ash fall? Around 7600 years ago the skies were blackened for many days and the prairies of Alberta were blanketed with roughly 15 cm of ash ejected during the Mazama eruption.

To create awareness of this event and other important moments in Alberta’s past, a team from the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum initiated a project called the Heritage Art Series.  The goal is to captivate public audiences with artwork that creatively explores ancient landscapes, relationships between people and their surroundings, and the enduring physical record of human activities. We hope the series inspires a desire to learn more about our province’s heritage and that a greater awareness of the past will instill a deeper respect for it. We’ll release the first four paintings in the series over the coming weeks with explanations about the significant events and figures that each scene depicts.

The first painting (above) by Karen Bishop captures a surreal landscape of Southern Alberta as it would have looked 7600 years ago during the Mazama volcanic eruption. While the volcano that erupted was in Oregon (at modern day Crater Lake), it only took about 12 hours for some of the estimated 100 km³ of ash to reach Alberta. The ash smothered plants, contaminated fresh water, and would have filled animals’ lungs. Airborne particles would have caused intense lightning storms. Huge swaths of dead vegetation combined with frequent lightning led to widespread fires.

Mazama ash distribution and depth diagram
This map shows the spread of Mazama ash into Alberta. The inset depicts the depth of Mazama ash relative to people and dogs.
Ash depth comparison
This figure depicts how deeply Edmonton and Calgary would be buried if all of the ash from the Mazama eruption were confined to the city limits.

By studying micro-organisms and microscopic silica particles in soils and lake beds, scientists, including a team of ‘tephrochronologists’ led by Dr. Duane Froese from the University of Alberta, are learning more about the ecological impact and timing of volcanic eruptions in Western Canada. Climatic systems were altered by the relatively dense ash ejected into the atmosphere, the pH of soils and water bodies changed, and mobile animals like bison likely abandoned their territories for lack of fodder and/or drinking water. However, while the impact was widespread, preserved pollen suggests that plant communities rebounded rapidly. Overall, landscapes may have recovered fairly quickly from volcanic eruptions (on the scale of 2-10 years), but the effect on human populations was likely more pronounced.


Silica particles for blog

The archaeological record reveals that portions of the province were abandoned for several decades and possibly much longer. Notable changes in weapons and raw materials that were used for stone tools around the time of the Mazama eruption may be linked to this ecological catastrophe; the people that returned to once-vacated landscapes were either different from their predecessors or they arrived with new ideas acquired from their neighbours. This, and other large-scale eruptions in North America over the past 10 000 years, changed the direction of local human histories. New cultures, technologies, and social networks emerged after volcanic events.

Projectile points in Alberta

Despite the dramatic nature of volcanic eruptions, few people realize that Alberta has experienced them in the past and that other ecological catastrophes have influenced the development of Alberta’s past cultures. Palaeoenvironmental scientists and archaeologists have learned a great deal about past ecological events that, while educational, have more profound implications for the way we manage ecosystems and respond to the world around us. By studying the past, we can learn how to brace for the future.

To learn more about the Mazama eruption and other palaeoenvironmental studies in Alberta, visit some of Dr. Alwynne Beaudoin’s research at the Royal Alberta Museum.

Stay tuned for the next installation of the Heritage Art Series, which will discuss the archaeological and historical records of First Nations fishing in Northern Alberta.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist & Alwynne Beaudoin, Royal Alberta Museum.