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

Archaeological Survey Public Outreach and Research

HAS Slide 2014 edit

An important mandate of the Archaeological Survey section of the Historic Resources Management Branch is to undertake extra-regulatory public outreach projects and research initiatives. The staff at the Survey have been busy this last year pursuing this goal. Some of the projects and activities that have taken place, or are underway now, are highlighted below.

Part of this goal includes delivering programs that address Albertan’s desires to learn about their heritage and widen appreciation for Alberta’s archaeological resources. Youth outreach was done through the delivery of eight school programs to elementary and junior high school students. Darryl Bereziuk, Director of Archaeological Survey, and Blair First Rider, Aboriginal Consultation Adviser, presented to students at Leo Nickerson Elementary School in St. Albert; Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, presented to 6 classrooms as part of the U School Education Program at the University of Alberta; and Wendy Unfreed, Plains Archaeologist, participated in a youth apprenticeship field program for Dr. Swift Junior High School in Lac La Biche. Read more

Report A Find

Have you ever discovered a projectile point, stone tool, ceramic, bone or other archaeological artifact? If so, we want to hear from you!

A variety of artifacts typically found in Alberta. Photo credit: Todd Kristensen.
A variety of artifacts typically found in Alberta. Photo credit: Todd Kristensen.

Archaeological artifacts may be exposed by natural events (flooding, freeze/thaw cycles or tree throws) or human modification to a landscape (agriculture, recreation activities or development). As explained in a previous post, Alberta is Rich in Archaeology, archaeologists working in the province discover, or revisit, sites during the course of Historical Resource Impact Assessments. However, there are large stretches of the province that are not subject to Historical Resource Impact Assessments such as previously cultivated areas or areas that do not have development projects on them. This doesn’t mean there are not archaeology sites there. Often, people will discover archaeological artifacts and sites when they are out hiking, fishing, geocaching, working or cultivating their fields. This can include arrowheads or other stone tools, bones, ceramics or tipi rings and other stone features. So, what can people do when they make these discoveries? They can Report A Find!

Bone artifact from a “Stones and Bones” event in Coaldale. Photo credit: Royal Alberta Museum.
Bone artifact from a “Stones and Bones” event in Coaldale. Photo credit: Royal Alberta Museum.

The Archaeological Survey has set up a webpage where people can report their discoveries. You can get an expert opinion on your find and, who knows, possibly be credited with recording a new archaeological site! Recording this information is a big step in helping to preserve and protect Alberta’s historical resources. But, please remember that if you observe an artifact in your travels, the best practice is to leave it where you found it. Archaeological sites are protected under Alberta’s Historic Resources Act, regardless of where they were found. Removing an artifact from its original context disrupts the integrity of the site and may hinder efforts to further understand the significance of the object. You just need to provide us with a photo of your find and the location it was found, either by providing geographic coordinates or plotting the location on a map. Your find will be reported to staff at the Archaeological Survey and they will follow up with you and possibly ask for additional information. Staff will confirm if the site is already known or if the find warrants a new site designation!

Medicine Wheel with outer rings and a central cairn. Photo credit: Royal Alberta Museum.
Medicine Wheel with outer rings and a central cairn. Photo credit: Royal Alberta Museum.

Reporting finds can provide valuable information that helps the staff at the Archaeological Survey manage, protect and preserve archaeological resources in Alberta. We can’t wait to hear about your discoveries!

Written by: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator.

Alberta is Rich in Archaeology

Did you know that Alberta has almost 40,000 recorded archaeological sites and 13,000 years of history?

One of the most common questions archaeologists working in Alberta hear is, “do you ever find anything?”. The resounding answer is yes! Archaeologists working in Alberta find hundreds of new sites and thousands of artifacts every year. Ever heard of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (a UNESCO world cultural site), Majorville Medicine Wheel, Writing-On-Stone, Quarry of the Ancestors, Fort Vermilion, Buffalo Lake Metis Wintering site, or Cluny Earthlodge Village? These are just a few examples of Alberta’s amazing archaeological resources!

Distribution of archaeology sites in Alberta, December 2014.
Distribution of archaeology sites in Alberta, December 2014.

An archaeological resource in Alberta is defined as “a work of humans that is of value for its prehistoric, historic, cultural or scientific significance” and is protected under the Historical Resources Act. Sites are classed into two major groups: prehistoric and historic. Over 80% of the sites in the province are prehistoric (which predate the arrival of Europeans); just over 10% are historic (postdating European arrival); and the rest are a mix of both prehistoric and historic, contemporary, indigenous historic (such as Metis sites), and natural sites. Some of the most common prehistoric sites are campsites; stone features; animal kill sites; processing sites; rock art sites and ceremonial sites, such as medicine wheels and cairns. Historic sites include trading posts, police posts, early settlements, homesteads, and industrial sites.

Some of the oldest archaeological sites in Alberta date to as early as 13,000-8,000 years ago or what is known as the Palaeoindian Period. Prior to ~13,000 years ago what is now Alberta was covered by massive ice sheets that rendered the landscape uninhabitable. Shortly after the retreat of the ice sheets, however, animals and then people began moving into the area. At a site called Wally’s Beach in southern Alberta, archaeologists have recorded mammoth, camel and horse tracks. Not only that, they have discovered direct evidence of humans hunting these animals! Since then, what is now Alberta has been continuously occupied by numerous cultural groups, whose remnants we find in the form of discarded stone tools, butchered animal bones, hearths, broken pottery, buried palisade walls from forts and various other artifacts and features.

A historic fenceline at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park being recorded by Alberta Culture & Tourism staff, October 2014. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Unfreed, Plains Archaeologist.)
A historic fenceline at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park being recorded by Alberta Culture & Tourism staff, October 2014. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Unfreed, Plains Archaeologist)

These days the majority of new archaeological sites in Alberta are recorded by historic resource management consultants. Consulting companies are hired by developers in the province to carry out Historical Resource Impact Assessments, which involve the survey and testing of areas that will be affected by a proposed development for the potential or presence of archaeological sites. If a consultant deems an area to be high potential (judged by factors such as landforms, proximity to water bodies, and proximity to known sites, among other things) he or she will conduct surface inspection and possibly shovel testing (digging a hole about 40 cm by 40 cm in size) to search for archaeological artifacts or features.

If results are positive, the information is submitted to the Archaeological Survey and a unique identifier, called a Borden number, is assigned to the site. The Archaeological Survey can then offer protection and management strategies for these sites. This could involve requirements for complete avoidance or excavation of the site prior to development. Archaeological site information is stored in the Alberta Archaeological Sites Inventory, an important resource for historic resource consultants and other researchers. Artifacts recovered from archaeological sites are stored at the Royal Alberta Museum where they are made accessible for research or put on display in one of their exhibits.

Alberta Culture and Tourism staff members Robin Woywitka, Cultural Land Use Analyst, and Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, recording stratigraphy at an excavated site in the Fort McMurray region, October 2013. (Photo courtesy of Robin Woywitka.)
Alberta Culture and Tourism staff members Robin Woywitka (Cultural Land Use Analyst) and Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist) recording stratigraphy at an excavated site in the Fort McMurray region, October 2013. (Photo courtesy of Robin Woywitka)

Alberta’s archaeology may not be as visible as in other parts of the world, but we really do have a rich heritage and an abundance of archaeological resources — we just have to work a little harder to find them. It’s incredible what we can learn when we start digging into our past!

Tell us, what’s your favourite archaeology site in Alberta?

Written by: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator.