Did volcanic eruptions in Canada’s deep past affect Indigenous people?

Written by: By Dr. Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Archaeologists compare records before and after ancient volcanic eruptions to understand how the lives of people changed. Impacts of ecological disasters on humans can be detected along local and broad scales: how did Indigenous people cope at a specific site and how did human relationships change across vast regions? A massive eruption 1,200 years ago, called White River Ash East, changed the way that people in northern Canada hunted and gathered in areas affected by volcanic ash, which fell in beds up to 1 m thick. Beyond the ash footprint, human networks were forever altered, with ripple effects that spread through Alberta and North America.

A volcano in Alaska sent ash east across southern Yukon, southwest NWT, and into northwest Alberta. Geologists study beds of ash (tephra) to reconstruct the size of eruptions. The shaded colours are rough estimates of how thick the volcanic ash is. Source: Todd Kristensen.
Ash depth relative to people (top). When the ash originally fell, it was loose and deep but would’ve compressed over time (top right inset). Based on other eruptions, the White River Ash East tephra may have shrunk up to 50% in the following decades after it fell. At bottom is an estimate of ash thickness in current sediments with the original ash thickness in brackets. Source: Todd Kristensen.
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Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta and Jack W. Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

The Archaeological Survey of Alberta is proud to release the complete volume of Occasional Paper Series No. 40, available for free download:

Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada: the Occasional Paper Series in 2020

In addition to two articles published earlier this year, this blog announces the release of four new articles to complete the volume:

Microblades in northwest North America

Skilled flintknapper Eugene Gryba discusses a specific stone tool technology called microblades in northwest North America. He draws on decades of first-hand experience creating stone tools to argue for a free-hand pressure technique to explain archaeological occurrences of microblades across the continent.

Napi effigies

Trevor Peck presents an updated synthesis of unusual and intriguing archaeological features called petroforms (boulder outlines), in this case, Napi effigies on the Plains. These large arrangements of boulders depict an important Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) entity who figures prominently in stories and belief systems. The paper discusses their style and distribution and argues for a subdivision of different groups of Napi effigies that may be linked to different phases of Siksikaitsitapi history.

Porcellanite

A team of archaeologists is studying the raw materials used in Alberta to make stone tools over the past 12,000 years. The fifth paper in the current volume discusses a material called porcellanite that was fused over millions of years through natural coal combustion. Indigenous people used porcellanite from Montana, North Dakota, and from local outcrops in Alberta to make stone tools. The paper presents photographs and several laboratory results to help archaeologists accurately identify porcellanite.

Surface collection of artifacts

The final paper in the volume presents an interesting surface collection of artifacts from northern Alberta. The collection from the Fort Vermilion area includes stone projectile points, scrapers, knives, cores, and flakes made out of a variety of raw materials. Heinz Pyszczyk and colleagues from the Royal Alberta Museum and the University of Lethbridge argue that tool styles and affinities to the south suggest that the collection represents 9000 years of human occupation in the region.

Previous volumes can be downloaded for free here. Thank you to all the authors. If you are an archaeologist interested in contributing to the 2021 issue, dedicated to heritage in Canada’s boreal forest, please contact the Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada: the Occasional Paper Series in 2020

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta and Jack W. Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

The Archaeological Survey of Alberta is proud to kick-off Occasional Paper Series No. 40 with its first two articles, which are available for free download here:

The atlatl weights of Saskatchewan

The rock art of the Williams Coulee site, EcPl-16, southwestern Alberta

Individual articles are published online throughout the year and the final compiled volume is typically released in spring. We encourage submissions from archaeologists in cultural resource management (CRM), universities and other heritage professions.

Archaeologists used a computer software program (Dstretch) to enhance the images of painted figures in southern Alberta (image by Jack Brink).

Occasional Paper Series No.40, “Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada, 2020” features articles with a broad range of topics about archaeology on the Northern Plains and Boreal Forest. The first paper summarizes an interesting stone tool called an atlatl weight that hunters on the plains used for several thousand years. The second paper documents an impressive archive of rock art found in a small coulee rock shelter in southern Alberta. Both articles relied in large part on discoveries reported and shared by farmers and ranchers. Look for four more articles to be released in the next two months to complete the volume.

We hope the volume informs future work and research in Alberta. Interested authors can pitch a paper or idea to the editorial committee. Past volumes are available for free download here:

Back on the Horse: Recent Developments in Archaeological and Palaeontological Research in Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 36 (2016)

After the Flood: Investigations of Impacts to Archaeological Resources from the 2013 Flood in Southern Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 37 (2017)

The Swing of Things: Contributions to Archaeological Research in Alberta Occasional Paper No. 38 (2018)

Advancing Archaeology: Industry and Practice in Alberta, Occasional Paper Series No. 39 (2019)

Fingerprints in Glass: Obsidian and Ancient Human Relationships

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

A butchered bison leaves bones behind; a fur trade post leaves rotting walls for archaeologists to discover. But humans are more than what we eat and build. To many, our lives are defined by relationships to other people. How do archaeologists in Alberta uncover and reconstruct human relations from 10,000 years ago when not much preserves in the soil?

Archaeologists use microscopic clues to link stone artifacts back to the quarries where the rock originated; this “provenance” work can reveal ancient networks. In a blend of geochemistry and sociology, researchers use volcanic rocks in particular to understand how groups interacted and moved across landscapes for millennia.

Obsidian arrowhead found in the Grande Prairie area of northwest Alberta. Source: Todd Kristensen.
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Alpine Archaeology and a Pre-contact Stone Quarry in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Jasper National Park and Willmore Wilderness Park include some of the most rugged and remote mountains in Alberta; and for over 10,000 years, people have called these places home. A high alpine pass at the north edge of Jasper and south edge of Willmore holds clues of an important resource that ancient people visited year after year, in a place that nowadays only hardy back-packers and horseback visitors can reach.

Glacier Pass contains a quarry of stone that people used to make spear heads, knives, scrapers and other tools. The quarry was discovered by archaeologists B.O.K. Reeves and J. Elliot in the early 1970s. The rocks found there are what geologists call ‘concretions’ that were picked up as rounded cobbles by people long ago. Recent archaeological research tells us that the round rocks were then hammered to get rid of certain pieces and expose the best quality stone for making tools.

Stone cobbles like the ones here at Glacier Pass were picked up and worked into spear heads, knives, scrapers and other pre-contact tools. Source: Todd Kristensen.

 

A laboratory technique called hyperspectral scanning has confirmed that the composition of artifacts made from Glacier Pass concretions matches the composition of specific bands or portions of the cobbles from Glacier Pass. Glacier Pass concretions formed when bands of silica-rich rock grew around a core over millions of years. Some bands were good for stone tools while other portions of the rock were thrown out because they were too soft and/or unpredictable to flake or ‘flint knap’. Source: Todd Kristensen.

Based on the number of artifacts found by archaeologists, Glacier Pass was likely visited by small groups of people thousands of times over thousands of years. The stone quarry was part of a seasonal round when people moved from month to month to different areas to exploit or target different things. The alpine concretions at Glacier Pass were probably collected after the snow melted in summer or in fall when people hunted big game animals on high slopes like sheep and caribou.

Recent research by an archaeological team from the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Parks Canada and the University of Alberta has revealed that pre-contact people cracked Glacier Pass concretions to get at specific zones or bands of high quality stone that was ideal for making stone tools. The first two rows in this picture are mostly flakes removed while making tools. The bottom row (artifacts 11-15) are stone tools including knives, a core and a likely spear head that may be over 6,000 years old (14). Source: Todd Kristensen.

Modern visitors to Glacier Pass are unlikely to see tools: most of the artifacts there today are flakes of rock that people broke off while making stone tools. Almost all the finished products were carried away from the area. Visitors are reminded to respect the story of parks and mountain landscapes in Alberta by leaving all artifacts and rocks in place for others to experience. And remember that the land under our feet has a deep history full of geological wonders and human adaptations.

Glacier Pass between Jasper National Park and Willmore Wilderness Park is a beautiful and fragile place. To preserve the story of this landscape, and others in Alberta, visitors are encouraged to leave stones and artifacts in place. Source: Todd Kristensen.

 

Pitch and Timber: A History of Human Relationships with Trees in Alberta (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the history of human relationships with trees in Alberta. If you missed part one, read it now.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Development of Alberta’s Forestry Industry

From 1900 to 1910, population growth and steady local demand for lumber meant that most settlements had commercial sawmills. Because of the way that timber berths were leased to operators, most sawmills were small and portable. Some operators harvested in the summer and moved their timber using rivers, flumes (a series of wooden chutes that filled with water and carried logs), splash dams (a temporary wooden dam that held back water that would then be released in a surge to carry logs), and log drives along big rivers that brought wood to riverside mills or to rail yards in river valleys. But winter was generally the ideal time to log because wood could be moved by horses and sleds. Portable sawmills would move machinery on skis to temporary camps in western and northern Alberta. The seasonal nature was perfect for struggling families because farmers could work the fields in warm seasons and cut timber for mills in the winters.

A man poling down Athabasca River between 1937-39 (from the Chisholm Sawmill and Freeman River Lumber Camp). Log drivers floated along with the timbers to dislodge jams and notify the mills when shipments were arriving by water. Image A3790 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

A logging camp (the Jackpine Wood Camp on Little Slave River in 1909) with men and their tools. Image A2532 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Alberta’s forestry industry was younger than in British Columbia and neighbouring states to the south, many of which had various gold rushes that required commercial sawmills in the 1800s. It was fairly common for Alberta farmers to log in B.C. during winters in the early 1900s and many Alberta ranches provided B.C. logging operations with horses. A good-sized sawmill in B.C. or Alberta could employ several hundred men and up to 60 horses over the winter.

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Pitch and Timber: A History of Human Relationships with Trees in Alberta (Part 1)

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two part series on the history of human relationships with trees in Alberta. Next week’s post will discuss the development of the forestry industry, modern research and the Heritage Art Series.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

People in Alberta have relied on trees since these woody plants colonized our ice-scraped province around 11,000 years ago. Millions of collective hours were spent by people gathering and chopping wood for warmth and cooking, but our relationship with trees runs much deeper than heat. People in Alberta have relied on them to build tools, homes, and transportation networks, and our forestry industry continues to shape the province.

Logging at Poplar Creek, Alberta in the late 1800s. Image A5085 courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

What Trees Grow Here and Why?

Much of the prairies are too hot and dry for forests, but most of central and northern Alberta have ideal temperatures and moisture levels for trees: over 60% of the province is covered by forests. While our precipitation helps trees grow, Alberta is dry enough (over long enough periods in the summers) to be fire-prone. Most natural forests here rarely exist for more than 100 years before a fire re-starts the growth of a series of plant communities (called ‘succession’). Our ‘pyrogenic’ forests are younger and typically smaller than neighbours to the west where heavier rains and different soils produce massive old growth forests that often exceed 600 years old.

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Advancing Archaeology: the Occasional Paper Series in 2019

Written by: Krista M. Gilliland, Western Heritage and Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

The Archaeological Survey of Alberta is proud to kick-off Occasional Paper Series No. 39 with its first two articles available for free. As with the previous volume, individual articles in the Occasional Paper Series are published online throughout the year, with the final, compiled volume released at the end of the year. We encourage submissions from archaeologists in cultural resource management (CRM), universities, and other heritage professions.

Submissions to Occasional Paper No. 39, edited by Krista M. Gilliland, are welcome.

Occasional Paper Series No. 39, “Advancing archaeology: Industry and practice in Alberta, 2019,” is dedicated to an influential member of the archaeological community in Western Canada, Terry Gibson, who passed away in 2018. The first article in the volume is a tribute to him.

Terry Gibson (1954-2018) played an important role shaping the CRM community in Western Canada.

The second paper is a summary of archaeological features called bone uprights that appear in Alberta and across the Northern Plains. These features consist of animal bone (usually bison) that was vertically embedded in the ground. Archaeologists have come up with several ideas to explain these curious components of pre-contact sites.

A sample of bone upright images from Reid Graham and John W. Ives’ paper in the 2019 issue (reproduced with permission).

The title of the current volume – “Advancing archaeology: Industry and practice in Alberta, 2019,” refers to Terry Gibson’s legacy in the province and an important goal of the Occasional Paper Series. We hope the series provides a venue to CRM archaeologists, heritage managers and others to improve the discipline in Alberta. Interested authors can pitch a paper or idea to the editorial committee.

Also, you can download previous volumes of the Occasional Paper Series for free:

Back on the Horse: Recent Developments in Archaeological and Palaeontological Research in Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 36 (2016)

After the Flood: Investigations of Impacts to Archaeological Resources from the 2013 Flood in Southern Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 37 (2017)

The Swing of Things: Contributions to Archaeological Research in Alberta Occasional Paper No. 38 (2018)

Flash in the pan: The archaeology of gunflints in Alberta

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Regional Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Did you know that for over 200 years, guns around the world had a specific part made of stone that archaeologists have found evidence of in Alberta? Gunflints are chunks of rock that generated sparks to ignite gunpowder. Their use in guns first appeared in Europe in the early 1600s. Most of Alberta’s earliest guns were muskets, which began replacing bows and arrows in the province in the late 1700s.

Gunflints reveal lots of information about fur trade life in Alberta and they tell archaeologists important details about when guns first arrived and who first brought them. Patterns of gunflints at archaeological sites can show where gun repairs took place or where the flints were stored. Historic records of the number of traded gunflints can tell us which forts were specializing in certain tasks and how many hunters or trappers they were supplying. In general, gunflints are interesting historic artifacts that are often the only preserved record of a weapon technology, flintlock firearms, that ultimately changed the West.

Muskets had a metal piece called the flash pan that was mounted on the outside of the gun and held a small pile of gunpowder protected from wind and rain by a movable lid (a ‘frizzen’). When the trigger was pulled, the gunflint pushed the frizzen, opened the flash pan, and created a spark. A small explosion of gunpowder on the outside of the gun (the ‘flash in the pan’) was then sent through a hole to a larger load of powder inside the musket barrel. This explosion then launched the musket ball towards future food or enemies.

Diagram of how flintlock guns worked (by Todd Kristensen).

Flintlock guns were used in North America before 1650, and, in parts of the West, gunflints were used well into the late 1800s. While a technology called percussion caps began replacing the flintlock in the mid-1800s in North America, guns were still hard to come by and flintlocks had a certain durability that kept them in use.

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Plough your Furrows Deep: The Foundations of Agriculture in Alberta

Farming in Alberta has been shaped by a deep and layered history of geological, biological, and human forces. This article takes us back to the beginning.

Farming is based on a sliver of soil that caps kilometers of sediment and bedrock. To understand how our fields first formed, we need to read an ancient geological story of how Alberta has been raised and tilted then scoured and capped over time. Alberta has sat inside a continental plate (or ‘craton’) for over 300 million years. Around 180 million years ago, the western edge of this plate began crunching to form the up-and-down terrain of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia (B.C.) and the Rocky Mountains between B.C. and Alberta (Figure 1). Mountain building finished about 50 million years ago.

Bedrock geology draft 4
Figure 1. This is a bedrock map of Alberta and B.C. “Bedrock” refers to the stony basement below our modern soil and loose sediment (gravel, sand, and silt). B.C. is striped with colour because its bedrock is made of diverse chunks of land called terranes that got repeatedly mashed against a moving continental plate that Alberta lay within. One product of this mash-up (‘accretion’) was mountain building (‘orogeny’). Creation of the western mountains forever shaped the development of soils and agriculture in the Prairie Provinces (map by Todd Kristensen with bedrock data from the USGS 2015).

For almost 200 million years, Alberta has been tilted: our bedrock is formed largely of shales and sandstones that built up when sediment either poured off the mountains and solidified into rock or settled down in ancient waters that once filled a basin over Alberta. From about 50 to 5 million years ago, huge sheets of gravel and sand continued to shed off the Rockies (carried by rivers and streams) before settling into our basement. Read more