Most of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains finished uplifting 50 million years ago – they’ve been pouring sediment across the province ever since. The Rockies shaped our water drainage network and, with the help of glaciers, erected the house of silt, sand, and stone that we all live in. The tilt that our mountains built is largely responsible for the development of our prairie soils and modern agriculture. Our mountains have also shaped how cultures interact and move, which has moulded much of our history.
At first glance, the Rockies are imposing – an impressive barrier rising from the foothills like a stony gate. But for thousands of years, people traveled across and within them to trade and acquire goods. Groups in southeastern British Columbia, like the Kootenai, often descended into Alberta’s valleys to hunt bison and other big game. The Kootenai engaged in trade and formalized sport (like the hoop and arrow game) with local Blackfoot, Cree, and other groups. Large caches of meat and hides were then transported back across Read more →
The St. Mary Reservoir, near Cardston in southern Alberta, was built and filled by the early 1950s. During reservoir draw downs and droughts, lake bottom sediments are exposed and quickly eroded, which has revealed a unique collection of artifacts and even trackways of now extinct megafauna like mammoth and camel.
Two particularly interesting artifacts are termed ‘eccentrics’ because their shape and significance are so unusual. Eccentrics are very rare artifacts, the shapes of which are thought to be determined more by aesthetic rather than functional reasons. Some archaeologists think that the large flintknapped stone artifacts from St. Mary Reservoir are symbolic representations of the branched “horns” of pronghorn antelope once common across the Great Plains. Others think they may have been ceremonial knives used on special occasions.
Pottery traditions have developed independently all over the globe thanks to the versatility of clay as a medium for utilitarian function and the expression of identity. Over 450 sites in Alberta have pre-contact pottery dating from 300 to close to 2000 years old. Fragments or “sherds” of pots at archaeological sites reveal surprising amounts of information about how people lived, how they transmitted knowledge, and why pottery traditions persisted in Indigenous populations for millennia. Ancient pottery production continues to influence modern potters and it can inform how modern society uses material goods to express identity. Read more →
With no jade mines or known quarries in the province, you may be surprised to learn that people used jade in Alberta thousands of years ago. Jade is a common name that refers to two minerals, one of which, nephrite, is found in Canada.
Nephrite is one of the toughest natural materials on earth and for this reason, ancient people used it to make tools called celts. Tightly interlocking bundles of amphibole crystals (actinolite/tremolite) make nephrite incredibly resistant to fracture so the celts retain their sharp edges despite hours of wood-working with them.
How did people make jade or nephrite celts? Slowly! As in modern times, nephrite was too strong to chip with a chisel so it was patiently sawed and ground with materials like sandstone and quartz crystals and polished with a slurry of gritty water. Jade occurs in outcrops across British Columbia where some First Nations had specialized jade workers. Most of the evidence for Aboriginal nephrite working comes from the Fraser River of southern B.C. near Lytton, Lillooet, and Hope. While the celts manufactured by pre-contact people were certainly functional, the rarity of jade and the time it took to make celts would have resulted in a highly revered and prized type of tool.
Nephrite celts have been recovered from several farmers’ fields across Alberta but have never been found during an archaeological excavation in the province. They are generally more common in northern Alberta where First Nations likely maintained stronger trading connections to people from B.C. than in the south.
Based on historic records and tools used by First Nations shortly after European contact, jade celts were most likely tied onto wood or antler handles to increase the force that people could apply to the tool. The Alberta celts are thought to have been either ceremonial, status-markers, and/or they were used to build boats or prepare wooden poles.
Written By: Todd Kristensen (Regional Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey), Jesse Morin (Heritage Consultant), and Karen Giering (Curatorial Assistant, Royal Alberta Museum)
Staff from the Archaeological Survey, Royal Alberta Museum, and University of Alberta collaborated with museums and farmers across Alberta to analyse our rare jade artifacts. Jade expert Jesse Morin from B.C. analysed specimens and lent his knowledge to the project. Full results, including geochemistry, mineralogy, and archaeological significance of Alberta’s jade will appear in an Occasional Paper Series article that will be available to the public shortly. Thanks to all the researchers for their help and thanks to the museums and farmers for kindly loaning artifacts for this study!
When people think of archaeology in Alberta they might picture buffalo jumps, rock art, or medicine wheels. These are dramatic types of sites on the prairies but what about the north? Alberta’s boreal forest has a unique record and requires a unique breed of archaeologist to find it. This blog is a small window to archaeological work in the northern half of the province and some of the interesting archaeological sites hiding in our forests.
Archaeologists working in northern Alberta brave bugs, blowdown (piles of fallen trees stacked like a cruel game of KerPlunk) and a range of conditions from blistering hot to bitterly cold. Forests are quite good at concealing sites so archaeologists dig hundreds of small shovel tests to find them. Most archaeology in the ‘Green Zone’ (typically forested Crown Land) happens in advance of forestry, oil and gas activity, gravel operations, and construction of transmission or road corridors. The hard work and skill of consulting archaeologists has resulted in over 8000 archaeological sites in the Green Zone.
The Nature of Northern Sites
Most of the successful shovel tests yield small collections of stone debris from pre-contact human tool making. Sites in the north are typically smaller than on the plains. Why? Pre-contact people in the north were generally more mobile and lived in smaller groups; southern bison herds supported bigger groups that stayed in one spot for longer periods, which produced bigger collections of artifacts. Archaeological visibility is also a factor. Prairie landforms are often easier to locate and interpret while artifacts, bones, or stone features on the surface can help guide archaeologists to productive areas under the ground. Not so in the north. Hot spots for artifacts are often harder to access, are covered in vegetation and dense roots, and are challenging to interpret (e.g., ‘how has this terrace changed over thousands of years’). Read more →
When St. Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta was filled in the 1950s, no one knew that it submerged an incredible record of life from 13,000 years ago. That record, including footprints of mammoth, camel, and horse, was recently exposed – the internationally significant site is now informing opinions about the role humans played in the extinction of Alberta’s ‘megafauna’.
Shayne Tolman, a teacher from Cardston, is responsible for drawing attention to St. Mary Reservoir and Wally’s Beach, a site complex on an ancient island in St. Mary River that is currently being investigated by Dr. Brian Kooyman and a team from the University of Calgary. Archaeologists have discovered that the menu of some of Alberta’s oldest humans included megafauna like camel, horse, and perhaps mammoth. Over six thousand artifacts indicate that people were hunting big game at a time when these animals were likely struggling to cope with climate change. Did human hunting lead to megafauna extinction or are warming temperatures to blame? Many researchers argue that pre-contact human populations were too small to impact big game while others suggest that targeted hunting patterns among small groups could have big consequences.
According to Blackfoot tradition, as Old Man traveled north he created the mountains, rivers, grass and trees. When he came to the area of the present day Porcupine Hills in southwest Alberta, he formed images of people from mud and breathed life into them. The people asked Old Man what they would eat, and so, he created images of buffalo from clay and brought them to life. He then took the people to a rocky ledge and called to the buffalo, who ran in a straight line over the cliff: “Those are your food.”
Tens of millions of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains of North America from Alberta’s grasslands down to Texas. To people of the plains, there was no more important food source. A number of ingenious methods were devised for communal (group) hunting – buffalo were lured into ambushes, corralled with fire, chased onto frozen lakes or into deep snow, and driven into elaborate traps called pis’kun by the Blackfoot (translated as ‘deep-blood kettles’). Of the hundreds of mass kill sites, perhaps none is more impressive than the buffalo jump, the most famous of which is Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In. Read more →
It’s hard to overstate the profound impact of firearms in Alberta’s history. The earliest guns delivered food, protection, and intimidation. Technological improvements from European contact to the 1900s led to significant changes in the ways that guns were used across the province. This blog briefly explores the evolution of firearms in Alberta and the archaeological record of it.
Firearms were introduced to Canada in the 1500s but didn’t spread to Alberta until much later. Their first appearance in the province was likely through raiding or trading in the southern U.S. by Plains First Nations. Early gun models, like flared-mouth blunderbusses, were designed for close encounters on battle fields but proved ineffective on the prairies. It wasn’t until the advent of portable flintlock muskets that guns spread like wildfire across the West.
Fire science has come a long way but the growing practice of prescribed burning is actually a return to a deep past. Archaeological and paleoecological researchers are demonstrating that Western Canada has been burning at the hands of people for thousands of years. Much of what was thought to be wilderness in the early 1900s was likely a mosaic of manipulated landscapes influenced by controlled burns. Alberta has a rich history of fire use and the recognition of it has implications for modern conservation and land management.
Tracking the history of fire in a landscape can be challenging and, in the paleoenvironmental record, it’s particularly difficult to distinguish human from natural burning. Fire scientists, however, are untangling fire history in interesting places. Christina Poletto is a Master’s student at the University of Alberta who will soon extract a long core of lake mud in northern Alberta in order to analyse changing layers of charcoal and pollen deposited over thousands of years. This information provides a baseline of natural fire history that she hopes to compare to cultural landscapes surrounding archaeological sites. “I want to Read more →
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 →