Connecting the Continent: Stone Tools in Alberta

After a few thousand years, most of the archaeological record in Alberta has been winnowed down to pieces of rock used to make tools. Organic artifacts, structures, and other less durable things generally don’t survive thanks to erosion and decomposition. To maximize the information we can pull from those pieces of stone, the Alberta Lithic Reference Project (ALRP) was formed by a consortium of archaeological consultants, heritage managers, geologists, students, and university researchers. The goals are to accurately and consistently identify the types of raw materials that pre-contact people used to make stone tools. Why is this important? Specific types of rock were traded and moved widely across the continent and serve as valuable indicators of cultural relationships and/or human mobility patterns. Read more

The Tale of a Rusty Revolver

The story of a rusty gun found in central Alberta begins across the continent in 1863 when 100,000 New Model Army revolvers were being made at the Remington & Sons factory near the banks of the Mohawk River in New York State. The New Model Army was a popular sidearm because it was affordable and tough: most were destined for use in close combat by U.S. Army soldiers in the American Civil War. Between New York and Alberta, much of the revolver’s story is a mystery. Read more

Mountain Movement: How the Rockies Shape Alberta

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

From North Dakota with Flair

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.

Knife River Flint ‘eccentrics’ from St. Mary Reservoir. The different colourations of these pieces are due to ‘patination’. This is when a chemical rind develops over time around particular edges or faces of artifacts depending on their exposure to different local conditions (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

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Lives on Pots: Ancient Pottery in Alberta

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

Ancient Jade

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.

Jade artifact close-up
Close-up photograph of a jade (‘nephrite’) artifact from northwest Alberta (by Todd Kristensen).

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.

Tightly interlocking bundles visible in this Scanning Electron Microscope image give jade ('nephrite') its strength (courtesy of Jesse Morin).
Tightly interlocking bundles visible in this Scanning Electron Microscope image give jade (‘nephrite’) its strength (courtesy of Jesse Morin).

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 are highly polished with a flat and slab-like shape. This specimen was found near Stony Plain outside of Edmonton.
Nephrite celts are highly polished with a flat and slab-like shape. This specimen was found near Stony Plain outside of Edmonton (by Todd Kristensen).

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.

Jade or nephrite celts found in Alberta. Specimens 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 are from the Grande Prairie area. Specimens 4, 6, and 7 are from the Edmonton area.
Jade or nephrite celts found in Alberta. Specimens 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8 are from the Grande Prairie area. Specimens 4, 6, and 7 are from the Edmonton area.

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.

A large spur on the end of a wood or antler handle served as a platform on which to tie or ‘haft’ a flat celt (by Todd Kristensen).
A large spur on the end of a wood or antler handle served as a platform on which to tie or ‘haft’ a flat celt (by Todd Kristensen).

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!

Stone tools, Bugs, and the Boreal Forest: Adventures in Northern Archaeology

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.

Boreal Breed

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.

Roughly 8000 sites have been found in Alberta’s boreal forest.
Roughly 8000 sites have been found in Alberta’s boreal forest (highlighted in green).

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