Birch bark basketry in Alberta

Written by: Elizabeth Goldberg, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Alberta archaeology, and field archaeology in general, places a lot of emphasis on stone tools. We divvy up projectile points into groups based on time, place and form. We source quarries for flaked tools to hypothesize past trade relationships and seasonal migrations; and we admire projectile points for their beauty and the technical skill it took to make them.

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Birch bark basket sewn with split spruce roots, Dënesųłı̨ne (Chipewyan). Source: Canadian Museum of History.

However, stone tools are only a very small part of the archaeological record— at well-preserved sites, artifacts made of plant and animal fibers make up the majority. These items are called perishable artifacts because they decay quickly, often long before any archaeologist stumbles upon them. Alberta’s climate is not conducive to the preservation of perishable artifacts, but their presence can be inferred through other means. We can look to ethnographic collections of items made by First Nations that were traded or sold to settlers, and we can look to the technologies many Indigenous people use to this day. One such technology that was, and still is, widely important across the Canadian Subarctic is birch bark basketry.

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