Alberta on Fire: A History of Cultural Burning

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.

Ancient Fires

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

Heritage Energized: HRMB at the National Trust Conference

Last month, the Historic Resources Management Branch had the opportunity to attend the National Trust for Canada’s annual conference, right here in our home province. Held October 22-24 in Calgary, the conference’s theme of “Heritage Energized” explored how heritage energy can turn places around, empower people and create opportunities.

Preceding the conference was Moh-Kins-Tsis: Calgary Indigenous Heritage Roundtable, a day-long session bringing together Elders and knowledge keepers with practitioners in the fields of heritage, archaeology, architecture and planning, to discuss how to protect Indigenous heritage sites in the urban environment.  Moderators Lorna Crowshoe (Aboriginal Issues Strategist, City of Calgary) and Makiinima—Roy Fox (Former Chief of the Kainai Nation) set the tone for the day by establishing the room as an “ethical space”—where groups with contrasting world views can come together in respectful, cooperative and collaborative ways. The audience then had the special opportunity to learn about Blackfoot ways of knowing from Elders Wilton Goodstriker, Herman Yellow Old Woman, Bruce Wolf Child, Andy Blackwater and Dr. Reg Crowshoe. These discussions were expanded upon by a number of professional and academic presenters.

The Crowfoot Young Warriors kick off Moh-Kins-Tsis: Calgary Indigenous Heritage Roundtable with drumming and song. Photo credit: Pinpoint Photography, courtesy of the National Trust for Canada.
The Crowfoot Young Warriors kick off Moh-Kins-Tsis: Calgary Indigenous Heritage Roundtable with drumming and song. Photo credit: Pinpoint Photography, courtesy of the National Trust for Canada.

The latter half of the day focused on the Paskapoo Slopes—an area in the city’s northwest rich in archaeological and cultural heritage and of high significance to the Blackfoot Nations. A panel composed Read more

Alberta’s Ancient Darts and Atlatl Hunting

How did people kill animals before guns and the bow and arrow? One of the oldest weapons in Alberta is called an atlatl or dart thrower. The atlatl increased in popularity around 8000 years ago and was the trusted technology for roughly 300 consecutive generations of hunters. It was replaced by the bow and arrow around 2000 years ago.

What’s an Atlatl? 

The atlatl is a carved wooden board, up to 1 m long, with a hook on one end that inserts into a divot at the end of a ‘dart’ shaft (about 1 m in length).

Figure 1. Atlatl and weight Amanda Dow
An atlatl throwing board (by Amanda Dow)

The hunter throws the dart in a motion similar to a baseball pitch. A flick of the wrist at the end of the throw increases the speed and power. Is the use of an atlatl better than just throwing a spear? The world record for a hand-thrown javelin is 104 m while the record for an atlatl thrown-dart is 258 m! Read more

Birch Bark Buccaneers and Prairie Paddlers: An Illustrated Look at Alberta’s Early Boating (Part 2)

This is the second of two blogs about some of the unique evidence of early boating in Alberta. The first blog explores First Nations boats and the second discusses the earliest Euro-Canadian vessels from the adoption of the birch back canoe to steamboats.

Boating in the Fur Trade

The first European fur traders adopted an eastern Algonkian-style of birch bark canoe. Every year, hundreds of men and women in Alberta gathered supplies and moulded lightweight ‘Express’ canoes at major fur trade boat building centres like Fort Chipewyan, Fort Edmonton, and Rocky Mountain House. While canoes and other physical traces of boat building at these forts have long since decayed, other lines of evidence of early boating are preserved. Trading posts needed Read more

Birch Bark Buccaneers and Prairie Paddlers: An Illustrated Look at Alberta’s Early Boating (Part 1)

It takes patience to fold steaming hot birch bark into a canoe and it takes power to hammer the planks of a lumbering sternwheeler. The products of Alberta’s early boat building were vessels that delivered families safe and sound to hunting grounds, glided fishermen over teaming shoals, and carried trade goods in an economic system that forged our province. This is the first of two blogs about some of the unique evidence of early boating in Alberta. The first blog explores First Nations boats and the second discusses early Euro-Canadian vessels from the adoption of the birch back canoe to steamboats.

Dug-outs and Bull Boats

First Nations’ boats on the plains were often made of buffalo hides stretched over willow or pine frames. This ‘bull boat’ was a small, circular craft quickly built from tipi hides and recycled shortly after. It enabled safe river crossings Read more

Preserving the Past at Writing-on-Stone

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is nestled into the winding valleys and coulees along Milk River in Southern Alberta. Painted and carved on its fragile sandstone walls are one of the largest collections of rock art in North America. Appropriately named, Writing-on-Stone is a rocky canvas of ancient and historic art that spans many centuries.

To increase awareness of this unique piece of the past and to encourage the preservation of sensitive historic resources, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork, like the piece depicted above, that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.

Rock Art in Alberta

Alberta’s rock art includes pictographs (paintings), petroglyphs (engravings), carved boulders, and effigies (rocks arranged to form shapes). Art that was applied to rock walls has a variety of functions and there are six major types in Alberta.

Rock Art Map
This map depicts the general extent of recorded First Nations rock art in Alberta.


‘En Toto Pecked’ involves figures that were entirely pecked out of the rock wall and this tradition of art appears in Alberta from 2500-1500 years ago. It is thought to have originated in Wyoming.

‘Vertical Series’ may be a type of rock art that acted as a communication system that related events and actors. It may be ideographic (like Egyptian hieroglyphs) with name glyphs like the Mayans of Central America.

‘Columbia Plateau’ refers to vision quest or hunting ritual art thought to be made by people originally from interior B.C. This style of rock art ranges from a few hundred to several thousand years old.

‘Foothills Abstract’ is a rock art style that consists of enigmatic shapes and motifs that may be the work of religious figures. Subjects include handprints, animals (and their tracks), and stylized humans.

‘Plains Biographical’ refers to rock art that documents events, important figures, or tallies of things acquired/exchanged by the Blackfoot and their ancestors.

Lastly, ‘Plains Ceremonial’ refers to spiritually important rock art that is still of great significance to modern Blackfoot Nations. Out of respect for the power of these and other rock art images to modern First Nations, photographs of the various styles of rock art are not included here.

The Milk River Valley Through Time

First Nations pursued buffalo herds in the Milk River region and view the valley as a sacred place where stories and dreams were recorded on the rock walls. The earliest Europeans included a mix of traders, coal miners, and Northwest Mounted Police, the early history of which is still recorded in modern place names.

Milk River valley map


Milk River Valley photograph

Cattle quickly replaced a vacancy left when buffalo were eliminated in the late 1800s. In addition to ranchers, new irrigation techniques and canals opened up the area to more intensive cultivation. Modern users of the Milk River landscape include farmers, Kainai First Nations, oil and gas operators, ranchers, and people in the tourism industry associated with Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park and National Historic Site (the photograph below is of the morning light on the park’s sandstone hoodoos, courtesy of Robert Berdan). Just as the uses of the Milk River region have changed in the past, they will continue to evolve in the future.

Writing-on-Stone photograph

The above painting by Anne McCartney is a textured narrative of landscape change in the Milk River Valley. The background is from an aerial photograph showing irrigated fields creeping to the valley’s edge. At lower right is a looming sandstone cliff that has witnessed a steady flow of First Nations, traders, miners, explorers, and farmers passing through the valley. In the upper left is a rock art panel depicting a battle scene from the deep past. Recent vandalism of that very panel highlights the need to protect and appreciate the landscape of Writing-on-Stone.

Protecting Rock Art Landscapes

The evocative and significant collection of art at Writing-on-Stone is under constant threat. Sadly, vandalism and graffiti have defaced some of the park’s art but through education and restricted access, much of the vandalism has now been curtailed. Instilling visitors with a healthy respect for the spiritual importance of the area to the modern Blackfoot will help ensure that the landscape is protected. Natural erosion, however, is unstoppable.

Much rock art has disappeared over the centuries from weathering of soft sandstone. New technologies are helping to better document the art and may lead to long term methods that slow rates of erosion. The park has been a key site in North America for experimentation with techniques to protect rock art.

Laser scanner
Archaeologists use laser scanners to accurately record rock art panels.

Portable laser scanners have been used to record high-quality images and to produce near-perfect replicas. Artificial drip-lines and plastic caps are diverting water from some exposed panels and a consolidant has been applied in experimental non-rock art locations to test the ability to strengthen rock and prolong the life of rock art images. Note that none of the preservation measures will be applied directly to ancient images without thorough review and cooperation with the Blackfoot people. Rock art left in its natural setting will eventually be lost, but there is much that can be done to enable a prolonged period of appreciation and enjoyment from viewing the hopes and dreams of early artists.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Jack Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

Early Cabins in the West

Cabins performed a variety of functions in Alberta’s past from homesteading to hunting and post offices to ranger cabins. Many events and daily challenges that defined our province unfolded on the wooden floors of early cabins. Just like the characters they housed, each cabin’s architecture and associated artifacts are unique.

Cabin and tobacco tin

To encourage an appreciation of cabins and the surviving record of them, as well as other historic resources in the province, a collaborative team from the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum initiated the Heritage Art Series. The goal is to create artworks that depict scenes from Alberta’s past that captivate public audiences. We hope that these artworks, like the cabin painting above, stimulate an interest in learning about our province’s heritage, which will in turn instill a greater respect for the past.

Cabins were typically made of raw timbers with a variety of corner joints, roofs, sawn floorboards, and chimneys. Associated features include outhouses, garbage pits, ice houses (for storing food), cellars, and drying racks. What can the archaeological record tell us about cabins and their occupants? Maps of cabins and associated structures reveal how people utilized landscapes and interacted with each other within cabins. Our modern homes are often relatively large with multiple rooms and levels, which is drastically different from the single-room cabins that many Albertans spent their lives in. An historical perspective informs us that changes in domestic architecture have had a real impact on the way Alberta’s families interact with each other and with their neighbours.

Cabin map

Cabins are often associated with historic trails that influenced how regions were settled and how goods were transported across the country. Cabin modifications over time tell stories of trial-and-error adaptations to new landscapes while artifacts can indicate the types of activities conducted around cabins, cultural affinities, number of occupants, and the season of occupation. Outhouses and garbage pits can reveal past diets, wealth, access to luxury goods, hygiene, medical conditions, and entertainment.

Cabin and bottle

Aside from cabins’ phsycial make-up and artifact assemblages, they are significant heritage resources because they were often the first permanent structures to appear on many of Alberta’s landscapes. They represent a new adaptation and a new way of life for the people who first built them. There are over 550 recorded archaeological sites in Alberta with cabin components. Over 115 of these sites also have a pre-contact First Nations component, which suggests that many of the good spots for cabins have always been good places to make a living on the land.

Homestead photograph

The painting at the top of this article by Gregg Johnson is of a trapper’s cabin in the autumn foothills. It captures the solitude of the trapper’s life. Autumn was a busy time as trapper’s geared up for winter. Supplies were brought in, trap lines were re-established, and wood was cut for the long winter ahead. Like many of Alberta’s industries, modern trapping has an interesting past and an informative historic record. Archaeology offers a unique opportunity to learn about the past lives of people who may not be represented in historical accounts. In this sense, the study of historic resources gives a voice to people who have not been given the chance to speak for hundreds of years.

Miners cabin

An example of a current research project about cabins that will illuminate the past record of a poorly understood group of people is that by Dr. Kisha Supernant at Buffalo Lake. Dr. Supernant and her research team from the University of Alberta are studying the adaptations of Metis and First Nations people who occupied Buffalo Lake in the 1800s in order to acquire meat that supplied neighbouring trade posts like Fort Edmonton. Her excavations and mapping program will uncover an important way of life that helped shape our province.

Mapping crew
Dr. Supernant and a graduate student use GPS equipment to map archaeological features.

The next blog of the Heritage Art Series will be about the changing landscape and rock art of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Kisha Supernant, University of Alberta

Ancient and Early Historic Fishing in the North

In the boreal forest, where big game animals were often hard to find, fish were a life-saving staple for thousands of years. Archaeological and historical records reveal a wide variety of fascinating angling techniques used by Alberta’s First Nations.

Figure 9. Fishing techniques edit


To increase awareness of these practices and other elements of Alberta’s past, a collaborative team of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the University of Alberta initiated the Heritage Art Series project. The goal is to create artwork that captivates the public in order to encourage the appreciation and protection of Alberta’s past.

The second painting in the series is a symbolic depiction of a mother teaching her daughter about the relationship between people and fish. First Nations survived in Alberta by passing down immense amounts of knowledge, which this image by Jenny Keith illustrates. The artwork also celebrates the role that women make to traditional diets. Fishng was primarily a women’s task in Northern Alberta. Women needed to know where to catch fish, how to make nets, how often to check them, and when to repair them.

The largest catch of fish was traditionally by gill net during fall spawning runs of whitefish. Whitefish were particularly important because they are high in fat, which becomes scarce in the north during long winters. Gill nets are long rows of interconnected squares that capture fish by the gills. What were nets made of before twine? Amazingly, women spent hundreds of hours weaving twisted willow bark or animal sinew into long nets.

Figure 10. Net IMG_1047
This is an example of a willow bark net from the Royal Alberta Museum.

Gill nets were set across rivers or narrow channels during warmer months or were strung through holes under the ice in winter. Large fish were also shot with bow and arrow or were speared by canoe. Some First Nations made fishing arrowheads out of pike jaw bones: nothing catches fish better than fish! Jigging with hooks made of bone and wood was also done, primarily in winter. Hooks were baited with meat scraps, hair, feathers, and beaver oil.

Fishing increased in importance when Europeans arrived. Fur traders in Northern Alberta made a living on pelts but they lived on fish. At Fort Chipewyan in Northeast Alberta, traders caught 33 000 fish from October to January in 1822. The ration was four fish a day (and a potatoe if they were lucky). Some northern trade posts even had to be relocated because they lacked good access to fisheries.

The archaeological record of fishing is sparse because fishing tools are often organic while fish bones tend to be fragile: very little of this survives in Alberta’s acidic soils. Some interesting fish-related fnds include possible stone fish hooks, bone prongs used on fish spears, sinkers (weights) that weighed down nets, and fish vertebrae that were drilled to make beads.


Artifact compilation
This is a collection of pre-contact fish-related artifacts from Alberta that span several thousand years.

Recently developed scientific techniques have also enabled the recovery of fish blood from the edges of stone tools like arrowheads and knives. Even though fish bones don’t survive, archaeologists studying blood residue have been able to determine that fish like pike, walleye, and whitefish were caught thousands of years ago. Lastly, fur trade forts have yielded an interesting array of early hooks. Some are entirely metal while others, like the example below, are a combination of bone and iron.

Figure 4. Fish hook
This fur trade fish hook was found by Jack McIntosh at Dunvegan near Grande Prairie.

When asked to imagine ancient life and food harvesting practices, people often think of men stalking mammoths or stampeding buffalo over cliffs. In reality, for much of Alberta’s human history, women have made just as important if not more important contributions to traditional diets. The painting above is intended to broaden perspectives of hunting and fishing practices while emphasizing the social dimension of food harvesting. People didn’t just survive by capturing food; they persisted for thousands of years by acquiring generations of knowledge that was passed down from parent to child year after year after year.

Stay tuned for the next installation of the Heritage Art Series, which will present the physical record of cabins and their significance in Alberta’s early history.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist, and Dr. Jack Ives.

Ecological Catastrophes in Alberta’s Past: The Mazama Volcanic Eruption

Did you know that one of the largest ecological catastrophes in Alberta’s human history was a volcanic ash fall? Around 7600 years ago the skies were blackened for many days and the prairies of Alberta were blanketed with roughly 15 cm of ash ejected during the Mazama eruption.

To create awareness of this event and other important moments in Alberta’s past, a team from the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum initiated a project called the Heritage Art Series.  The goal is to captivate public audiences with artwork that creatively explores ancient landscapes, relationships between people and their surroundings, and the enduring physical record of human activities. We hope the series inspires a desire to learn more about our province’s heritage and that a greater awareness of the past will instill a deeper respect for it. We’ll release the first four paintings in the series over the coming weeks with explanations about the significant events and figures that each scene depicts.

The first painting (above) by Karen Bishop captures a surreal landscape of Southern Alberta as it would have looked 7600 years ago during the Mazama volcanic eruption. While the volcano that erupted was in Oregon (at modern day Crater Lake), it only took about 12 hours for some of the estimated 100 km³ of ash to reach Alberta. The ash smothered plants, contaminated fresh water, and would have filled animals’ lungs. Airborne particles would have caused intense lightning storms. Huge swaths of dead vegetation combined with frequent lightning led to widespread fires.

Mazama ash distribution and depth diagram
This map shows the spread of Mazama ash into Alberta. The inset depicts the depth of Mazama ash relative to people and dogs.
Ash depth comparison
This figure depicts how deeply Edmonton and Calgary would be buried if all of the ash from the Mazama eruption were confined to the city limits.

By studying micro-organisms and microscopic silica particles in soils and lake beds, scientists, including a team of ‘tephrochronologists’ led by Dr. Duane Froese from the University of Alberta, are learning more about the ecological impact and timing of volcanic eruptions in Western Canada. Climatic systems were altered by the relatively dense ash ejected into the atmosphere, the pH of soils and water bodies changed, and mobile animals like bison likely abandoned their territories for lack of fodder and/or drinking water. However, while the impact was widespread, preserved pollen suggests that plant communities rebounded rapidly. Overall, landscapes may have recovered fairly quickly from volcanic eruptions (on the scale of 2-10 years), but the effect on human populations was likely more pronounced.


Silica particles for blog

The archaeological record reveals that portions of the province were abandoned for several decades and possibly much longer. Notable changes in weapons and raw materials that were used for stone tools around the time of the Mazama eruption may be linked to this ecological catastrophe; the people that returned to once-vacated landscapes were either different from their predecessors or they arrived with new ideas acquired from their neighbours. This, and other large-scale eruptions in North America over the past 10 000 years, changed the direction of local human histories. New cultures, technologies, and social networks emerged after volcanic events.

Projectile points in Alberta

Despite the dramatic nature of volcanic eruptions, few people realize that Alberta has experienced them in the past and that other ecological catastrophes have influenced the development of Alberta’s past cultures. Palaeoenvironmental scientists and archaeologists have learned a great deal about past ecological events that, while educational, have more profound implications for the way we manage ecosystems and respond to the world around us. By studying the past, we can learn how to brace for the future.

To learn more about the Mazama eruption and other palaeoenvironmental studies in Alberta, visit some of Dr. Alwynne Beaudoin’s research at the Royal Alberta Museum.

Stay tuned for the next installation of the Heritage Art Series, which will discuss the archaeological and historical records of First Nations fishing in Northern Alberta.

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Northern Archaeologist & Alwynne Beaudoin, Royal Alberta Museum.