Did you know that Alberta has almost 40,000 recorded archaeological sites and 13,000 years of history?
One of the most common questions archaeologists working in Alberta hear is, “do you ever find anything?”. The resounding answer is yes! Archaeologists working in Alberta find hundreds of new sites and thousands of artifacts every year. Ever heard of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (a UNESCO world cultural site), Majorville Medicine Wheel, Writing-On-Stone, Quarry of the Ancestors, Fort Vermilion, Buffalo Lake Metis Wintering site, or Cluny Earthlodge Village? These are just a few examples of Alberta’s amazing archaeological resources!
An archaeological resource in Alberta is defined as “a work of humans that is of value for its prehistoric, historic, cultural or scientific significance” and is protected under the Historical Resources Act. Sites are classed into two major groups: prehistoric and historic. Over 80% of the sites in the province are prehistoric (which predate the arrival of Europeans); just over 10% are historic (postdating European arrival); and the rest are a mix of both prehistoric and historic, contemporary, indigenous historic (such as Metis sites), and natural sites. Some of the most common prehistoric sites are campsites; stone features; animal kill sites; processing sites; rock art sites and ceremonial sites, such as medicine wheels and cairns. Historic sites include trading posts, police posts, early settlements, homesteads, and industrial sites.
Some of the oldest archaeological sites in Alberta date to as early as 13,000-8,000 years ago or what is known as the Palaeoindian Period. Prior to ~13,000 years ago what is now Alberta was covered by massive ice sheets that rendered the landscape uninhabitable. Shortly after the retreat of the ice sheets, however, animals and then people began moving into the area. At a site called Wally’s Beach in southern Alberta, archaeologists have recorded mammoth, camel and horse tracks. Not only that, they have discovered direct evidence of humans hunting these animals! Since then, what is now Alberta has been continuously occupied by numerous cultural groups, whose remnants we find in the form of discarded stone tools, butchered animal bones, hearths, broken pottery, buried palisade walls from forts and various other artifacts and features.
These days the majority of new archaeological sites in Alberta are recorded by historic resource management consultants. Consulting companies are hired by developers in the province to carry out Historical Resource Impact Assessments, which involve the survey and testing of areas that will be affected by a proposed development for the potential or presence of archaeological sites. If a consultant deems an area to be high potential (judged by factors such as landforms, proximity to water bodies, and proximity to known sites, among other things) he or she will conduct surface inspection and possibly shovel testing (digging a hole about 40 cm by 40 cm in size) to search for archaeological artifacts or features.
If results are positive, the information is submitted to the Archaeological Survey and a unique identifier, called a Borden number, is assigned to the site. The Archaeological Survey can then offer protection and management strategies for these sites. This could involve requirements for complete avoidance or excavation of the site prior to development. Archaeological site information is stored in the Alberta Archaeological Sites Inventory, an important resource for historic resource consultants and other researchers. Artifacts recovered from archaeological sites are stored at the Royal Alberta Museum where they are made accessible for research or put on display in one of their exhibits.
Alberta’s archaeology may not be as visible as in other parts of the world, but we really do have a rich heritage and an abundance of archaeological resources — we just have to work a little harder to find them. It’s incredible what we can learn when we start digging into our past!
Tell us, what’s your favourite archaeology site in Alberta?
Written by: Courtney Lakevold, Archaeological Information Coordinator.