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’).
Careers in the North
So what can you expect if you want a career as a consulting archaeologist in the boreal forest? Long days of long hikes, clouds of bugs, and sore legs from lugging around safety gear, shovels, screens, electronics, notebooks, and that rack of moose antlers that you found on a cut line that were just too cool to leave behind. Is the sacrifice worth it when you find a handful of stone flakes from pre-contact tool making? Yes. Those artifacts are often the tip of the iceberg, so their identification helps protect significant collections that still lay hidden in the ground. Small scatters of stone flakes also tell interesting stories about where people moved and who they traded with. And, it’s not all small sites: Alberta’s boreal forests have yielded amazing fur trade sites, pre-contact stone quarries (one of which has produced over 4 million artifacts), historic logging camps, trapper’s cabins, tipi rings, and other fantastic cultural material that epitomizes life in the north. The boreal forest is a challenging but rewarding place to work and the archaeological record of it reveals how people from 10,000 to 50 years ago successfully adapted to this place.
Written By: Todd Kristensen (Northern Archaeologist, Archaeological Survey)
Appendix 1. The following technological innovation is yours to enjoy now that my dream of making millions from it have faded. The ‘debuginfacemizer’ was designed to avoid bug spray and avoid hindered vision of artifacts by trying to see through bug net. It works and I bring it along on every northern trip.