Between 2008 and 2014, five separate archaeological excavations took place at the Hardisty Bison Pound and its associated campsite. These two sites, located across the Battle River from the town of Hardisty, were excavated in response to developments that took place during facility expansions at the Hardisty Terminal.
Bison pounds are a form of communal hunting common on the Plains. They are characterised by a wooden corral with hides draped over the edge. Bison would have been herded into the fenced enclosure to be slaughtered for consumption by the community using the pound. The landforms surrounding the Hardisty Bison pound share distinct features that would have been essential to many communal kills. Many of these features have been introduced in past RETROactive posts, in particular Mike Donnelly and Todd Kristensen’s post on Head-Smashed-In. Most notably, the Battle River valley and the hills surrounding the Hardisty Bison Pound combined to form a funnel that would have acted to concentrate bison herds close to the current location of the terminal. With the addition of drive lanes and buffalo runners luring bison into the trap, these herds would have been driven quite easily into the pound, both to feed people living in the area as well as for production of meat and hide products to trade with people further east in what is now Manitoba and North and South Dakota.
Both the pound and the campsite were intensely utilized, as indicated by a thick layer of bone in the pound and dozens of hearths and boiling pits in the campsite. Avonlea style arrowheads were found in abundance; this type of projectile point typically dates between 1350 and 1100 years ago in Alberta. Burned bone in parts of the pound suggests that the site was used several times, most likely every year during the fall and winter months. The campsite, where people using the pound lived, is located across a small spring from the pound. The spring flows from the east into the Battle River. The choice parts of the bison were taken from animals killed in the pound, across the spring, and processed into soup and pemmican in locations to the north of the main camp. Dates obtained from the site show that the latest and most intense occupation of the site took place between 1200 and 800 years ago. The site is of great interest because of the numerous artifacts present, in particular artifacts that are rare. For example, the range and diversity of the pottery recovered is particularly unique in archaeological contexts in Alberta.
One of the most interesting attributes of the campsite is that it was used over numerous generations, well before the use of the pound, with the earliest occupations beginning 7000 years ago. Since that time, arrowheads and atlatl tips from each time period between the camp’s initial occupation to the building of the pound are present at the campsite. This suggests that the campsite was continuously occupied during much of this time. For many Indigenous groups, including the Blackfoot in Southern Alberta, the landscape helped shape their identity. The places that people visited annually were also the spots where important ceremonies occurred. According to many traditions, ceremonies were required on an annual basis to maintain positive relationships with the natural world, and so people would stop at the same places every year to renew their ties to those places. The stories of the events that occurred at each place would be told during their stops, with the landforms providing clues so that the stories could be told accurately. The nearly 7000 years of continuous occupation of the campsite across the spring from the pound hints that this was an important sacred spot for people during their annual trek. The exact stories that would have been told at this place have not been recorded. In spite of this, the location of the campsite between other places that were important to Indigenous people, such as the Neutral Hills near Coronation and the Iron Stone near Viking, as well as its placement along the Battle River, meant that the site would have been an important stopping place for people traveling through the area.
Though archaeologists may consider the campsite valuable because it is located near the pound, the Indigenous people living at the site would have placed the pound where it is because it was a good spot near the campsite. The pound itself has evidence of this relationship with the campsite. The 2008 and 2009 excavations were fortuitously placed near the entrance of the pound. Within the excavation was a bone upright and bone pit that represented the fence line that led into the pound. On the outside of this fence was a small hearth. On the inside of the fence was an elongated pit containing one adult and two calf bison skulls stacked in a line. These skulls were intentionally buried at the entrance of the pound. Skulls are often found in ceremonial settings within bison kills, particularly large kills that were used numerous times over many generations. The placement of offerings at the entrance of pounds was noted by James Hector of the Palliser expedition in the 1850s and by David Mandelbaum in his 1940 ethnography of the Plains Cree. Bison skulls are also often a vital part of the Sun Dance, an essential renewal ceremony for many groups on the Northern Plains. The use of bison skulls at the Hardisty Bison Pound is probably related to their use at Sun Dances; they were an important religious component to ensuring the continued success of the bison pound. The small hearth situated outside the fence near the pound entrance can also likely be attributed to ceremonial activity at the pound.
In addition to recording that offerings were frequently placed at the entrance of the pound, Mandelbaum noted that the owners of the pound placed their tipi at the entrance, since the entrance was where the most important ceremonies occurred. Though Mandelbaum documented that the owner of the pound was male, many important ceremonies required both male and female participants. Female participants were essential to the success of the ceremony. A successful ceremony ensured the bison would enter the pound and that no one would be injured during the drive. To the people using the pound, the ceremonies that occurred prior to the hunt, and after a successful hunt, were the most critical component of the pound.
The Hardisty Bison Pound and associated campsite are among the most important sites in Alberta. Nevertheless, the Hardisty area has many other sites that are equally as important, as it is a rich location repeatedly visited over countless generations. The continued development of the Hardisty Terminal has provided archaeologists in Alberta an opportunity to learn about how people used the Hardisty area in the past.
Written By: Matthew Moors (Ph.D. Student, University of Calgary)
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