The Early Years of Archaeology in Alberta

As the summer of 1949 approached, Boyd Wettlaufer, a Master’s student of archaeology at the University of New Mexico, was asked by his Field Director where he wanted to dig for the summer. In a 2008 interview, with Karen Giering of the Royal Alberta Museum, Wettlaufer related how the conversation with his director had transpired:  

 “Boyd,” he said. ‘I think it’s time you did a dig of your own. Where would you like to go?” And I thought of Head-Smashed-In. I said, “Well there’s a buffalo jump up in Alberta I wouldn’t mind taking a look at.” And so, he gave me a couple boxes of groceries and credit card for the gas and the two boys (William Hudgins and Donald Hartle) to help me and sent me off” [1].

Wettlaufer was familiar with the area around Fort MacLeod, having been stationed out of the nearby Royal Canadian Air force base of Pearce during the war as a flight instructor and aerial photographer. It was a member of the local historical society (Boyd and his wife Dorothy plugged their trailer into her porch for electricity [2]), who had first shown him the buffalo jump along the southern edge of the Porcupine Hills. His work that summer at the jump would be the first professional archaeological excavation undertaken in the province.

Boyd Wettlaufer’s camp at Head-Smashed-In, 1949. Photo Credit: Royal Alberta Museum.

Before Wettlaufer, there had been only a few brief archaeological forays into the province. Joseph B. Tyrrell, the bearded and bespectacled geologist and cartographer, made several trips through Alberta in the late 1880’s with the Geological Survey of Canada. With an eye not only for the palaeontological, he collected archaeological material that was sent on to the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa [3]. In the summer of 1925, William J. Wintemberg, with the National Museum, travelled through southern Alberta on a brief archaeological survey [4]. Born in a small town south of Kitchener, Ontario, and possessed of a weak heart as a child, he was never expected to live to adulthood. But he persevered and as a young man worked as a tailor, typesetter, then copper-smith before his interests in antiquarianism and natural history led him to become involved with the Ontario Provincial Museum, and later to be hired on as an archaeologist with the National Museum. Despite his frail constitution, he conducted archaeological explorations along the northern coast of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, worked in the Maritimes, studied the Iroquoian culture extensively, and conducted surveys in Western Canada. A modest man, he stayed on with the National Museum until his death in 1941 where he became, as the pioneering Canadian anthropologist Diamond Jenness stated: ‘…without question, the leading authority on Canadian archaeology [5].

Through the 1920’s and 30’s, the only other archaeology being conducted was by a few dedicated farmers and ranchers who meticulously documented and recorded prehistoric artifacts they collected from their fields and surrounding areas. In 1937, Wesley Bliss, an archaeologist with the University of New Mexico, working in conjunction with the Department of Geology at the University of Alberta [6], arrived to conduct survey work in the province as part of a broader, general survey of the upper Mackenzie drainage, northeastern British Columbia, and the northern Yukon. The purpose of the expedition was, ‘…to locate sites for excavation, make a general archaeological survey, and look for evidence of early man in relation to glaciation and possible early migration routes from Asia’ [7]. Admittedly, Bliss stated that, “…the season’s work was in the nature of a survey in an area which nothing was known archaeologically’ [8]. The team recorded Paleoindian spear points from collections as far north as Ponoka, and from areas around Calgary and southwestern Alberta [9]. Their work demonstrated that these artifacts post-dated the last glacial retreat [10].

In the spring of 1939, Junius Bouton Bird, a field assistant with the American Museum of Natural History in New York,  published a short column in Science [11], reporting on the discovery of bone fragments of two different species of extinct horse in the gravels of a North Saskatchewan River terrace in Edmonton. As well, he described a handful of stone artifacts that had been discovered in situ in the wall of the gravel pit. From a similar high gravel terrace outside of the town of Peace River he also reported on flaked, quartzite cobbles. Whether Bird in fact visited these places himself, or was merely reporting on the findings of others is unclear, however he did spend a few days at the buffalo jump northwest of Fort Macleod in the summer of 1938, where he did some cursory testing of the site. Prior to this western Canadian visit, Bird had spent the last several years with his new bride Peggy exploring Patagonia by sailboat and with an old Model T Ford. At Fell’s Cave, near the Straits of Magellan, they uncovered 11,000 year old bones of an extinct Giant Sloth in clear association with stone tools, thereby establishing the antiquity of humans in South America. He would later go on to become the curator of South American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History and, “the world’s leading authority on pre-Columbian textiles[12]. It was the knowledge of Bird’s visit a decade earlier that had impressed upon Wettlaufer the importance of the buffalo jump site. Wettlaufer noted: “I knew at the time when I was there that Junius Bird had been there, and I thought, well there’s a gentleman who’s interested in pre-historical material and if he thought it was worth checking, it would be worth checking” [13].

Up until the 1950’s, no comprehensive archaeological study had been undertaken in the province, and no chronological timeline of Alberta’s prehistory was understood. Self-made millionaire and oilman Eric Harvie recognized this and in 1955, his newly created Glenbow Foundation hired Dr. H. M. Wormington from the Denver Museum of Natural History to conduct a two year archaeological reconnaissance of the province.

As a woman, Wormington was a rarity in archaeology. A pioneer in the field, she was only the second woman admitted to study anthropology at Harvard, once even having to sit in the hallway outside a lecture hall because women were prohibited from entering [14]. In 1939, at the age of 25, she published the comprehensive and in-depth, Ancient Man In North America, and would go on to become a leading expert on the Paleoindian period. When she published, it was as H.M. Wormington, rather than Hannah Marie, a recommendation from her Director at the museum in Denver, to conceal her gender.

Dr. Hannah Marie Wormington. Photo Credit: Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

For the Glenbow project, Wormington developed a program that incorporated the study of various farmers’ collections, reconnaissance of new areas, and some small excavations. During that first summer, Wormington worked with William Mulloy, from the University of Wyoming; himself a leading authority on the prehistory of the northern plains [15].

Work continued again through the summer of 1956, although Dr. Mott Davis, a fellow Harvard graduate, and professor with the University of Texas, replaced Mulloy who had left to join Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s (of the Kon Tiki fame) scientific expedition to Easter Island. Throughout that second season, Wormington continued work in various areas of the province surveying and recording collections, while Davis excavated eleven sites in central Alberta and the Peace River area [16]. The result of this two year project showed that Alberta was rich in archaeological sites dating back 10,000 years, and for the first time a chronological human history of life in the province began to materialize.

In 1965, Wormington, along with Dr. Richard Forbis, a Montana native whom Eric Harvie had hired in 1957 as the Glenbow’s (and the province’s) first permanent staff archaeologist, would together pen the comprehensive, An Introduction to the Archaeology of Alberta, Canada, based on much of the Glenbow sponsored work to that date.

Published by the Denver Museum of Natural History in 1965, Wormington and Forbis’ work was the first comprehensive volume on Alberta archaeology.

Under Forbis, the Glenbow continued its archaeological endeavors, investigating such sites as the Earthlodge Village along the Bow River near Cluny, the Ross site – a complex of late prehistoric buried campsites along the Oldman River in southern Alberta, and the Old Woman’s Buffalo Jump in the foothills near Cayley. During this period, the Alberta government played no role in archaeology, and neither of the universities in Edmonton or Calgary took any formal interest. Forbis continued to be the only professional archaeologist working in the province, and much of the archaeology work being done was assisted by committed amateurs belonging to local archaeological and historical societies based out of Lethbridge, High River, Calgary and Edmonton. In the late 1950’s, husband and wife team Thomas and Alice Kehoe, both working on their PhD dissertations at Harvard at the time, also began working in the province. In 1957, they recorded a stone feature at the base of a small coulee along the Bow River near Blackfoot Crossing, also recording the oral history of the site from Blackfoot Elder, Pete Little Light. The line of small boulders and the outline of a human effigy book-ended by two stone cairns, marked a skirmish between the Blackfoot and the Bloods in 1872.

Dr. Richard G. Forbis ca. 1957. Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives NA-2864-1228a.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the academic institutions in the province first began to take an interest in archaeology. In 1963, another husband and wife team, Alan Bryan and Ruth Gruhn, having received their PhD’s from Harvard and Radcliffe respectively, joined the faculty at the University of Alberta, and in 1966 they helped found the University’s Department of Anthropology. Two years prior to this, Forbis, along with Richard MacNeish, Chief Archaeologist with the National Museum, founded the Department of Archaeology at the University of Calgary, and for the first time archaeologists could receive their training in Alberta.

Also in the mid-1960’s the Provincial Museum began an active role in archaeology, by excavating at the fur trade posts of Fort George and Buckingham House along the North Saskatchewan River, to build collections for the grand opening of the new museum in ‘67.

Excavations at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Buckingham House along the North Saskatchewan River near Elk Point, AB, 1965. Photo Credit: Royal Alberta Museum.

Through the 1960’s to the 1980’s, the face of archaeology in Alberta shifted with the establishment of heritage legislation and the resulting industry of archaeological consulting. Private consulting and research in the 1970’s and ’80’s continued to contribute to regional chronologies of the province.

Terra incognita was how Dr. Wormington referred to the archaeological landscape of the province prior to the 1950’s, and although there is still much to be learned – enormous amounts of information have been uncovered concerning Alberta’s past; a human history dating back over 12,000 years. From the original nomadic hunters who followed the retreating glaciers and now extinct Pleistocene mammals like the Steppe Bison, Camel and Mammoth, who  gave way to the communal bison hunters of the plains, and smaller groups that hunted and fished across the northern rivers and forests. With the more recent arrival of Europeans, a line of fur trade posts advanced up the Athabasca, Saskatchewan and Peace Rivers, followed by free traders, and the miners, ranchers, farmers and other settlers who helped shape the modern province of Alberta.

In 1983 Boyd Wettlaufer returned to Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump – this time as a guest of Jack Brink excavating with the Provincial Museum. Due to Wettlaufer’s initial work at the site, and those who came after, including Brian Reeves in the 1960’s and 70’s, the site has been declared a National Historic Site, a Provincial Historic Resource, and in 1981 was recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Boyd Wettlaufer at Head-Smashed-In, 1983. ‘UNM (University of New Mexico) 1949’ was the datum point he had painted on the cliff wall to site in his Surveyors Transit for laying out his excavation blocks. Photo Credit: Jack Brink.

Much has changed in the province since Wettlaufer’s field season in 1949. At present, there are over 40,000 recorded archaeological sites across Alberta, and since the introduction of the Historical Resources Act in 1973 (the Provincial Government’s landmark legislation specifically dedicated to the protection of the province’s historic resources), the Provincial Government has issued over 9,500 archaeological permits for survey and excavation. Much of the knowledge we have today about Alberta’s past is thanks to the pioneering work of these early archaeologists.

Written By: Mike Donnelly (Independent Historian)

Title Image: Excavating at the Ross Site, near Coaldale, Alberta, 1957. Photo Credit: Glenbow Archives  C7-4.

[1] Giering, Karen.  Stories From Head-Smashed in Buffalo Jump (DkPj-1): An Interview with Boyd Wettlaufer.  Alberta Archeological Review,
No. 50.  2009.
 p. 26.

[2] Giering, Karen.  Stories From Head-Smashed in Buffalo Jump (DkPj-1): An Interview with Boyd Wettlaufer.  Alberta Archeological Review,
No. 50.  2009.
 p. 26.

[3] Noble, William C.  One Hundred and Twenty Five Years of Archaeology in the Canadian Provinces.  Canadian Archaeological Association.  No. 4. 1972.  pp. 1-78. p.3.

[4] Noble, William C.  One Hundred and Twenty Five Years of Archaeology in the Canadian Provinces.  Canadian Archaeological Association.  No. 4. 1972. pp. 1-78.  p. 27.

[5] http://canadianarchaeology.com/caa/about/awards/smith-wintemberg-award/william-j-wintemberg

[6] Bliss, Wesley L.  An Archaeological and Geological Reconnaissance of Alberta, Mackenzie Valley and Upper Yukon.  Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia.  1939.  p. 136.

[7] Bliss, Wesley L.  Early Man in Western and Northwestern Canada.  Science Vol. 89, pp.  365-366.  1939.   p. 365.

[8] Bliss, Wesley L.  An Archaeological and Geological Reconnaissance of Alberta, Mackenzie Valley and Upper Yukon.  Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia.  1939.  p.  139.

[9] Bliss, Wesley L.  Early Man in Western and Northwestern Canada.  Science Vol. 89, pp.  365-366.  1939.  p.  365.

[10] Bliss, Wesley L.  An Archaeological and Geological Reconnaissance of Alberta, Mackenzie Valley and Upper Yukon.  Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia.  1939.  p.  139.

[11] Bird, Junius.  Artifacts in Canadian River Terraces.  April 14, 1939. Science 89 (2311), 340-341.

[12] New York Times – Obituary; Junius Bird

http://www.nytimes.com/1982/04/04/obituaries/junius-bird-74-archeologist-an-expert-on-south-america.html

[13] Giering, Karen.  Stories From Head-Smashed in Buffalo Jump (DkPj-1): An Interview with Boyd Wettlaufer.  Alberta Archeological Review,
No. 50.  2009.
 p. 26.

[14] Kelly, Robert L., Thomas, David Hurst.  2013.  Archaeology 6th Ed. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA.  p.  12.

[15] Wormington, H.M.  and  Richard G. Forbis.  An Introduction to the Archaeology of Alberta, Canada.  Denver Museum of Natural History, Proceedings No. 11.  Denver, Colorado.  Aug. 15, 1965.  p.  1.

[16] Wormington, H.M., Forbis Richard G.  An Introduction to the Archaeology of Alberta, Canada.  Denver Museum of Natural History, Proceedings No. 11.  Denver, Colorado.  Aug. 15, 1965.  p. 2.

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