Often, archaeological discoveries are thought to only result from physical archaeological surveys. However, later data analysis and computer modeling can also provide important insights not easily seen in the field. Recent efforts to reconstruct possible past travel routes along the Red Deer River north of Brooks help illustrate just such a situation. Exciting archaeological finds were made, both through traditional archaeological survey techniques in the field, as well as with modern computer modelling approaches later in the office. These finds highlight the importance of viewing the past not simply as a series of isolated archaeological sites, but rather as a continuous cultural landscape.
Two seasons of fieldwork, consisting of more than 400 km of pedestrian survey, were conducted along the edges of the Red Deer River valley for some 43.5 km of the river’s course. The area was situated in some of the warmest and driest parts of the province, with vegetation consisting primarily of grasses, a few shrubs and vast swaths of prickly pear cactus. While some portions were virtually devoid of vegetation, unusually high amounts of precipitation throughout the region had encouraged thick grass growth in most other areas, and had kept the prairie a rich green colour for much longer than usual. Hidden within that thick cover of grass were large numbers of archaeological cobble features – the location of close to 1,000 of which were recorded with GPS. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of features recorded during the fieldwork were standard cobble rings that marked the locations of past tipis. Also recorded, however, were significant numbers of other types of cobble structures, like standard cobble cairns and cobble arcs, as well as more unusual features , like tailed cobble rings, hollow cairns, and medicine wheels.
A total of five known medicine wheels were located in the area. Due to land access issues, however, only two of the five were visited during the present investigation. One new medicine wheel, though, was discovered. Like the other five medicine wheels in the vicinity, the newly discovered medicine wheel lies quite close to the valley edge, overlooking the Red Deer River to the east. It has a very well defined 5.25 m diameter central cobble ring from which four less-well defined linear cobble spokes radiate. The three longest spokes each terminate at a cobble cairn. A cobble ring is bisected along its northern edge approximately midway along the east northeast running spoke and a tailed cobble ring, along with a standard cobble ring, lie close by.
The wealth of locational data collected for the recorded cobble features was critical to computer analyses later conducted in the office. Close to 1,000 data points – the locations of archaeological cobble features – were imported into a geographic information system (GIS) to form the basis of a sophisticated spatial modeling analysis. Archaeological applications of GIS have often been criticized for placing too much emphasis on the physical environment and of therefore being guilty of excessive environmental determinism. The modelling approach taken in this study was designed to intentionally emphasize cultural elements in order to address such concerns with what is generally considered to be a landscape archaeological approach.
One of the ways cultural elements were emphasized was through identifying and integrating the concept of place into the GIS analysis. Incorporating locations into the GIS that had been identified based on place names known to have been used by Indigenous people was one such method employed. Past places were also determined by using the archaeological information collected in the field. Locations indicative of important places, for example, were identified by locating significant concentrations of standard cobble rings, or finding the presence of known ceremonial features such as medicine wheels and hollow cairns, among others. GIS modelling was then conducted in an effort to locate and model pedestrian travel routes that may have been employed by past people during their summer travels through the region when heading to the nearby important location of Hunting Hill.
The GIS models indicated a crossing point located near where Bull Pound Creek empties into the Red Deer River. The problem, however, was that most early maps of the area indicated the closest known river crossing was upstream from there at Lord Lorne Crossing. It therefore appeared the GIS models were flawed. Further investigation, however, revealed that was likely not the case.
In the summer of 1859, Captain John Palliser travelled through the region as part of his multi-year expedition through western Canada. He was one of the first Europeans to visit the region and the maps he produced are some of the earliest created of the area. During those travels he wrote of visiting “Blackfoot Indian” camps. The route he travelled during one of those visits ran down the east side of Bull Pound Creek and crossed the Red Deer River at the point where the creek emptied into the river – at almost the exact location indicated by the GIS models. Given that Palliser was likely being guided by residents of the camp, who would have been familiar with the best routes and river crossings, the concurrence between Palliser’s map and the GIS models indicates the modelling process was indeed successful in identifying the location of a river crossing point used by past peoples.
It is interesting to note that less than a quarter century later, when George M. Dawson, of the Geological Survey of Canada, created his maps of the area, the crossing near the mouth of Bullpound Creek was no longer recognized by those creating the maps. Lord Lorne Crossing, significantly upstream from the mouth of Bullpound Creek, had instead replaced it as the important crossing place. Such a shift illustrates how quickly changes occurred on the prairies in the mid to late 1800s, and how fast Indigenous information became lost and undervalued during European map making. Information about the locations of significant places to past people does not have to remain lost and forgotten, though, and can be resurrected through thorough investigation and careful research, as is evident by the discovery of a previously unknown medicine wheel and the identification of a forgotten river crossing. Both are significant additions to the archaeological record that, in addition to helping inform our understanding of the past, also show that important new archaeological discoveries are still being made, whether through old fashioned archaeological legwork or modern computer analysis.
Written by: Terry Beaulieu, Ph.D. Graduate, University of Calgary