Computer modelling and forgotten river crossings

Author Terry Beaulieu busy in the field
Field assistant mapping a medicine wheel.  Purple and green flags mark spokes, orange flags mark cobble rings.

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.

Newly Discovered Medicine Wheel Detail Plan
Southern Alberta is home to a greater number of medicine wheels than any other jurisdiction, and the Red Deer River appears to be a particularly rich location for them. Image provided by Terry Beaulieu.

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.

Travelling routes along Red Deer River
A segment of Palliser’s 1865  map showing the route he travelled (marked in red) down Bullpound Creek and across the Red Deer River when visiting a Blackfoot Camp. Provided by Terry Beaulieu.

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.

John Palliser
Captain John Palliser was one of the first Europeans to visit western Canada and the maps he produced are some of the earliest created of the area. Source: Wiki Commons

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

“Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”

So, a colleague of mine here in the Historic Resources Management Branch recently returned from a course on wood conservation in Oslo, Norway.

While he didn’t find out why John Lennon lit a former lover’s house on fire as the song strangely suggests, he did attend the 2018 International Course on Wood Conservation Technology (ICWCT). A biennial course that gathers academics, professors and scientists from around the world (including two from Canada) to deliver lectures, ICWCT also combines this with field work and theory centered on the practice of wood conservation.

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The Borgund Stave Church in Lærdalen, Norway was built just before 1150. From the Middle Ages up until the beginning of the twentieth century the use of pine tar was restricted to the protection of churches, since it was both time-consuming  and expensive to produce. This goes a long way towards explaining why outdoor woodwork on the stave churches from the twelfth century which has been protected with pine tar is preserved in an excellent condition. Norwegian church accounts reveal that the local farmers and villagers were obliged to apply fresh tar to the external walls of the stave churches at ten yearly intervals*. Photo by: AzaToth

Heritage Conservation Technologist Evan Oxland went to Norway to learn more about technical and theoretical aspects of wood conservation, as well as what other contemporary international approaches there are out there. He was the only Read more

Every Place Has a Story

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Strikes, war and untimely death are all part of the story of the ambitious mining venture at Leitch Collieries in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass.

Saturday, July 7 is Canada Historic Places Day. Here in Alberta, you might be picturing a museum, an old Ukrainian farm house or that retrofitted old warehouse in downtown Calgary or Edmonton.

In reality, historic “places” can be much more than urban buildings or interpretive centres. They’re vast swaths of land where First Nations hunted or geological landmarks tens of thousands of years in the making.

Everyone across the province is invited to head out this weekend to learn about the stories, people and places that have shaped our province. We have more than 700 historic places designated under the province’s Historical Resources Act…maybe one of those is right in your neighbourhood!

When you’re out exploring Alberta’s historic places, share your stories on social media using the hashtag #HistoricPlacesDay. And head over to historicplacesday.ca to find out how a selfie could land you a chance to win $1,000.

Did You Ever Hear the Blues? The Music, Film and Influence of Big Miller

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Big Miller on the cover of the August 1980 edition of the Edmonton Jazzette. That shirt is due for a comeback. Photo provided by the Yardbird Suite.

Generally speaking, the ol’ City of Champs hasn’t been known as an international hub of art and culture as say, Montreal, New York City or Los Angeles. Artists of all stripes – musicians, dancers, visual artists – tend to get their feet wet in Edmonton then head off for the greener pastures of large international centres of creativity. So to hear stories of popular artists choosing to do the opposite and actually move to Edmonton to pursue creative endeavours (in the 1970s no less!), well, that’s something worth exploring.

Jazz music has a long history in Edmonton; incredible venues like the Yardbird Suite are recognized as important institutions in the city and former events, like the Jazz City Festival are recognized for their historical role in promoting the genre in the city and province. This week is the 2018 Edmonton International Jazz Festival. Since 2006 this festival has brought some of the world’s finest jazz musicians and acts to Alberta and has promoted local musicians at an internationally recognized venue. This week’s blog post is about one of those unique Edmonton transplants, one that may not be as well-known as jazz contemporaries Tommy Banks and PJ Perry, but one who certainly deserves to be recognized in the same ranks – the great trombonist and Kansas City Blues singer Clarence Horatius “Big” Miller. Read more

Métis Week: November 13 – 18

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Excerpt from Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography (Drawn & Quarterly, Montreal, 2003)

November 13 – 18 marks the annual Métis Week celebrations. Each year, the Métis Nation of Alberta hosts events around the province to commemorate not only Riel’s uniquely complicated and heroic legacy, but the outstanding contributions of Métis people to Canada. November 16, the date Riel was executed, will be an especially significant remembrance.

When it comes to defining legacies of the women and men who helped shape Canada into what it is today, few people are as complicated as Louis Riel. The Métis founder of Manitoba and twice-elected Member of Parliament is at the same time revered and scorned; the vanguard of Métis resistance against the federal government is a hero and a traitor, depending who you ask. To this day, over 130 years after he was hanged for treason in Regina, Saskatchewan, Riel is to some still a controversial and polarizing man. But for many, especially Canada’s Métis population, Riel is a man to celebrate and to honour. Read more

From the Rocky Mountains to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood

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Farad: The Electronic Voice, a reissue of late-career Haack songs from Stones Throw. Image: Stones Throw Records.

This weekend is Alberta Culture Days, a three-day province-wide celebration of Alberta’s vibrant and diverse arts and culture communities. Originally created in 2008 as a one-day event called Alberta Arts Day, Alberta Culture Days has become the flagship autumnal arts celebration for people of all ages and interests. Thousands of events will take place this weekend all over Alberta.

When it comes to the music community, many people are likely familiar with famous Alberta musicians whose long careers and commercial success have led them to worldwide acclaim. Ian Tyson and k.d. lang come to mind, as well as more contemporary artists like Feist, Corb Lund, Cadence Weapon and Purity Ring. However, there is one person in particular whose influence on music is only now being fully understood, decades after his death in 1988. His name is Bruce Haack and he grew up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. Looking back on his career and musical output, you wouldn’t be far off in thinking that maybe this man was the living embodiment of the concept of, “way ahead of his time.” Read more