Rainbow Fossils and Bison Calling

For an animal that looks like an awkward collision of snail and squid (Figure 1), ammonites have played surprisingly important roles in international history. To Blackfoot First Nations on the Plains of North America, the ornate edges of ammonite segments resemble miniature bison (sometimes called buffalo), and, for over a thousand years, they have been used in ceremonies to summon bison spirits. Across the ocean, 16th to 19th Century fossil hunters propelled ammonites into palaeontological fame by using them to anchor theories of an ancient earth (Figure 2). In modern Alberta, Canada, miners and members of Blackfoot First Nations are seeking iridescent ammonites to fuel a global demand for art and jewellery; sacred and secular, and now economic, ammonites are immersed in a complex story. Read more

An Archaeologist’s Perspective on Truth and Heritage

An Archaeologist’s Perspective on Truth and Heritage

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission formed to address the residential school experience of First Nations; an Alberta symposium about the commission ended with the question “how can society spread the message of reconciliation”? As an archaeologist, my answer started with a collection of religious medallions found in a garden in northern Alberta and ended with a story about spiritual change, the value of heritage objects, and the powerful roles that historians and archaeologists can play in portraying the past.

Medallions in a Meadow

A small, yellow box of Roman Catholic medallions from the 1800s seemed unusual company next to the stone arrowheads in my office. They popped up in a garden next to a First Nations community along Meander River in northwest Alberta. During a site visit, community members shared the collection in the hopes that I could in turn help share the story of the medallions.

Roman Catholic medallions from the 1800s found in northwest Alberta. The medallions are symbols of a time when Christianity was spreading among First Nations communities.

Research revealed that the metal medallions mark an era when Christianity was evolving from a source of curiosity in the early 1800s to a defining cultural element among many Indigenous people in northern Alberta. New spiritual elements replaced others, hybridized with traditional beliefs, or were rejected. Like leaves of the surrounding carrots and parsnips, the garden medallions are a glimpse, or a surface expression, of the important roots of a story, in this case, a tale of syncretism or spiritual blending. By offering an archaeological view of the connection Read more

Connecting the Continent: Stone Tools in Alberta

After a few thousand years, most of the archaeological record in Alberta has been winnowed down to pieces of rock used to make tools. Organic artifacts, structures, and other less durable things generally don’t survive thanks to erosion and decomposition. To maximize the information we can pull from those pieces of stone, the Alberta Lithic Reference Project (ALRP) was formed by a consortium of archaeological consultants, heritage managers, geologists, students, and university researchers. The goals are to accurately and consistently identify the types of raw materials that pre-contact people used to make stone tools. Why is this important? Specific types of rock were traded and moved widely across the continent and serve as valuable indicators of cultural relationships and/or human mobility patterns. Read more

The Tale of a Rusty Revolver

The story of a rusty gun found in central Alberta begins across the continent in 1863 when 100,000 New Model Army revolvers were being made at the Remington & Sons factory near the banks of the Mohawk River in New York State. The New Model Army was a popular sidearm because it was affordable and tough: most were destined for use in close combat by U.S. Army soldiers in the American Civil War. Between New York and Alberta, much of the revolver’s story is a mystery. Read more

Mountain Movement: How the Rockies Shape Alberta

Most of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains finished uplifting 50 million years ago – they’ve been pouring sediment across the province ever since. The Rockies shaped our water drainage network and, with the help of glaciers, erected the house of silt, sand, and stone that we all live in. The tilt that our mountains built is largely responsible for the development of our prairie soils and modern agriculture. Our mountains have also shaped how cultures interact and move, which has moulded much of our history.

At first glance, the Rockies are imposing – an impressive barrier rising from the foothills like a stony gate. But for thousands of years, people traveled across and within them to trade and acquire goods. Groups in southeastern British Columbia, like the Kootenai, often descended into Alberta’s valleys to hunt bison and other big game. The Kootenai engaged in trade and formalized sport (like the hoop and arrow game) with local Blackfoot, Cree, and other groups. Large caches of meat and hides were then transported back across Read more

From North Dakota with Flair

The St. Mary Reservoir, near Cardston in southern Alberta, was built and filled by the early 1950s. During reservoir draw downs and droughts, lake bottom sediments are exposed and quickly eroded, which has revealed a unique collection of artifacts and even trackways of now extinct megafauna like mammoth and camel.

Two particularly interesting artifacts are termed ‘eccentrics’ because their shape and significance are so unusual. Eccentrics are very rare artifacts, the shapes of which are thought to be determined more by aesthetic rather than functional reasons. Some archaeologists think that the large flintknapped stone artifacts from St. Mary Reservoir are symbolic representations of the branched “horns” of pronghorn antelope once common across the Great Plains. Others think they may have been ceremonial knives used on special occasions.

Knife River Flint ‘eccentrics’ from St. Mary Reservoir. The different colourations of these pieces are due to ‘patination’. This is when a chemical rind develops over time around particular edges or faces of artifacts depending on their exposure to different local conditions (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

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Lives on Pots: Ancient Pottery in Alberta

Pottery traditions have developed independently all over the globe thanks to the versatility of clay as a medium for utilitarian function and the expression of identity. Over 450 sites in Alberta have pre-contact pottery dating from 300 to close to 2000 years old. Fragments or “sherds” of pots at archaeological sites reveal surprising amounts of information about how people lived, how they transmitted knowledge, and why pottery traditions persisted in Indigenous populations for millennia. Ancient pottery production continues to influence modern potters and it can inform how modern society uses material goods to express identity. Read more