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

Beading the Way: Adornment and the Quest for Cultural Survival

Adornment reflects a symbolic visual language that includes materials and designs that contain communally understood messages. That is, the clothing or items we wear convey information about us to other people. The expression of these messages through clothing, tattoos, jewelry, or body paint, conveys information about an individual, group, society, or religion. Beading, and other embroidery techniques, can be seen as one aspect of adornment for Indigenous groups, and one that played a central role in cultural preservation for many groups post-European contact.

Beads have been found in the archaeological record as early as 40,000 years ago, and are staples in decorative adornment. Beads can be fashioned from many different natural materials including plant seeds, stone, gems, shell, bone, or metal. While plant-based seeds are the easiest to manufacture due to their availability, beads made from bone, metal, gems, or semi-precious stone require more effort and technology to produce, and are therefore more highly valued.

Prior to European contact, Woodland and Plains cultures of North America decorated the skins of animals, tree bark, and their own bodies with locally available and traded materials. Materials such as seeds, berries, porcupine quills, moose hair, Read more

‘Pollen’ me back into history!: What Pollen can tell us about Archaeological Sites

Anyone with allergies knows when spring begins, and plants start pollinating, the offensive ‘dust’ can wreak havoc. However, one of the great things with pollen, from an archaeological perspective, is the fact that it gets dispersed annually. This means that each year, the ‘signature’ of the pollen released tells us about the landscape at the time. Plants have evolved to reproduce with pollen in several ways, and one that is highly effective is pollinating via the wind.

Pollen being released from a flower which will be carried by the wind. Plant Pollen is available through the CC0 Public Domain.

When the wind transports pollen it gets dispersed across the landscape, sometimes even getting caught within puddles. Inevitably, many pollen grains get caught in lakes and accumulate in the sediments. When it settles on the bottom of a lake basin, it stays there and is preserved for researchers to find hundreds, and even thousands, of years later. All this Read more

Pronghorn Traps on the Northern Plains of Alberta

“The antelope possesses an unconquerable inquisitiveness, of which hunters often take advantage…The hunter, getting as near the animal as is practicable, conceals himself by lying down, then fixing a handkerchief or cap upon the end of his ramrod, continues to wave it, remaining concealed. The animal, after a long contest between curiosity and fear, at length approaches near enough to become a sacrifice to the former.” (James 1905, vol. 2, pp. 227)

On two different flights over southeastern Alberta, separated by about thirty years, unusual stone features were observed on the landscape. Upon further inspection by archaeologists, it was determined that these two sites are the remnants of drive lanes and traps that were used for the communal hunting of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana, also commonly referred to as antelope).

While it is commonly known that bison were one of the greatest resources for precontact North American Indigenous groups, it is important to note that before European arrival, it is thought that there were just as many pronghorn as bison in North America. They were an important resource as well, particularly for people living in the Great Basin region of the United States, as pronghorn were one of the largest game animals available in that region. For Plains groups, bison were preferred for meat (and there is abundant archaeological evidence of this in the many bison kill sites across the Plains), however, pronghorn were valued for their hides to make clothing and other items.

Communal antelope hunting is documented in many historical accounts both in the Great Basin and on the Plains. These accounts describe wood and brush drive lines that led to fenced enclosures and to pit traps excavated in the ground. Hunters disguised themselves as antelope, wolf or other animals to get close to the herds and then drove the animals into Read more

The Archaeological Survey in Numbers – 2017 Update!

This week’s post is an update on archaeological project and site data for 2017 from the Archaeological Survey. Click the image below and zoom to see the full size infographic.

Note on archaeological sites: the site counts for 2017 are not yet final. They are constantly being updated as consultants and researchers submit their records to the Archaeological Survey. Stay tuned to RETROactive for up-to-date numbers.

See previous infographics from this series here:

Archaeology and Development: Statistics from the Historic Resources Management Branch

Archaeological Survey in Numbers Part One: Archaeological Permits

Archaeological Survey in Numbers Part Two : Archaeological Permit Holders and Companies

Archaeological Survey in Numbers Part Three : Archaeological Site Investigation

Written By: Colleen Haukaas (Archaeological Survey)

45+ Years of Data Management at the Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Whether excavating archaeological sites or surveying the land in search of undiscovered ones, archaeologists create data. That data can take the form of field journals, artifact catalogues, GPS tracks and waypoints, photographs, excavation plans, level records, site forms, and reports. It is often said that for every month spent in the field, an archaeologist will spend a year in the lab and the office processing the field data they collected.

The Archaeological Survey (the Survey) began managing Alberta archaeological sites, research, and mitigation in 1972, with the passing of what is now known as the Historical Resources Act. At the same time, the Survey also became the official provincial repository for most archaeological data. Today the Survey collects and archives data for use by archaeological researchers, consultants, and other stakeholders, and also relies on archaeological data in order to run the historic resources management machinery. Read more

The Swing of Things: Archaeology in Alberta and the Occasional Paper Series

The Archaeological Survey of Alberta is proud to kick-off Occasional Paper No. 38 with a new format and early contributions. Articles in the Occasional Paper Series will now be published online throughout the year, with the final, compiled volume released at the end of the year. Our goal in moving to this rolling release format is to make articles available in a timely manner, while helping to accommodate the schedules of CRM consultants, university students, and other contributors.

Cover of the 2018 Occasional Paper Series. Submissions are welcome.

Occasional Paper No. 38, “The Swing of Things: Contributions to Archaeological Research in Alberta, 2018,” is dedicated to an early member of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Milt Wright, whose recent passing was mourned by the province’s archaeological community. The first article in the volume is a tribute to him.

Milt Wright (1952-2017) was an integral member of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta in the 1980s and 90s.

The second paper is an identification guide for Knife River Flint, supplemented by geochemical and mineralogical tests of this important raw material that was used to make stone tools in Alberta.

A sample of Knife River Flint artifacts found in Alberta. Individual artifact photographs courtesy of Eugene Gryba, Shayne Tolman, Bob Dawe, and Todd Kristensen.

The title, “The Swing of Things,” refers to what we hope will be consistent format and content for years to come: each issue will feature papers documenting the multitude of cultural resource management (CRM), avocational, and academic archaeological projects completed in previous years. Interested authors can pitch a paper or idea to the editorial committee. The current and past volumes are available for free download here.

Written By: Eric R. Damkjar, Head, Archaeological Survey of Alberta