Heritage Art Series

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 (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 (more…)

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. (more…)

Changing Animals: Alberta’s Ice Age Megafauna and Wally’s Beach

When St. Mary Reservoir in southern Alberta was filled in the 1950s, no one knew that it submerged an incredible record of life from 13,000 years ago. That record, including footprints of mammoth, camel, and horse, was recently exposed – the internationally significant site is now informing opinions about the role humans played in the extinction of Alberta’s ‘megafauna’.

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Rare and information-rich trackways from lumbering mammoth were revealed by scouring winds at St. Mary Reservoir (courtesy of Shayne Tolman).

Wally’s Beach

Shayne Tolman, a teacher from Cardston, is responsible for drawing attention to St. Mary Reservoir and Wally’s Beach, a site complex on an ancient island in St. Mary River that is currently being investigated by Dr. Brian Kooyman and a team from the University of Calgary. Archaeologists have discovered that the menu of some of Alberta’s oldest humans included megafauna like camel, horse, and perhaps mammoth. Over six thousand artifacts indicate that people were hunting big game at a time when these animals were likely struggling to cope with climate change. Did human hunting lead to megafauna extinction or are warming temperatures to blame? Many researchers argue that pre-contact human populations were too small to impact big game while others suggest that targeted hunting patterns among small groups could have big consequences.

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)

Megafauna of Alberta at the end of the last Ice Age (produced by Todd Kristensen)

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Blood Kettles and Buffalo Jumps: Communal Hunting on the Plains of Alberta

According to Blackfoot tradition, as Old Man traveled north he created the mountains, rivers, grass and trees. When he came to the area of the present day Porcupine Hills in southwest Alberta, he formed images of people from mud and breathed life into them. The people asked Old Man what they would eat, and so, he created images of buffalo from clay and brought them to life. He then took the people to a rocky ledge and called to the buffalo, who ran in a straight line over the cliff: “Those are your food.”

Tens of millions of buffalo once roamed the Great Plains of North America from Alberta’s grasslands down to Texas. To people of the plains, there was no more important food source. A number of ingenious methods were devised for communal (group) hunting – buffalo were lured into ambushes, corralled with fire, chased onto frozen lakes or into deep snow, and driven into elaborate traps called pis’kun by the Blackfoot (translated as ‘deep-blood kettles’). Of the hundreds of mass kill sites, perhaps none is more impressive than the buffalo jump, the most famous of which is Alberta’s Head-Smashed-In. (more…)

Power and Powder: Early Guns in Alberta

It’s hard to overstate the profound impact of firearms in Alberta’s history. The earliest guns delivered food, protection, and intimidation. Technological improvements from European contact to the 1900s led to significant changes in the ways that guns were used across the province. This blog briefly explores the evolution of firearms in Alberta and the archaeological record of it.

First Guns

Firearms were introduced to Canada in the 1500s but didn’t spread to Alberta until much later. Their first appearance in the province was likely through raiding or trading in the southern U.S. by Plains First Nations. Early gun models, like flared-mouth blunderbusses, were designed for close encounters on battle fields but proved ineffective on the prairies. It wasn’t until the advent of portable flintlock muskets that guns spread like wildfire across the West.

An 1805 Barnett flintlock trade musket that came to be one the most popular Northwest Trade guns. Over 20 000 guns were sold out of Canada’s major fur trade depot at York Factory from 1600 to the late 1700s. Figure by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

An 1805 Barnett flintlock trade musket that came to be one the most popular Northwest Trade guns. Over 20 000 guns were sold out of Canada’s major fur trade depot at York Factory from 1600 to the late 1700s. Figure by Todd Kristensen and Julie Martindale.

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Alberta on Fire: A History of Cultural Burning

Fire science has come a long way but the growing practice of prescribed burning is actually a return to a deep past. Archaeological and paleoecological researchers are demonstrating that Western Canada has been burning at the hands of people for thousands of years. Much of what was thought to be wilderness in the early 1900s was likely a mosaic of manipulated landscapes influenced by controlled burns. Alberta has a rich history of fire use and the recognition of it has implications for modern conservation and land management.

Ancient Fires

Tracking the history of fire in a landscape can be challenging and, in the paleoenvironmental record, it’s particularly difficult to distinguish human from natural burning. Fire scientists, however, are untangling fire history in interesting places. Christina Poletto is a Master’s student at the University of Alberta who will soon extract a long core of lake mud in northern Alberta in order to analyse changing layers of charcoal and pollen deposited over thousands of years. This information provides a baseline of natural fire history that she hopes to compare to cultural landscapes surrounding archaeological sites. “I want to (more…)