Archaeology in the tree roots: blowdown results in find

Stone weapons found on sandy ridge by Athabasca River in wake of wind storm

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

Within a 50 km circle outside of the Town of Slave Lake, there are over 300 archaeological sites, says Brian Leslie, archeologist at Tree Time Services.

He and fellow archeologist Kurtis Blaikie-Birkigt often work in the area doing historical resource impact assessments.

These assessments look for evidence of historic activity on the land and have found everything from early 20th Century trappers cabins to 10,000-year-old stone spearheads.

Archaeologists dig 40cm holes across the area, Leslie says. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

When these surveys started around 2001 or 2002, people didn’t expect to find very many sites, Blaikie-Birkigt says. However, in general, 20 to 30 sites are found per year. Most are pretty small – around 30-50m evidence of small campsites. Along lakes and old lake shores, the sites are larger – often around 100 to 200m.

In 2016, a windstorm north of the Athabasca River revealed a much larger site. It is 800m by 50m, Leslie says. To give context it is about eight Canadian football fields long by half a football field. It is a very long and narrow site.

Leslie could not reveal the exact location, but the general area is close to where Highway 2 crosses the Athabasca River.

These assessments are required for any development on crown land, Blaikie-Birkigt says, such as logging, sand pits and oil field.

Forestry is low-impact and generally goes around historic and archaeological sites, Leslie says.

Assessments are usually done before the area is logged, Leslie says. In rare occasions, due to fire or wind damage, Archaeologists have to do the survey after the area has been cleared.

In the case of the Athabasca site, the trees being disturbed made it much easier for them to find the site. Leslie figures that in a traditional survey situation they would have found the site, but not the extent of it. With the trees uprooted, many stone projectiles were visible on the surface.

Leslie found Besant Point projectiles, which date the site to between 2,500 and 1,300-years-ago.

During the survey, the area is marked off, Leslie says. Artifacts are cleaned, processed and catalogue and sent to the Alberta Museum.

There are lots of little sites in the area, Blaikie-Birkigt says, but the last big archaeological dig in the area was a field school in the 1980s.

There are no plans at present to further investigate the Athabasca site, but Leslie figures it would be a good site to do a public outreach excavation.

If it is developed, layers of evidence from older or new eras might emerge.

Leslie knows of sites where in the top layer there were arrowheads, which are the newest stone projectiles and 2.5m down there were 10,000 old spearheads.

Forests have acidic soil, which makes archaeology challenging, Leslie says. The acidity removes biological traces, so for the most part only stone tools remain. Bone and pottery tend not to survive. In the prairies, large piles of bison bones have been discovered.

The area around Lesser Slave Lake is the most northern site of pottery, Leslie says. Pottery usually dates around the era when there are stone arrowheads. The oldest are from 1,100 years ago.

There are over 40,000 archaeological sites in Alberta, including some of the oldest sites in North America, says Leslie. The oldest sites date to the early pre-contact era which starts around 11,200-years-ago. There is evidence of habitation before then, but no stone tools.

Leslie explains that during this time most of the rest of North America was covered in glaciers. After crossing the Bering Strait, people traveled south by boat. They paddled either along the BC coast or down the series of large lakes that made up Alberta. At the time, Lesser Slave Lake was the size of a small sea.

Blowdown area by the Athabasca River where evidence of large scale 2,500 to 1,300 year old habitation has turned up. Photo is from 2017.

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