Museum archaeological dig a goldmine of information

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When I arrived at the Museum as its new Manager of Education Programming nine months ago, I hadn’t been involved in archaeology since 1994. After so many years in museology, conservation and education, I never dreamed I would return to my academic roots, but I was presented with a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to dig into one of my lifetime passions, The Forks – so I jumped at it. I was asked to prepare a summary of the CMHR archaeological studies that had been carried out before the Museum construction began. What I learned as I peeled through every page would surprise me. The reports are a veritable goldmine of information that is already testing current theories on local archaeology, enough to inspire potential Masters and PhD theses for generations to come.

More than 1,600 pages of archaeological data were reported from work that occurred on site between 2008 and 2012. Over 400,000 artifacts were recovered from beneath the Museum, which speak to ancient lifeways at The Forks.

More than two thirds of these consist of fish remains, most notably sturgeon – which became nearly extinct during more recent times. At this point and location in their seasonal rounds ancient First Peoples relied heavily on fish, but also hunted, as evidenced by the remains of big game (bison, moose, elk, and deer) and small game (rabbit, beaver, muskrat, squirrel and birds) which were also recovered at the site. The women would have always kept the diet balanced through the gathering of plant foods which would again vary by season and location. The pattern could suggest some increased reliance on bison over time with one major bison kill bed or layer on site. At least 191 fire pits (or hearths) were uncovered pointing to repeated long term use of The Forks every summer and fall by First Nations as a gathering place.

This find quite possibly represents the most hearths ever found in Canada in such a small area. About a half dozen of these were found with an un-charred bison skull ceremoniously placed upside down upon them. This has only been seen once before, and its reason remains a mystery to archaeologists.

Archeologist Nicole Skalesky
Stantec archaeologist Nicole Skalesky excavates a bison skull found upside down upon a hearth. (Photo 15-2)

Designs on the ceramics (or pottery) that were uncovered during the digs represent a period of rapid cultural change in a relatively short time span of 200 to 300 years between 1100 to 1400 A.D. This was during a time known as the Late Woodland Period, long before contact was made with Europeans. An astonishing number of pots, at least 121, were identified, many exhibiting both Woodlands and Plains traits. From these, at least 5 to 10 completely new types of pottery were identified that will need to be added to the existing typology that archaeologists use for ceramics in this part of the world. Those I’ve consulted with say it’s “Blackduck meets Rainy River” style, a distinctly homegrown style not seen elsewhere.

Plate 13.3-4: Rainy River Pseudo-chevron Vessels, Vessel 66, Level 2A
Aspen Vessels
Plate 13.3-8: Vessel 34, Level 2

Among all the findings were a rare shell tool, shell beads, many well-made stone tools, dozens of exquisite bone tools like awls (needles and hole makers), spatulas, leister prongs and a harpoon, not to mention the first potential evidence of farming at The Forks site and new discoveries in plant use in the area.

End scraper
End scraper (Plate 4.4-10)
SRC Plains Side-Notched projectile point (Plate 5.4-4)
Knife River Flint knife (Plate 5.4-26)
Bone awls
Bone awls (Plate 4.6-1)
Awl made from drum pterygiophore. This is one of three culturally modified fish remains found that are clearly tools (Plate 6.7-1)
Shell toolShell tool
Dorsal and ventral faces of shell tool  (Plate 4.8-3)

Five pipe fragments and one intact platform pipe were also salvaged. The platform pipe is like none other ever found in Manitoba, resembling much older pipes from regions further south.

Earlier this spring, I had the honour of presenting these findings at the Canadian Archaeological Association annual conference and to local elders at Thunderbird House here in Winnipeg. Elders shared that there was a major peace treaty or meeting that occurred at The Forks between several First Nations between 500 and 700 years ago, according to oral tradition. While the pipes that were found in the CMHR dig are older than this by a few hundred years, the evidence appears to support this oral history since The Forks is a very ancient site with a long legacy of council meetings, peace-making, alliance-building, trade and probably intermarriage between different First Nations.    

As we work to prepare the Museum’s exhibitions and public and school programs, this serves as an excellent reminder for us all that the place on which the Museum sits is ancient land used for thousands and thousands of years by different First Nations. I am inspired in my regular job as Manager of Education Programs to honour this history by working with partners to develop rich and innovative human rights programming for K-12 in English and French covering treaty rights, residential schools and more, using traditional Aboriginal teachings and conventional pedagogies.

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