Return to Civilization


One shovel test – down to 85 cm.


One excavation block were we dug 8 units, most of the microblades came from the corner they’re working in

The last couple of days in the Yukon were good; we finished up our excavation units, refilled them and had a slacker day around camp before flying back to Whitehorse. We didn’t find anything else terribly exciting, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Most of the cultural material (points and artefacts) came out of the top 30 to 40 cm of sediment but one of our shovel tests had a random bone at 75 cm below surface – just one perfectly intact tibia….thus we had to take all of our shovel tests and excavation units down that deep, or even deeper (some went to a meter). This seemed a bit drastic but at least four of our units had nothing until the 75 cm point and then we found 1 bone in each unit, most curious and annoying – I feel like it was just one random animal that decided to die all the way across our site.


Al’s expert hands at work

The last day at the camp was fun though, well aside from tackling the mountain of dirty field clothes. We were given permission, and some quads, to go gold panning for the afternoon! Apparently this is called sniping – you are allowed to pan for gold without a claim in order to see if there is anything in the area. Luckily, we had Al, a toothless older gentleman mechanic on the mountain who used to have his own gold claim and business, show us which sediment we should be panning and how to do it. As with all things, he made it look quick and easy. It involves a lot of swirling and continually dipping the pan in and out of the river, when I tried I felt like I wIMG_4240as floating any gold I might have had downstream, I also couldn’t figure out how he magically made all of his rocks disappear from the pan. In the end, we did find some tiny flakes which I now have in a preposterously large ziplock bag, I also brought home a sandwich-sized bag of sediment that needs to be panned still, hopefully my fortune is in that bag!


The moccasin

After that excitement, we flew back to Whitehorse and stayed the night. Before our last plane ride home we went to the archaeology branches’ main repository for an early morning visit. We took along some of the cool stuff we had found and the woman was able to help us pin down some tentative dates for when the tools would have been used (as early as 12,000 BP!), and then she showed off some of the amazing things that have been found in the Yukon, especially on the ice patches. Normally we don’t see a lot of organic material because it breaks down too quickly but the ice fields have freeze-dried a lot of wooden and leather items. They also have the oldest moccasin there, they have arrowheads still in their shafts, spear shafts, a spear point made from an antler tine – so many cool things. They also had some dinosaur bones (I know we don’t do dinos but I still think they’re awesome), and they have an impressive collection of megafauna bones – mammoth bones!


An antler that would have had microblades inserted into the cut along the bottom edge (x-rays show that there are still broken pieces inside), there is also a unique character carved onto the top edge – thought to help identify who owned which weapon


A broken point, sinew and wooden shaft

Mammoth bones!

All the Pretty Things

As promised, here are some of the pretty, shiny things that we found. We also found a ton of flakes – the garbage that would have been left over after making fine tools like these (but they’re less pretty to look at), as well as a fair amount of burnt or calcine bone (animal). Animal bone was often burned at high temperatures in order to make the bones brittle. This, in turn, made it easier to get out the marrow which was a valuable source of nutrients. We were really hoping to come across the hearth or boiling pit where they were doing this but alas, we did not stumble upon it this time. But by looking at the concentrations of finds, you start to get a feel for how the area was divided up  – projectile points were being made or retouched (resharpened) near the end of the promontory, while the cooking would have taken place further back from the edge where the landform widens out a bit.  It’s still a fragmented picture of what was going on at the site, but it is a start.

(you can click on the pics to find out a bit of info on them)

Hunting for Sites

Part of our challenge for this trip was to relocate the sites we are now excavating. IMG_4032The six sites were first identified two years ago, and we had a rough idea where most of them should be.As added insurance we also brought along the archaeologist who first identified the sites and she seemed to mostly remember where we wanted to go, mostly.

Stone adze-cut stump - the stone crushes as it cuts, this can be seen if you look closely

Stone adze-cut stump – the stone crushes as it cuts, this can be seen if you look closely

The first one we rediscovered is a tiny little lookout – a steep climb and a rocky seat, but a great view of the area. It had some interesting traditional use markers at the bottom of the hill: a tree tied in a knot (which has subsequently fallen over, but still cool), and a stump that was cut with a stone adze (you don’t see that much within the last century…).

Afterwards we wandered done to the river where there is an old cabin, as well as some of the machinery used to winch in barges – the only way to access the area without a plane. There isn’t too much left other than the corner of the cabin and some of the foundations. We don’t plan on doing any further work at this spot, but still fun to poke around.

IMG_4054 IMG_4059

We discovered that one of our sites has been blasted through (they said is was an accident…) while they were busy gathering rock to build the road down to the modern ferry landing spot. We did a bit of shovel testing to see how much of the site they might have left us safely tucked away in the trees, but it looks like they did a pretty thorough job of destroying the high potential areas.

One of the sites required some serious climbing skills – the hillside seems almost vertical in places, luckily I was sent off to another site while the other team investigated this spot. Apparently, if you survive the climb the view of the surrounding valleys and rivers is fantastic. They continued on to the next high site where they found some very cool points (pics of awesome finds to come next post), I suspect more work will need to be done there or they will have to avoid the area with their mining operations. However, I am skeptical of the second option given what already happened when they were building the road.


Crossing the little creek to get to the last site

The last site is tucked away in the forest on a good rise, across the river. That’s where I spent several days and will likely spend a few more. There are the remains of a tent foundation – evidence of traditional use of the area. But shovel testing reveals that the occupation of the area goes much further back than that – lots of flakes, microblades and general evidence of stone tool making in the area. The area didn’t start off that promising but that was just because we weren’t looking in the right places.

Pictures of some of the pretty rocks we’ve found to come soon!

The Untamed North

My latest adventures take me north, far, far north. We hopped a slightly smaller than normal plane in Edmonton and took a 3 hour flight north to White Horse, Yukon. IMG_4022After that we crammed ourselves into an even tinier plane for another hour ride north to the side of a mountain. The plane was the tiny kind that fit our crew of 6, all of our luggage was strapped in front of us with webbing, and the pilot’s head was just barely visible over the top of it. It felt very Indiana Jones-esque, I was well-pleased; a few of the others in the group did not pick up on this and were instead rather green around the gills for most of the bumpy flight.

IMG_4027The scenery has been fantastic, I’ve never been this far north before. The mountains we flew over looked like something out of Lord of the Rings, I feel a bit as though we are on a quest to Mordor. The mountains don’t look at all like the Rockies that I’m used to, they look older somehow.

We’re staying at a mining camp (supposedly the nicest one in the Yukon, I’m not sure how much that is really saying though), and mitigating (excavating) several archaeology sites that were identified two years ago.

The hill they've ravaged looking for (and finding) minerals in

The hill they’ve ravaged looking for (and finding) minerals in

Basically, they need us to get out everything awesome so that they can get on with the business mining gold and copper.

The wildlife of the north had me slightly concerned; in nature, the further you go north, the bigger the animals and insects are. This is a survival tactic, they have to be heartier in order to survive the extreme weather conditions of the north. Perhaps this explains our first day out:

Day 1 in the field, wildlife count:

1 Squirrel

1 PtarmiganIMG_4047 (it’s a bird, in case your weren’t sure)

4 Black bears

Why are there not more squirrels?!


Goat Legs for Forestry

I have survived my first foray into forestry, and it did not kill me – success! DSCN0902In forestry, we assess (wander for hours through the thick forest) the area that is to be ‘harvested’ (such a nice way to say clear-cut) and used to make various products, in this case the trees will become paper, tons and tons of newspaper. Each section is referred to as a cut block, thus in my mind, this meant they would be rather block shaped. Not so. Indeed, these cut blocks are of varying sizes and are shaped like giant amoebas. Looking at them for too long on the map I felt like they are some sort of ink blot test – yesterday’s block looked like a rabbit, today we looked at a clam, and… well… a rather phallic looking one.

We have some LiDAR of the areas we were looking at, which gives us some vague ideas of where the decent topography in the blocks will be – high, level places with good views near water would have been nice places to make a camp, so these are the places we try to find and test.

Brain fungi

Brain fungi

But of course the LiDAR is deceptive and misleading and it does not always tell us what is actually going on on the ground – that’s why we have the fun of stumbling through the forest. This is also were goat legs would come in really, really handy. We scampered up and down so many steep hills, only to go back up and down more of them! I have short legs and deadfall can be high. My goal was to look less at where I was going and more at the landscape as a whole, but it seems that every time I tried that I was poked in the eye by a twig – it would appear that this landscape-looking thing requires a fine balance I have yet to achieve.


Name that skull!

We only found one flake out of all the testing that we did – it’s still a bit of a hit-or-miss kind of game. However, to keep ourselves amused were on the lookout for ‘dead things of the forest’ – we’re archaeologists, we’re allowed to be morbidly curious without seeming totally warped, right? We came across a surprising number of bones here and there throughout our travels, so we would try to identify what it was and how old, and sometimes how it died (today’s deer looks to have fallen victim to a wolf).DSCN0907

As an added bonus for this bit of work, it seemed to rain on us continuously. Thus, tomorrow’s day of travel will include a small sojourn to go boot shopping. I would really enjoy a pair of boots that don’t give in to dampness within the first hour, and which become my personal little swimming pools by the end of the day. The trouble is that I have small feet and work boots are made for bigger toes than mine. Wish me luck though!

Name this tiny bone for a black belt in awesomeness