Battling the Water Table

Perhaps we can go into building underground houses after this project

Perhaps we can go into building underground houses after this project

I mentioned previously the surprise occupation located 185cm below the surface, it turned out to be a rather good occupation level with ample bones and artifacts. Our problems arose as we got a bit deeper into it and encountered the water table – unlucky for us there happens to be a high water table in the area. So, now we not only had to worry about creating shoring that would prevent us from being covered in sand at any given moment but also how to draw the water away from our active units.

It's just a bit of water, no big deal.

It’s just a bit of water, no big deal.

In the end, our solution was sump pumps. We had four pumps running around the clock to keep the water low enough that we could excavate through the occupation level; we started this area at the end of winter and as spring thaw hit us we had to try and dig the pumps even deeper to keep on top of the water situation (we had to quickly, but still properly, excavate sump pump holes in areas of low artifact returns). We also discovered that water-logged sand is also rather prone to giving out suddenly – quite aggravating when you’re trying to keep the walls looking good for photographs, profile drawing and site visitors (no one wants to be accused of having sloppy walls, no one).

13-246~2491We only recovered 5 projectile points from this occupation level – not great but not terrible. They’re a bit mysterious though, they don’t really fit with the type of points we were expecting to find at that depth. We were expecting thicker, chunkier points, but these ones are relatively thin and well-made. They look like they should be Late Period points but that doesn’t fit with the order of the occupations we have represented on our site. So, at the moment our best guess is that they are intermediate points from the transition of Early to Middle Prehistoric – which is exciting because that means they’re quite old indeed (7 – 9,000 years old).13-246~2971

Normally, we do radiocardon dating of the bone to back-up our estimation of the date based on the projectile points. Our sneaky low occupation had plenty of bone but the water table got one up on us this time. The bone looked fantastic as you exposed it from the damp, organic-rich sediment but as soon as you tried to remove it from the ground it would crumble into a pile of tiny fragments. Through much painstakingly slow work we managed to get some of the bone out in relatively one piece and sent it off to the labs in Florida.

It looked so good until we tried to take it out.

It looked so good until we tried to take it out.

Sadly, all our efforts were in vain. The constant movement of water in the area had leached all of the collagen out of the bones, leaving nothing for the lab to extract and test for us. We sent them almost 10 samples and each one came back with the same disappointing outcome. Not to be discouraged, we were set upon the idea of doing OSL (optically stimulated luminescence) dating. This method of dating involves taking samples of sand from deep within our profiles and using science-magic (ok it’s real science I just don’t know all the specifics of how it works) they analyze the last time the sand was exposed to sunlight.

Lining up the OSL samples.

Lining up the OSL samples.

Taking the samples took an afternoon, waiting for the lab in Scotland to get us some dates took about 5 months longer. Our preliminary look at the dates supports our Early to Middle transition deduction with the date range being 6780 – 8700 years BP. We still need to do some further analysis and make sure everything matches up like it should between all the records, but we’re excited and this is definitely the oldest Alberta site I’ve worked on thus far.

Treasures in the Frosty Ground

13-246~415Ah winter excavation – such fun, such aggravation, such slippery port-o-potties (these are our legitimate safety concerns apparently). The sites have been fantastic so far – such hidden treasures! The staffing aspect has been a bit bumpy though, I didn’t think expecting archaeologists to have basic excavation skills would be such an outrageous expectation. Dealing with the corporate aspect has been beyond exhausting – there are far too many people trying to get their hands into this project – everyone is trying to get ahead in the company and only a small handful seem to know what we actually need to do our job efficiently. But weekends, those are golden. It’s not that we don’t work on the weekends, but no one back in the city does – there are no phone calls or pressing emails, just digging, wonderful digging.13-246~744

We’ve been excavating 4 sites since we got out here in October, one of which was complete rubbish – nothing but mixed stratigraphy and everything out of place. Conveniently this was the site that the nearby construction crew wiped out half of prior to our digging (oops!). There was a magical/shocking day where we went looking for the site only to find the hill and forest it was part of were missing…

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The workplace depression, small hearth is in the lower left unit

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The chopper/core we found at 180 cm below surface.

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Our bone pit partially exposed

The other three sites though have been spectacularly good to us, each one has had at least one awesome aspect. The first site had a long animal burrow stuffed with bison skulls (more to come on that one since it is so unique and filled with stuff), the second site had a shallow work-area depression and hearth feature, and the one we’re on now seems to have a hidden occupation at 180 cm below surface that was not identified during the initial testing of the area (there goes our budget!). I’m excited to see what comes of it, it’s probably older than anything I’ve dug previously in North America but the tricky part is making it safe for us to dig that far down in such sandy conditions.  Time to do some problem solving!

Forget You Forest!

imagejpeg_2I had planned on writing about my last stint in the forest surveying sections of a massive pipeline, it was kind of terrible – terrible to the point that we were laughing hysterically in the middle of a gravel road because out luck was so consistently bad. I had the worst possible luck, every day. Tires popped off the argo, we got stuck (a lot), our fold-up ramp gave out while driving, I ripped the track off the argo, we almost got dumped in a lake, insanely long access routes….oh, I also discovered that bald eagles are not my spirit animal – every time we saw one we would end up having a most shockingly miserable day but they look so deceptively majestic! Apparently only one gender of bald eagle is good luck, I have yet to figure out which one is the lucky one and how to tell that in the field.DSCN1465

However, I have since forgotten all of those woes and moved on to much more awesome things – winter excavations on the prairies! Sounds bloody cold, doesn’t it?And yes, yes it is. Thankfully we managed to get out here a few days before the snow hit and set up some temporary garages/tents, add a couple of generators and heaters and tada! a cozy little oasis to do our excavating in. Really, the only downside to this plan is the long, chilly walk to the unheated port-o-potty – please let me know if you know of any that have heated seats…

We have 4 different sites to excavate, a total of 160 square meters, with the majority of them being excavated to IMG_5478over a meter deep – we’re going to be at this all winter (I hope!). As the snow set in we also covered areas of the sites we’ll be opening up later with hay bales to keep the ground from freezing, which has worked so far and also gives the tents a somewhat pleasant barn smell, until the hay gets wet that is.

The first site is amazing so far. We have at least two distinct occupation levels and there are tons of artifacts, bones (bison + a variety of other animals), fire cracked rocks, and stone tools and flakes. It is such a nice change to actually be finding things after all the forestry I did this summer where we hardly found anything. Thus far it definitely looks like it was a processing site, some evidence of butchering on the bones we’ve found and lots of tool manufacturing going on, as well as numerous boiling pits and hearths. So far we have a 50% ratio of features to units open which is exceptionally good for any site I suspect – hopefully that continues. More pictures of all the pretty things we’re finding to come, but sleep first! The temperatures have dipped to -23 degrees Celsius tonight – it is going to be a frosty morning on site tomorrow!13-246~92

Holes in the Prairies

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Oooh a hat full of artefacts from the first couple of days!

My my how time flies when you’re busily trying to complete fieldwork before the onslaught of fall and winter. Last month we furiously dug a buried campsite, or at least what we hoped would be one. Our initial shovel tests were so promising! Fire broken rock, bone and flakes – all this points towards a buried campsite. 20130923_155154

What we found was far from exciting, but we all put forth a valiant effort of ramming our shovels into the cement-like prairie for days on end to make giant empty holes, which we then ceremoniously refilled. The first units we excavated seemed to give up a decent amount of artefacts, but as we progressed these dwindled to a paltry amount.

20130925_103538But now I have excellent practice at excavating empty holes, I could have done without the fiercely blowing wind every day though. That is one benefit of forest work, at least the wind is muted by the trees. But despite the wind and the frosty mornings I still managed to get a sunburn on the last day, I am a special one.

Since we didn’t find much of note, our client will be allowed to proceed with putting their line transmission line through the area. DSCN1379Work was already being carried out adjacent to us, and despite the numerous safety orientations we had to go through they neglected to tell us of the explosions they would be using to tighten up the wires….the ones that could blow out our truck windows…We had to wear hard hats while in the middle of the prairies but no ear protection for that – I love how misguided safety can be.

Catastrophes with Quads

Sometimes I think our projects are cursed because of all the things that go wrong. I was initially excited about our last project because this time we were going to use quads – finally that expensive training would pay off! But our troubles began before we even got on the quads.

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Let’s quad somewhere majestic!

The website we used to book the hotel rooms neglected to send on our reservation to the hotel until the day we were to arrive, thus they had no room for use and we had to stay in a Whitecourt, an hour further away.

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Look at how puny it is!

The first day out all of our roads disintegrated into construction, in the end it took us 4 hours to even get to our area. When we tried to offload the quads, one of them wouldn’t start. After much fiddling around the quad started, but the chain from the ramp was stuck in between the boards of the trailer. A few well-placed hatchet hits freed it though! Of course then we couldn’t find one of the quad keys…

Once we finally got on the quads , I realized my tragic physical flaw that prohibits me from driving a quad very well – I have mutant little thumbs, I can hardly reach the gas lever. I feel that I may have to look into some sort of thumb extender for next time.

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Just hanging out in my gully

The next day I managed to fall about 5 feet backwards into a dry gully. Luckily my head and shoulder broke my fall. Later, when we attempted a rather steep slope M. almost flipped her quad, mine just decided to die midway down the slope. After much man-handling we got both quads safely back up the slope and said ‘forget you!’ to that hill.

On the third day out we ended up on a winter road – meaning it is best traveled when frozen, it was not. The road continued to get progressively worse, and about the point we thought to turn around was the point we became hopelessly stuck in mud. DSCN1372(1)We thought about unhooking the trailer, see if less weight would help free us, but the key for the trailer lock was back at the hotel. In the end, we off-loaded the quads and drove back to some men clearing trees back down the road. In the end, the guy driving the tree mulcher pulled us out using an obscenely big tow hook. He graciously cleared us a turn around area, and then we promptly got stuck going back through the same mudholeDSCN1376(1) and had to be pulled out again.

Some days it is a wonder that we manage to get anything accomplished.

Super Sized Small Towns

This gallery contains 16 photos.

Ah, my glorious return to the land of technology! Three weeks stuck in small towns with no laptop to divert me, and I forgot my book at home…I tried to get it repaired but alas only succeeded in being cornered in a small computer/guitar repair shop by some Mormon missionaries. The slideshow is a collection […]

Space Boots

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The giant egg!

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The giant sausage!

I was out surveying a ‘linear development’ – this is the term applied to pipelines, waterlines, transmission lines, etc. basically anything that covers a long distance. This meant that I had the pleasure of touring several small towns throughout Alberta instead of just one or two. We made the most of it and visited as many over-sized monuments as possible:

Some of the jobs were along the edges of cultivated fields, and we were given a stern lecture about the dangerous evils of ‘club root’ and the transfer of it from field to field by unwary travelers. My mind automatically associated club root with a club foot and from there jumped to Tiny Tim. Thus I had the permanent image of a little plant dressed in Victorian England-style rags dragging a deranged club foot/root behind him… Turns out it is a type of bacteria in the soil that makes the roots all fat, but it is transferred through the soil so if we walked through one field it would stick to our boots and then we would introduce it to the next field we were in, much to the devastation of the crops. The brilliant solution to preventing unwanted contamination? Space boots.   DSCN1057

Ok they didn’t really give us space boots, those would have been far cooler than the thin, over-sized, hospital-operating room style shoe covers we were given. These delightful beauties are designed to fit over your regular boots and tie up. They are miles too long though so they catch on everything, rip instantly and are generally a worse hazard to my health than simply walking. I’m also pretty sure that they trapped the dirt inside of them, ensuring that my boots were fully covered with any sort of bacteria that might have been living within that field.

I still feel that the hideous boots were magical though. They seemed to transport us out of the mundane canola field and into a magical forest filled with overgrown, mossy logs and brightly chirping birds. I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, it was such a stark contradiction from what we had been walking in for the past hour. As soon as you crossed the trees you could no longer even see the field, the terrain was completely different, even the air felt different. But, alas, it was like all other forests in that it was full of pokey things and tiny bugs trying to stick to my eyeballs – such an abrupt way to shatter a tranquil forest moment.