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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada

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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 1


Ken Swayze

Ken Swayze has degrees from Simon Fraser University (BA archaeology; MA geography) and a background in cultural resource management and archaeological research. He has discovered and excavated archaeological sites in most regions of Canada, while employed for Heritage Planning and Research Branch, Ontario; Canadian Parks Service (western region); and the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Northern Oil and Gas Action Plan). He is currently an archaeological consultant and lives in the upper Ottawa Valley.


This article provides interpretive support and a Canadian context for the Mysterious Bog People exhibition, and the book of the same title (Bergen et al. eds. 2002), both produced by Drents Museum (Assen, The Netherlands), Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum (Hannover, Germany), Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau, Québec) and Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Alberta). The Mysterious Bog People throws light on the culture and society of people who lived in boggy areas of northwestern Europe from prehistoric to medieval times. Many man-made objects as well as corpses have been found – at first by accident, and later through deliberate archaeological excavation – in the peat bogs, where conditions are favourable for the preservation of such items. At least some of these finds are believed to represent offerings – or in the cases of the bodies, sacrifices – to the gods.

The presentation of the Mysterious Bog People exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization has given rise to the question whether archaeological investigation in Canada has produced, or might produce, anything comparable to the European bog finds, in terms of artifacts or human remains relatively well preserved because of the qualities of the organic terrain, or in terms of cosmological associations. This paper has been commissioned to address that question. This overview has two parts: first, it considers the discovery potential and nature of archaeological associations in Canada with peat bogs – and other types of organic terrain – and, secondly, it offers the interested visitor information about and references to examples of remarkably well preserved artifacts and other archaeological sites that reflect the cosmology of First Nations people in Canada.

It is difficult to compare the climate, landscape change, and postglacial processes of northwestern Europe to Canada, because of its regional geographic diversity: for instance, while part of northwestern Canada remained unglaciated in the late Pleistocene, the glaciers in the northeast did not entirely melt until several millennia later. The Canadian climate and landscape has evolved through the late Pleistocene and Holocene epoch, as a result of processes past and on-going, and these changes affected not only peat development, but the nature of the known archaeological site distribution in northwestern Europe and Canada. Deglaciation throughout the northern hemisphere, resulted in similar climatic improvements and a mid-Holocene thermal optimum occurred from about 8,000 to 5,000 B.P. Cooler, wetter, conditions followed during and there were short term oscillations of wet-dry, or cold-warm, with some periodicity (lasting 2 to 5 centuries) but at different times in different parts of the world (Roberts 1989). In North America, the cooler moister climate caused a shift of the forest/prairie boundary to the west, and the boreal forest spread both north and south after 4,000 B.P. By and large, the cooler modern climate of the last 5,000 years has created favourable conditions for peat development in northwestern Europe and Atlantic Canada and the central Arctic.

Low sea levels from about 12,000 to 10,000 years B.P., exposed Canada’s continental shelf and (like the plain that is now the bed of the North Sea) it was habitable. Undoubtedly there were attractive littoral environments where Palaeo-Indian and early Archaic people congregated and where many of their economic and ceremonial activities took place. Because the lake level subsequently rose, the existing sample of archaeological site locations, pertaining to this period of time, is skewed towards interior ‘hinterland’ sites where hunting activities (look-outs, chipping stations, kill/processing, quarries, etc.) and short-term, special-purpose resource gatherig took place.

The principal sources of raw data for palaeoecology are derived from deep-sea sediment and deep glacier ice cores which provide a global record of changing palaeoenvironments and palaeotemperatures. These fundamental data are supplemented, regionally, by palynology which is the study of pollen grains and spores incorporated and preserved in lake mud, peat bogs, or other sediments. Pollen spores are preserved best under anaerobic typically acidic conditions, such as raised peat bogs provide, and they are sampled by means of cores and columns from trench faces. Plant macrofossil and palaeoentomological (the study of exoskeletons of insects and arachnids) analyses are carried out in conjunction with palynology to reconstruct the vegetation of an area. Peat, and other organic deposits such as gyttja (organic-rich clayey deposits) and marl (an un consolidated, highly calcareous, lacustrine sediment – a biochemical precipitate of certain pond plants and algae), can be radiocarbon (14C) dated to determine regional vegetation changes through time.

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The information presented in this overview was derived from a literature search of scientific periodicals and monograph series which commonly publish, or specialize in, Canadian archaeological studies, and unpublished manuscripts in the archives of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. A second source of information came from canvassing the Provincial and Territorial archaeological site databases by querying their ‘environmental’, ‘notes’ and ‘comments’ data-entry fields for such keywords as: peat, bog, swamp, marsh, fen, muskeg, muck, and marl. The structure of these databases varies considerably and some are difficult to query in this manner. Furthermore, many forms were incompletely filled-out originally and they vary in terms of the entry fields, although they are all variations of a ‘Borden form’. Although the canvass information provides a sense of the association of organic terrain to archaeological phenomena, the survey is ‘unscientific’, so absolute frequencies and percentages are not presented.

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The Nature and Origins of Peat

It is important to realize that, regardless of the technical descriptions of peat deposits, ‘peat’ is, essentially, an accumulation of any decayed, or partly decayed, plant material. So, the word ‘peat’ or ‘peaty’ is sometimes used in vernacular terms to describe the organic horizon of any tundra-like soil, or vegetation. For instance, the site record forms of the HjCl-1 and 2 sites, on Okak Island in coastal Labrador, state that they are located “on one of a series of peat-covered, sandy terraces which rise from the western shore”. Many site record forms from Newfoundland and Labrador list ‘peat’ where the site vegetation cover is described.

Aerial view of an archaeological excavation site on the waterfront.

Aerial view of the Gutchiak site excavation.
Photo: David Morrison, Canadian Museum of Civilization

A cross section dig out on the waterfront.

First view of a cross-section.

Close up of a dugout.

Second view of a cross-section.

Sometimes peat development has been enhanced by past cultural activity and this archaeological peat might be said to have, in part, a bio-cultural origin. For instance, at the Gutchiak site (NhTn-1) (Figure 1), in the Inuvialuit lands of the Mackenzie Delta, the ‘dark humic soil’ (Morrison 2000: fig.7) (Figure 2), is essentially ‘peat’ – although it is not called it – because it is composed of decayed plant material that has been imported (leaves and twigs) (Figure 3) and grass that accumulated rapidly due to the nutrients derived from habitation waste and fish processing. A peaty matrix, such as at Gutchiak, is common to many habitation sites in arctic and subarctic Canada, and because it is less acidic than (natural) blanket peat, it creates ideal conditions for the preservation of artifacts made from organic materials – especially in the arctic where there is underlying permafrost – so that well-preserved artifacts (Figure 4) of wood, bark, antler have been collected from numerous sites – e.g. Gupuk (Arnold 1986); Kittegazuit (McGhee 1974); Kugaluk (Morrison 1988).

A pile of twigs, leaves and grass

The bio-cultural peat is partly formed from imported twigs, leaves and grass.
Photo: David Morrison,
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Some preserved bone tools at an archaeological site.

perishable, organic artifacts
in situ at the Gutchiak site.
Photo: David Morrison,
Canadian Museum of Civilization Photo: David Morrison, 91-134

In scientific terms, however, two basic types of peat are recognized – bog peat and fen peat (Beuker 2002:13-14; Roberts 1989:125-128). Bog peat (also called a raised, or lenticular, bog, and blanket peat) develops in water rich depressions, when annual precipitation is 700-1150 ml and the temperature does not exceed a 10° C annual average. If the ground water is used up then the bog becomes dependant upon precipitation. Since sphagnum moss cells can store water, the water table of the bog can rise above surrounding ground-water table. Living raised bogs can spread rapidly under the right circumstances. Bog peat typically contains abundant micro and macro-scopic fossils and pollen and provides the raw data for regional palaeoecological studies. Raised or blanket peat bogs on gently sloping upland plateaus did not exist during the thermal optimum, but began to develop in the mid-Holocene because of a combination of climatic deterioration and soil maturation. The key factor is water logged soil and a fall in ph, so only acid and low nutrient tolerant plants like sphagnum or cotton grass can survive. Blanket peat covers wide areas of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nouveau Quebec, and the arctic Territories – wherever the average July temperature is less than 17° C. Lenticular, or raised, peat bogs also occur south of the 60th parallel, and in all the provinces west of Newfoundland and Labrador and some of these are very large and are located in, or near, densely populated centres. Examples include: Mer Bleue, in the City of Ottawa, Ontario; Burns Bog, in the City of Delta B.C.; and the Albert Bog, in southeastern Ontario.

The second type of peat – fen peat – is closely linked to topography, rather than climate, and is a common terrain feature of central and western Canada, called variously: marshlands, sloughs, fens, kettle lakes, swamps, or wetlands. Rich in nutrients, fen peat is composed of plants like cattail, reeds, rushes, water lilies, sorrel, sedge, etc. that accumulate around the edge of lakes and ponds. These small shallow wetlands often have a history of hydrosere succession from open water to fen, swamp, or peat bog or, when conditions permit, there may be a further succession of colonizing plants from shrubs (dogwood, alder) to water-tolerant trees (birch, spruce, ash, cedar, elm).

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Peat and Radiocarbon Dating

Earth scientists, such as palynologists or Quaternary geologists, frequently use peat for radiocarbon dating (no figures available) but archaeologists have infrequently used it to date past events. According to the Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (Morlan 2001) peat – regardless of its genesis – has 72 radiocarbon records (as of March 2003), a small fraction of the total number of entries. This reflects the archaeological context described above because 42 of these – more than half from EjAv-1 L’Anse aux Meadows alone – are from the peat-blanketed parts of Newfoundland and Labrador and other areas ‘north of 60’. Ten C14 dates from peat are reported from B.C. (more than half from Raspberry Bog); one each from Alberta and Manitoba; two from Ontario (both Sheguiandah); and three from New Brunswick.

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Artifact-bearing Blanket Peat Sites

A poll of the site data records of the peat blanketed areas of Canada produced hundreds of examples of sites (dating from Palaeoeskimo or Archaic times to the Historic period) where the artifact bearing surface or matrix is reported to be under 10-50 cm of peat (Figure 5). The number reported, however, is a tiny subset of the total number of recorded sites for, intuitively, one suspects that (natural and/or bio-cultural) accumulations of ‘peat’ are part of, or are in proximity to, a much higher proportion of the site sample. However, sites where artifacts were actually discovered in, or presumed to have eroded from, peat deposits are rarely reported and, once again, most of these are from Newfoundland and Labrador and areas ‘north of 60’.

Man standing near a stratified section of peat deposit.

“The peat deposit was this thick”. (Willie Simon Modeste of Tsigehtchic, near Travaillant Lake, Lower Mackenzie Valley, Northwest Territories, 1991)
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon,
Canadian Museum of Civilization

An important site where artifacts have been found in peat is EkBc-1, the Red Bay site, a multi-component (Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Basque) site largely in a blanket peat environment where well-preserved examples of clothing have been found. Red Bay, Labrador, the ‘whaling capital of the world’ in A.D. 1550-1600 (Tuck and Grenier 1989) and site of ‘the world’s first oil boom’ (Tuck 1987), is now open to tourists, along with an interpretation centre. Human remains have been excavated from the Basque whaler’s cemetery at Red Bay and, although most of it consists of marked graves in shallow well-drained soil, a shallow peat bog nearby evidently once served as grave-of-expediencey. These bodies, all male and uncoffined, were buried together in a boggy, apparently unmarked grave but, because of the shallow burial and partly aerobic conditions, preservation of bone and soft tissue was poor (White 2001). This multiple Red Bay burial resembles many bog body discoveries in northwestern Europe but sacrifice, murder, or offerings – as portrayed in the Mysterious Bog People exhibition – are not suggested. But, like many of the European examples, it represents a disposal rather than a burial. This essentially European peat burial is the only example found in the archaeological literature pertaining to Canada and the site record form databases canvassed.

Other sites where artifacts have been recorded from a (natural) peat context include JcDe-8, the Bush Island 1 site, in the South Baffin district of Nunavut, located by Fitzhugh (1977) who “found Dorset artifacts on a beach which had eroded down from a peat layer along the beach”; and JcLh-11, the Edehon Lake site in the Keewatin district of Nunavut, located by Sid Kroker (1977) which consists of “a minor chipping station eroding from a decaying peat deposit”; and MlDc-10, the Idjuniving Island 1 site, also in South Baffin, where the “erosion of a cliff face above the beach has exposed a layer of rich peat soil below the surface containing a very heavy concentration of chipped stone” (McKenzie-Pollack 1969). A small unnamed site (KkPp-14) on Sarah Lake, in the Northwest Territories, recorded by Tom Andrews (1992), consists of quartz and siltstone flakes, mostly located on exposed bedrock, but “a few flakes appeared in disturbed patches (bear diggings) in an area of muskeg immediately behind the exposed bedrock”. In the vicinity of McLean Lake, near Whitehorse, Yukon, Jeff Hunston (1983) recorded JeUs-19 which consists of a “side notched obsidian projectile point… found in peat which was quarried within 2-3 m of road. A follow up visit failed to uncover any additional cultural material”.

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Artifact-bearing Fen Peat Sites

There are few examples of archaeological deposits, or artifacts, recovered from fen peat but the archaeological community has, traditionally, not tested organic terrain partly because of the logistical difficulties involved in doing so. Another reason is that wetlands have often been dismissed as low archaeological potential areas because according to our historical agrarian perspective organic terrain was a waste-unless it could be drained and mined. Ironically, now that the intrinsic value of wetlands has been recognized, they are protected from many development impacts by environmental legislation so the archaeological assessment that developers must comply with (under heritage legislation) exempt organic terrain from field tests because it will remain undisturbed.

An exception to the record of untested organic terrain is BlHl-2, the Sheguiandah Palaeo-Indian site on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, where Tom Lee (aided by volunteers from the nascent Ontario Archaeological Society) excavated for several seasons in the early 1950s. Sheguiandah has recently been reinvestigated by another multi-disciplinary team of Quaternary experts (Julig 2002). According to a history of the initial investigations, a “late summer [1953] drought gripped Manitoulin Island, and the small swamps on the hill dried out. Seizing a rare opportunity, Lee dug a small test trench in Swamp 1, about 65 m northeast of the Habitation area” and the next season, 1954, “The three other swamps were test pitted. In these places, pick and shovel were used to remove the peat, after draining the swamps by siphon and by bucket brigade; other sediments were excavated by trowel.” (Lee 2002: 27, 31). (The so-called ‘swamp’ peat is a fen peat developed in quartzitic bedrock depressions.) Lee reports lithic artifacts on sediments under the peat in all four instances, but there were no artifacts found in the peat: “In Swamp 1… clay was encountered under 35 to 46 cm of peat. Artifacts were found mostly on or in that clay, which itself was 10 to 15 cm thick, all the way to bedrock” (ibid: 39). The peat in Swamp 2 was 38 cm thick and “a single biface was found on the underlying bed of clay” (ibid.). Swamp 3 (Figure 6) was the deepest, about 120 cm of peat “easily subdivided on the basis of colour and texture” overlay successive clay strata which contained “obviously man-made cores and chips… and cobbles” (ibid: 40). Lee took peat column samples and the macro-scopic plant remains and the pollen contained in them was identified and the regional vegetation changes through time were reconstructed. In addition, peat samples from the lower levels of the accumulation were radiocarbon dated to 9160 +/- 250 B.P. Recently, Julig and Mahaney (2002) took five more cores from Swamp 3 for pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating. Three accelerated mass spectroscopy (AMS) 14C dates (one on peat, two on wood at the interface between the peat and the underlying sediments) suggest that the peat began to accumulate about 9,500 B.P. Recent archaeological test excavations in Swamp 3 and 4 (Figure 6) also produced quartzite artifacts, including numerous unifacially utilized flakes, under the peat and – in contrast to Lee’s observations – artifacts were also found in a “transitional sandy-clay-peat” layer and the 10-15 cm thick sediment immediately below it (Julig and Storck 1992: 131).

Drawing showing the different levels of composure of a swamp.

Profile of a swamp at the Sheguiandah site, Manitoulin Island. Note artifacts at base of silty peat and in Swamp 4 artifacts in transitional peat and clay.
[ Figures 4.23 (p. 132) and 4.24 (p. 133), from Chapter 4, “Geoarchaeological Studies of the Sheguiandah Site and Analysis of Museum Collections”, by Patrick J. Julig and William C. Mahaney in The Sheguiandah Site: Archaeological, geological and paleobotanical studies at a Paleoindian site on Manitoulin Island, Ontario ]

Drawing displaying the different levels of a swamp and where the artifacts are found.

Figure 6: Profile of a swamp at the Sheguiandah site, Manitoulin Island. Note artifacts at base of silty peat and in Swamp 4 artifacts in transitional peat and clay.
[ Figures 4.23 (p. 132) and 4.24 (p. 133), from Chapter 4, “Geoarchaeological Studies of the Sheguiandah Site and Analysis of Museum Collections”, by Patrick J. Julig and William C. Mahaney in The Sheguiandah Site: Archaeological, geological and paleobotanical studies at a Paleoindian site on Manitoulin Island, Ontario ]

An example of a ‘wet site’ where the artifact-bearing matrix consisted of peat is GbTo-33, the Lachane site, located in Prince Rupert Harbour (Inglis 1976). Despite the harbour’s long history of shore disturbance, over 400 perishable artifacts, broken and unfinished, (such as labrets, digging sticks, bowls, box parts, basketry, wedges, cordage and handles) were found between two house platforms in water-saturated fen peat (as opposed to clay or silt, the usual matrix). Four C14 dates – S-808 was from peat associated with twin hemlock bowl preforms (CMC GbTo-33:C-418) and S-806 was associated with a carved, zoomorphic, red cedar handle (CMC GbTo-33:C-423) (Figure 7) – ranged between 1,600 and 2,500 B.P. During the excavation, the perishables were stored in water and fungicide at the site and, later, they were preserved in poly-ethylene glycol (carbo-wax) in Ottawa. The deposit consisted of four levels: level 1 was disturbed and consisted of gravel and crushed shell and a few artifacts; levels 2 and 3, approximately a metre in depth, contained well preserved artifacts in a matrix which consisted of partially decomposed plant material (grass, conifer needles, cones, bark, and twigs), which “when allowed to dry the matrix resembled peat” (Inglis 1976: 163).

A red cedar handle.

This red cedar handle was found in a peaty matrix that was C14 dated.
CMC GbTo-33:C-423

Another example of artifacts found in peat (presumably fen peat) is BgDq-7, the Mink Island View find spot (Finley 1986) in New Brunswick, where “a single projectile point was found eroding from a peat bank at the northernmost end of Bliss Island” and which produced an AMS 14C date of 1,250 +/- 80 B.P. (beta-40899). A second example is BbGt-17, the Jahnke site near Uxbridge, Ontario, where a biface, a groundstone adze, and a possible Plano (Palaeo-Indian) point were found “in peat and muck adjacent to Pefferlaw Brook and Mud Lake… [where]… a former Lake Algonquin strandline crosses the site” (Storck 1980).

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Finds from Other Organic Terrain

Recorded instances of archaeological finds from other types of organic terrain – other than peat – are also rare, but some of these on the west coast of B.C., called ‘wet sites’ (Croes 1976), have produced quantities of well preserved perishable artifacts such as basketry, cordage, and wooden tools – dating from 500 to 3,000 B.P. Wet sites are water-saturated archaeological deposits formed below the water table and, usually – unlike the Lachane site described above – within a matrix of clay or silt sediment, which provides the anaerobic matrix necessary for organic artifact preservation. Wet site environments in B.C. have included: estuary river mouths; in-filled sloughs and coves; beside tidal mud flats; beside fresh water springs; along river channels; and beneath massive mudslides.

One well known artifact – an astrolabe – was found in a marl deposit, in ‘wet site’ context, at the outlet of Astrolabe Lake (Figure 8), near Cobden Ontario. It was discovered accidentally, in August 1867, by a boy named Edward George Lee, who later gave the following account to Macnamara (1919): [italics added]

“There was an old fallen red pine that lay downhill with its top in the little creek that comes out of Green Lake. Pa had chopped the trunk of this tree into three logs and I drew two of them away with the oxen but the third log, just below the branches was not chopped clean off, and I hitched the oxen to it and pulled it around sideways so as to break it off. I had to dig away the [peat] moss and marl that the old tree lay in so as to get the chain around the log, and when the log swung around it rolled back the moss like a blanket and there on the ground I saw a round yellow thing nine or ten inches across, with figures on it, and an arm across it, pointed at one end and blunt at the other.”

A resort with waterslides.

Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon Figure 8: The outlet of Astrolabe Lake where “Champlain’s Astrolabe” was found in 1867 is now a resort and waterslide attraction.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon,
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Champlain's Astrolabe.

Figure 9: “Champlain’s Astrolabe”, a symbol of discovery, measurement and record.
CMC 989.56.1

Astrolabes were primarily used by marine navigators, from ancient times until the late 16th century, to measure the altitude of the sun and because this device – dated 1603 – was found on an obscure portage route known to have been taken by Champlain during his ascent of the Ottawa River in June 1613, the device was purported by 19th century writers (i.e. Russell 1879) to be “Champlain’s astrolabe” (Figure 9). Although it cannot be proved, it probably was his, because no other travellers, of this period, are known to have taken this obscure route and who else might have owned such a device (Swayze 2000). It was bought from Edward Lee’s father, that day in 1867, for $10 and later, after its ascription to Champlain, it was acquired by a wealthy collector in the United States, where it remained until the Canadian Museum of Civilization purchased and proudly displayed it as a unique artifact (CMC 989.56.1) and a symbol of discovery, measurement, and record.

The shores of Astrolabe Lake have recently been investigated, collaboratively, by a CMC curator (Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon), an archaeological consultant, and an experienced Ottawa Valley avocational archaeologist. The latter, Mr. Dave Croft, of Pembroke, Ontario, reported that, in 1968, he had observed a ‘high collared’ (Late Woodland) ceramic sherd eroding from a newly bulldozed road bank near the outlet of the lake. This suggests that the astrolabe was associated with a Contact Historic archaeological deposit – perhaps one created by Nibachis, the Algonquin elder who met Champlain at nearby Muskrat Lake and showed him the band’s “fields and gardens” (Biggar 1925: 275-280). The thin sandy loam soil around Astrolabe Lake is fragile and susceptible to erosion and it has been heavily disturbed by a century of cultivation and decades of recreational camping. Since Mr. Croft’s 1968 visit, a water slide and beach complex has been developed and the slope where he observed the archaeological deposit has been landscaped. Although the archaeologists’ hopes for an intact contact period deposit were not realized, the brief assessment of August 2000 resulted in the discovery of the remnants of three archaeological deposits around the lake outlet where a marl bank has developed over time (Swayze 2000). BjGe-1, the Waterslide site, is on a sandy (landscaped terrace) about 3 m above the south-west shore of the lake. One of four testpits produced a single tiny, buff coloured, fragment of an exfoliated pot sherd. Although clearly of prehistoric manufacture, no cultural affiliation can be determined. However, this single find and Mr. Croft’s report of a rim sherd, with Huron-like decoration, in a road-cut in this locale in 1968, is sufficient to assign archaeological site status to the area. BjGe-2, the Grassy Point site, is a group picnic area across the lake from the waterslide. Seven testpits, placed about 5 m apart, produced 6 small flake fragments and shatter fragments of quartz and quartzite, two pieces of igneous rock shatter and 40 tiny mammal bone fragments (partially calcined). Two of the quartzite fragments appear to be from unifacially modified flakes; and one piece of quartz shatter, with a triangular cross-section, may have been used as a perforator. BjGe-3, the Cairn site (Figure 10), is on a sandy terrace 3 to 4 m above the lake outlet where the astrolabe was found. Seven testpits, about 10 m apart, were excavated and five produced, in total, 93 small, partially calcined, mammal bone fragments, one bifacial retouch chert flake, and the distal portion of a thin, truncated, chert flake, showing unifacial use-wear. Five small wood charcoal fragments were collected with part of the burnt organic matrix of a post-mould revealed in testpit 4. Unfortunately the original deposit, which Mr. Croft observed, has been almost completely obliterated by the waterslide and beach development and all three site remnants have highly disturbed contexts subject to erosion, bioturbation, and disturbance related to camping and 19th century homesteading.

View of a resort and waterslides with a lake in foreground.

Figure 10: Looking over the Cairn site discovery area at the marl bank area where the “Champlain’s Astrolabe” was found.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Marl – the sediment in which the astrolabe was found – is a biochemical and physiochemical precipitate resulting from carbon withdrawal from lake waters during photosynthesis by certain pond plants and algae. The process occurs most frequently in hard water lake basins with calcareous rocks nearby, where there is little or no inflow and a slow outflow – like Astrolabe Lake. Marl deposits are unconsolidated, highly calcareous, sediments containing shells and varying amounts of organic material (Vreeken 1994). It is pale in colour and often occurs in thick banks, re-worked by waves and currents. The marl bank at Astrolabe Lake is at its western end, at the outlet where the famous device was found, and since it is visibly thick and extensive, it probably accumulated seasonally when the spring-fed water table was highest. The modern lake level is maintained by a dam to seasonal high levels but Edward Lee, when interviewed about his discovery, remarked that he had “never seen enough water there to float a canoe” suggesting the water level was lower in the 19th century, as it perhaps was, episodically, in times past. Intuitively, one feels that, since there was at least intermittent cultural activity around the marl bank – or perhaps on the ice above it – in times past, there may be more artifacts in that sediment than that one famous device.

Another archaeological site where artifacts have been found in organic terrain is AhGw-79, the Black Shark site, near Hamilton, Ontario, where six chert flakes, a point, and an Iroquoian ceramic sherd were found in testpits in “layered sod and organic muck over vegetation” (Warrick 1989).

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Association of Archaeological Sites with Organic Terrain

Although reported artifacts and archaeological deposits from organic terrain are relatively rare, the association of archaeological sites with organic terrain is more frequently recorded in regional site databases, but one suspects that proximity is probably under-reported, particularly in regions where blanket peat, marshland, sloughs, or muskeg are ubiquitous. This apparent association – like proximity of habitation sites to potable water – is largely a tacit assumption and largely untested.

An area of muskeg where clear association with peat has been documented is the ‘hinterland’ 10 km east of Athabaska River near Fort McKay, Alberta, where an Alsands impact assessment project (Conaty 1980) determined that archaeological sites were readily detected and relatively abundant in an area of muskeg that previous studies had considered to have low potential. These interior sites illustrate previously unrecognized material culture related to a boreal forest subsistence pattern (LeBlanc and Ives 1986). The surficial deposits there are glaciofluvial outwash and gravel and landforms include (abandoned) braided stream beds, discontinuous terraces and bars. Although it appears flat at first, there is as much as 5 m relief. “In postglacial time, lows on this depositional surface have filled with peat deposits or bogs, so that roughly 90% of this part of the lease consists of muskeg or other organic terrain. This variability in edaphic conditions, coupled with the successional features of boreal forest vegetation, has created a mosaic of plant communities”… and… “All known sites occur on knolls and ridges, while Conaty’s (1980) sampling programme showed convincingly that archaeological sites are rare or absent in muskeg in this region.” (LeBlanc and Ives 1986: 60).

A similar pattern of archaeological site occurrence on prominent (but low relief) land forms in close proximity to wet lands and organic terrain was noted during an archaeological resource inventory of Elk Island National Park, in the Beaver Hills near Edmonton, Alberta. Here, the terrain is characterized by an abundance of small kettle lakes, in various stages of hydrosere vegetative succession, interspersed by a similar area hummocky moraine and kames (Swayze 1990). Typically, these sites were represented by a few utilized flakes, a bi-polar core, or a fragment of a bifacial or unifacial chipped stone tool, found on a convenient knoll or ridge overlooking a nearby kettle pond, often with a sunny aspect.

However, in terrain like the Athabaska hinterlands and the Beaver Hills (and in the peat-blanketed areas of eastern Canada and the central arctic) where peat is ubiquitous, a high incidence of association with archaeological sites can, perhaps, be expected. In the temperate zone of Ontario, however, where fen peat deposits are common but not dominant features, the association is not so obvious, but, several archaeologists who have studied Palaeo-Indian sites in the province seem to, tacitly, acknowledge that such an association exists. In one study though, archaeological site locations (and concentric areas around them termed settings and vicinities) from four areas along the north shore of Lake Ontario (spanning several millennia from the late Pleistocene to early Holocene) were studied in a locational analysis to examine the topographic and environmental character of the terrain selected by Palaeo-Indian and early Archaic hunter-gather people (Swayze 1987). Because the early Holocene lakeshores of the Ontario Basin were considerably lower than modern Lake Ontario the archaeological site sample is assumed to be skewed towards an inland hinterland economic pattern because, presumably, large seasonal villages were located in proximity to the (now drowned) Great Lake shore. The terrain variables, of the archaeological zones measured, included: stream density, marsh/swamp/wetland density, maximum relief, soil drainage, and soil texture. These archaeological data were compared to a representative control sample of non-archaeological locations, and both samples were stratified by broad surficial zones (i.e. till, clay, moraine, etc.). In each geographic subset analysed, the terrain around archaeological sites differed significantly from the control sample locations, showing consistent patterns thought to be related to economic subsistence strategies. Of particular interest to the subject of archaeological association with peat and organic terrain, it was observed that stream density of 1st through 4th order creeks and marsh/swamp/wetland density of hunter-gatherer were often significantly higher than a representative ‘random’ location. This suggests Palaeo-Indian people had a more diffuse economic strategy based upon an inland, or ‘hinterland’, littorial adaptation, based on a variety of fish, plants and animals. Wetland littorals are interface zones between terrestrial and lacustrine environments and they provide diverse wildlife habitats that hunter-gathers appear to have consciously selected.

An example of a Historic Euro-Canadian settlement pattern with a strong association to peat deposits (muskeg) has been recorded in the Long Beach segment of Pacific Rim National Park, on the west coast of Vancouver Island (Swayze 1989). At the turn of the of the 19th to 20th century, numbers of young British immigrants – “remittance men” – took up homestead allotments in the rain forest. In those few years (1890-1914) before a wave of enlistment for the Great War ended the experiment, these raw pioneers struggled to drain a few muskeg ‘peat fields’ where strawberries were their only ‘crop’; to make a tiny clearing in the timber nearby for a shack; and to slash corduroy roads to interconnect their clearings. Their dreams were based on strawberries and the unfulfilled promise of a railway link around the south coast of the island to Victoria.

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 9


Archaeological Potential of Organic Terrain

The short answer to the question ‘Is there any association at all, in Canada, between people and peat bogs, similar to what is portrayed in The Mysterious Bog People exhibit?’ is no: there is not a Canadian parallel to the cult of human burial and sacrifice that persisted in northwestern Europe for ten millennia. However, artifacts (and even human remains) have been found in peat deposits in Canada and there is potential for future discoveries in peat and even more for finds under peat, particularly in Newfoundland and Labrador, and ‘North of 60’. Archaeologists in Canada have rarely tested organic terrain, particularly if they are water-saturated and below the water table. Apart from the logistical problems of sampling organic terrain, such areas have often been overlooked because according to predictive models they have been classed as ‘low potential’ zones. Another reason is that, because wetlands are now widely recognized as essential to the hydrological cycle, they are protected from many development impacts and so are commonly exempt from archaeological compliance assessments because they will remain undisturbed. Artifacts have occasionally been discovered accidentally as a result of commercial peat extraction activities in Canada but, unlike northwestern Europe, the reported incidence is very low, perhaps because traditional Canadian commercial operations have been low scale, and modern ones are mechanized so that accidental discoveries are less likely to be noticed.

As Inglis (1976) points out, the overall cost of major ‘wet site’ excavation is expensive, because of excavation difficulties and time-consuming conservation process. Where possible we should prepare pre-excavation and discovery techniques by means of core samples or non-invasive assessment with ground penetrating radar (GPR), sonar, and even magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods.

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 10


The Mount Granger Ice Patch (JdUt-17), near Whitehorse and the Thankdlat Ice Patch (JdVb-2) in southwest Yukon, are remarkable examples of sites where rare perishable artifacts (such as ochre coloured wooden dart/arrow shafts with willowleaf-shaped stone points and eagle-feather fletches still attached by sinew), postglacial caribou remains, and a hunting blind were found in place as they melted from layers of caribou dung and ice, over a metre thick, in permanent (but diminishing rapidly) ice patches on mountain sides. The sites represent caribou processing at the spot where deer were killed as they sought out the ice patch to avoid mosquitoes during hot weather. The layering reflects formation over time. Some of the artifacts found to date range in age from 90 to 7,500 B.P. In addition to recording the sites and collecting the rare artifacts, the archaeologists took core samples of the ice for pollen analysis, dating, and oxygen isotope analysis (Gotthardt et al. 1998; Pringle 2002).

An extraordinary example of human remains from an archaeological context better preserved than the Tollund Man or the Grauballe Man (found in Denmark in the early 1950s) is the exhumation and autopsy of John Torrington. This young man was a member of Captain John Franklin’s arctic exploration crew who died during their first winter stranded, and was buried on Beechy Island, off the coast of the Boothia Peninsula, in Nunavut. After serving due notice to any known living descendants of John Torrington, his grave was disinterred and his body was autopsied in a standard manner to establish the medical cause of death. The autopsy was conducted because his body was considered to be primary, undisturbed, evidence of events near the beginning of the Franklin Expedition (Beatty 1986; 1988). After the body was thawed, described, photographed, and undressed beside the grave, Beatty wrote: “Appearance of John Torrington, after he was completely exposed by melting the encasing ice with warm and cool water, was as if he had just died within the previous few days. Apart from some dehydration of his lips and eyelashes there were no signs of decay or disintegration.” (Beatty 1986: 11). John Torrington’s remains were carefully reinterred. Subsequent analyses of samples taken from him revealed that his lungs were anthracitic (his occupation aboard was fireman’) and they had adhered to his ribs – but this was determined to be an earlier insult that had begun to heal. There were no food particles in his stomach, which suggested he suffered from dysentery, or the effects of purgatives, before he died. The autopsy concluded that pneumonia was probably the agent of death, but its root was lead poisoning and starvation – he was emaciated and weighed about 40 kg. The lead level of his tissue was 3 to 4 times today’s recommended ‘safe’ minimum and the parts per million of his hair tissue was 20 times the modern threshold. Since the hair sample tested came only 1 cm from his scalp, it indicates recent lead ingestion before death. Beatty suggests, on this basis, that lead poisoning came from some Navy rations which were packed in cans with lead-soldered interior seams.

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 11


Cosmology and Archaeology

Cosmology is a cultural theory of the universe, its parts and laws, or how one places oneself and one’s origins; and how one may affect fate by acquiring personal power and through prayer, taboo, rituals and ceremonial acts, or by a shaman’s assistance. First Nations cosmology was individualistic and animistic and recognized the spirit power of animals, rocks, plants, sky, water (Wright 1995). Although historical documents indicate that pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic people of northwestern Europe had similar beliefs and some shared symbols, these are only parts of the complex religious beliefs on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Although votive offerings of tobacco, food, arrows, and other objects were left at sacred sites, these ‘sacrifices’ are only superficially comparable to the cultural rituals revealed in the Mysterious Bog People.

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 12


Artifacts and Cosmology

Although burials, ossuaries, and cremations, of various kinds, provide a great deal of information about traditional cosmology across Canada, there are other kinds of archaeological deposits, and artifacts, which provide a rare glimpse of First Nations’ beliefs. These include the hunting magic of the Palaeo-Eskimo and Palaeo-Indian periods (McGhee 1978: 32; Wright 1995: 441) which is evident in their expert workmanship and characteristic selection of high quality cherts (Figure 11), and other lustrous lithic material. Similarly, at the Fisher Site in Ontario, it appears that channel flakes (long thin flakes struck from a specially prepared platform on the base of some projectile points to create a longitudinal ‘flute’) were used as amulets by Palaeo-Indian hunters (Storck 1994). These characteristics seem to go beyond any functional requirements – power was associated with perfection (Hayden 1982). The same ‘hunting magic’ is expressed in the subsequent Middle Archaic by elaborate, polished, stone objects (Figure 12), such as ‘bird-stone’ spear-thrower weights, ‘plummets’, and gorgets of ground slate. Other, ubiquitous, materials found on archaeological sites are quartz crystals, red ochre (or haematite) which, although often put to mundane uses, nevertheless have cosmological associations. People made simple cutting and scraping instruments from quartz crystal for instance, but they are also associated with medicine bags and shamanism; and ochre was used as a wood preservative and for painting canoes and mundane containers; but the dead the world over have been anointed and buried with red ochre since time immemorial.

Multiple projectile points.

Figure 11: Expertly made Plano Palaeo-Indian projectile points made from high quality chert.
[ Colour Plate 4, from J.V. Wright, Six Chapters of Canada’s Prehistory, 1976 ]

Polished stone artifacts: bird stone, boat stone, barstones and gorget.

Figure 12: Polished stone artifacts: bird stone, boat stone,
barstones and gorget.
[ Colour Plate III, from J.V. Wright, Ontario Prehistory: an eleven-thousand-year archaeological outline, 1972 ] Stone Artifacts from Ontario Prehistory

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 13


Cosmology and Monumental and Semalithic Archaeological Sites

During the Late Archaic period in the eastern woodlands of Canada cosmology was expressed through monumental effigy earthworks and paraphernalia of the Adena-Hopewell burial cult such as blocked-end tubular pipes, platform effigy pipes, ‘boat stones’, and ‘barstones’ – all works of art and ritual, fashioned from polished, lustrous, stone. Cosmological stone features – including medicine wheels, cairns, and buffalo stones – were built throughout the Canadian plains. They are examples of early memorials and were used for vision quests, rituals associated with the heavenly bodies. In parts of the Arctic, certain inuksuit (standing stone objects that act in the capacity of a human) are venerated, or are related to places of power in the spiritual landscape (Hallendy 1992) (Figure 13).

An Inukshuk on a snowy paysage.

Photo: Norman Hallendy Figure 13: An Inukshuk.
Photograph by Norman Hallendy; see the book Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic.

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 14


Water-associated Sacred Sites

Two sites, both in eastern Ontario, are presented as examples roughly comparable to the bog sites of northwestern Europe because they involve votive offerings and because they are focussed on sacred water places. But the cosmology of the old world and new world societies were different: the water does not involve organic terrain (cliffs, rather) and there is no hint of the cult and sacrifice of the Mysterious Bog People exhibition.

Situated on a cliff on the Ottawa River, Migizi Kiishkaabikaan, also called Rocher des Oiseau, or Oiseau Rock (Figure 14), is a sacred Anishanabe pictograph site. It is “one of the most interesting yet found in Quebec” (Tassé and Dewdney 1977). The Algonquin today describe it as a beautiful, powerful, place where the earth’s energy is exposed and where the pictographs represent their ancient traditional understanding of the spiritual and physical landscape. When Chevalier de Troyes (1686) ascended the Ottawa River in the 17th century he observed that his guides placed offerings of tobacco into crevices at Migizi Kiishkaabikaan and dropped arrows 150 m from the top of the cliff into the deep river below. There are eight sets of pictograph paintings at Oiseau Rock, distributed along 157 m of cliff exposure and between 3 and 9 m above the river. They are now difficult to see (Figure 15), partly because the granite bedrock face is pink coloured; partly because the images seem partially covered and obscured by red ochre pigment run-off; and partly because they are obscured and overlaid by modern graffiti (Figure 16). A mythologist and historian have recently explained the paintings as a “cosmogonic vision” portraying the origin of the universe. Since, they see no fertility symbols in the paintings or other indications of a horticultural or incipient agricultural economy, they propose that the paintings are at least 3,000 years old and that the message the paintings convey is more ancient still (Desjardin and Gosselin 1999).

A landscape of a big stone cliff at the edge of a lake.

Figure 14: Migizi Kiishkaabikaan, or Bird Rock,
a pictograph site and sacred site.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

A faded pictograph painted on a rock.

Figure 15: The pictographs are now difficult to see.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

A view of the rock emerging from the water with grafiti painted on it.

Figure 16: The pictographs are now partly obscured by modern graffiti.
Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon, Canadian Museum of Civilization

Historical documents and the stories of Iroquoian and Anishinabe people of the eastern Canadian woodlands describe a spirit called Missipeshieu or Mishebeshu – like a serpent, a dragon, or a panther – who controlled the waterways and lived in deep water at the foot of rock cliffs (Wright 1999: 683). ‘Grandfather Long-tail’, as he is sometimes called, is portrayed at many pictograph sites throughout the eastern woodlands of Canada. Perhaps ‘Grandfather Long-tail’, or something like him is linked to the Red Horse Portage site in Charleston Lake Provincial Park, near Kingston, Ontario, where the remains of 46 pottery vessels – some of them almost whole – were discovered on two underwater ledges 9 and 18 m below the surface (Wright 1980). These vessels represent a span of about 2,000 years, between early Point Peninsula to 16th century St. Lawrence Iroquois, and were clearly deposited intentionally. “While it certainly cannot be proven, a possible explanation of the unusual findings… is that it represented a sacred site visited over a long and continuous period by individuals seeking favours from a Grandfather Long-tail. The pottery vessels represent supplicatory offerings… That similar sites have not been located is undoubtedly due to their location well out of range of normal archaeological survey areas” (Wright 1999: 683).

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 15


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