Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada

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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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