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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 6

– Page 6 –


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).

Swamp 3, from The Sheguiandah Site, p. 132
Swamp 4, from The Sheguiandah Site, p. 133
Figure 6: Profiles of Swamps 3 (top) and 4 (bottom) 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).

CMC GbTo-33:C-423, 84-7232
Figure 7: 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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