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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 7

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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.”

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
Figure 9: “Champlain’s Astrolabe”, a symbol of discovery, measurement and record.
CMC 989.56.1
CMC 989.56.1, CD95-347-067

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.

Photo: Jean-Luc Pilon
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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