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Prehistoric archeological site uncovered near Sioux Lookout

Friday July 25, 2014
Rick Garrick/Wawatay News

Archeologist Jeff Bursey sorts through a pail load of material from his pre-historic dig near Sioux Lookout in search of artifacts, He has already found a number of artifacts, including a cutting tool and a trihedral adze.
Photos by Rick Garrick/Wawatay News

Archeologist Jeff Bursey, left photo, continues his search for artifacts at his dig near Sioux Lookout. Bursey has found a number of artifacts at the site, including a cutting tool, in his hand in the right photo, and a trihedral adze, the bottom right artifact in the right photo.
Photos by Rick Garrick/Wawatay News

Archeologist Jeff Bursey, left photo, continues his search for artifacts at his dig near Sioux Lookout. Bursey has found a number of artifacts at the site, including a cutting tool, in his hand in the right photo, and a trihedral adze, the bottom right artifact in the right photo.

A prehistoric archeological site was discovered last fall near Sioux Lookout by archeologist Jeff Bursey during a walk along a moose trail.

“I just had a feeling coming up and down the highway looking up and down the valley that there’d be prehistoric sites,” said Bursey, who has a PhD in archeology and has worked as a archeologist with the Ministry of Transportation and University of Toronto and published 30-40 articles. “I finally had a chance last fall to do a more methodical survey where I would walk along and every five paces or so I would dig a little hole and clean the dirt looking for artifacts. But I didn’t really find anything until I decided to turn around and come back and I started following this moose trail and sure enough there was an artifact laying right there on the surface. I couldn’t believe it at first.”

Bursey said the artifact was likely disturbed by a passing moose after laying in the ground for thousands of years.

“Quite literally, a moose turned it up,” Bursey said. “It was a little gift from the moose.”
Bursey said the archeological site likely covers about 40-50 metres along the moose trail and about 1,000 square metres in area.

“My guess at this point is that it could be as many as four or five families were camping here,” Bursey said. “And they were making stone tools. What I found here in this first spot is probably just literally a garbage dump where they were throwing the refuse from making stone tools.”

Although Bursey has discovered some complete tools among the 2,500 or so artifacts he has found so far at the site, most were flakes and tools that were broken during the tool-making process.

“Once we start digging in the occupation area, then I will find finished tools and tools that they threw away that were kind of used up,” Bursey said. “In some ways, that is what we are really looking for because those are really the ones that nail down the date to specific styles we can look at.”

Bursey expects the tools to have “a lot of similarities” to tools found on sites in Manitoba.
“What I’ve seen so far does date quite nicely to about 10,000 years ago,” Bursey said. “And it would be the first people in this area.”

Bursey said one of the tools he discovered — a trihedral adze — was manufactured in a very distinctive style, almost like in a canoe shape.

“It was a woodworking tool they would use to maybe build canoes,” Bursey said. “It’s kind of like an axe but it’s put on the handle sideways compared to an axe. An adze is kind of like a hoe, but they used it for a woodworking tool.”

Scott Hamilton, an anthropology professor at Lakehead University who has a PhD in archeology, said trihedral adzes are rare but some have sporadically been found across the boreal forest, including several from the Lac Seul area.

“While poorly dated and with generally not great context, they are generally thought to be in the order of 7,000 to 3,000 years old, but this is often little more than speculation unless they are found in good depositional context and associated with organic material that permits radiocarbon dating,” Hamilton said in an e-mail comment. “If Jeff found an adze, it is a very cool find and will be very valuable to help tell the story of northern Aboriginal history.”

Bursey said the artifacts are not buried very deeply at the site.

“It’s very shallow — people would expect it to be more deeply buried,” Bursey said. “But in fact the vast majority of the artifacts are really only in this top five centimetres or so. And you get a little bit more coming into the subsoil, but by the time you get say 15 centimetres down, there is nothing.”

Bursey said many of the deeper-buried artifacts are flakes in a vertical position.

“You can imagine small flakes falling down a crack,” Bursey said. “And I think that is how they do sometimes get deeper. But you also get a little bit of movement from tree roots, perhaps animal burrows like chipmunks.”

Bursey said the subsoil consists of fine particles that is commonly described as clay in the area.

“It would have been put down in very still water — that is why it is such a fine particle,” Bursey said. “So this light grey soil is basically the lake bottom of glacial Lake Agassiz.”

Fed by glacial meltwater at the end of the last glacial period, Lake Agassiz was larger than all of the modern Great Lakes combined and extended from Saskatchewan to northwestern Ontario to northern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota.

“So they would have come here and camped on this site sometime after the glacial lake had drained below this level,” Bursey said. “How much lower the water level was when this site was occupied is tough to say. This could have been actually right on the shore; this could have even been a muddy beach. Or the lake could have been just down there a couple of metres.”

Bursey said the houses or tents of the families were likely located higher up the slope from where he discovered the artifacts.

“So I’ll be looking for things like fireplaces, pits that they might have been storing things in,” Bursey said. “This is a nice sheltered little area — you’ve got a high ridge back over that way which would actually protect you from some of the worst of the weather while giving a nice sun exposure.”

Bursey said a prehistoric quarry was likely located in the vicinity, judging by the amount of flakes and debris he has been finding at the site.

“It’s a mix of radiolarite and mud stones, and that’s mostly chert but partly metamorphal,” Bursey said. “So there’s a complex geology we’ll have to figure out. Wherever they were getting it, they were either not going too far or it was an easy to travel route. Perhaps they were just loading up their canoes.”

Bursey has invited a colleague from southern Ontario who is an expert in quarries to look at the site this summer.

“He used to be the archeologist for the province around here in the 1970s,” Bursey said. “He’s kind of excited about the raw material. That’s his expertise is tracking down different quarries and different kinds of raw material.”

Although Bursey has excavated about seven square metres so far, he is looking to excavate about 50 square metres in total by the end of this summer.

“But there’s about a thousand (square metres) to dig,” Bursey said. “It’s a great site to get a glimpse of a first people.”

Bursey said the site is “very exciting,” noting he did his PhD on the people in southern Ontario at about the same time period in history.

“It’s right after the ice age, of course the ice age ended a bit earlier down there,” Bursey said. “And these people would have been right, almost hard up, to the edge of the glaciers. Certainly they would have been able to look out over the remnants of glacial Lake Agassiz and maybe even seen the glaciers off in the distance to the north.”

Bursey said the people were likely caribou hunters, although there could have been a variety of now extinct animals in the area such as mastodons, extinct types of elk/moose or giant beavers.

“Unfortunately, a site of this age up around here, you’re unlikely to get any type of bone preservation,” Bursey said. “But you never know. Maybe if I go downhill, there might be bones preserved under this muck.”

Bursey said there are other sites that have been discovered in the Sioux Lookout area, including the Allen site (EcJs-1) near Kitcheuhmaykoosib Inninuwug where the bones of a human were discovered.

“I expect lots and lots more surprises at this site,” Bursey said. “I expect this site is going to be most similar to the early sites getting into southeastern-most Manitoba.”

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