Field School Experience Par Excellence

Anthropology graduate oversees work on a significant archaeological site near Thunder Bay
by Erin Collins and Frances Harding

Promoting Aboriginal Research

Lakehead has created a new two-year contract (full-time) position aimed at encouraging and advancing Aboriginal research.

The Aboriginal Research Facilitator will be working collaboratively with researchers and Aboriginal community partners to identify and plan community-based research capacity-building initiatives.

According to Bev Sabourin, Vice-Provost (Aboriginal Initiatives), the Facilitator will be developing Aboriginal research guidelines for Lakehead U in collaboration with the University's Research Ethics Board and Aboriginal Management Council.

"We are expecting the Facilitator to promote the value of pure and applied research in meeting the challenges faced by the Aboriginal communities," she adds.
David Norris (HBA'98) is leading an archaeological dig near Thunder Bay that has uncovered a remarkable number of artifacts dating as far back as 9,000 years. He and a team of employees - many of whom are university students and graduates from across Canada - have been working furiously at the Mackenzie Site to find, catalogue, and store the ancient artifacts before the site is closed for highway construction.

The Mackenzie Site is located just 20 km northeast of Thunder Bay near where the water of the MacKenzie River flows under the TransCanada Highway on its way to Lake Superior. It and several other sites of similar age were identified last year during preliminary work for construction of a four-lane highway between Thunder Bay and Nipigon. 

In May 2010, Western Heritage Services Inc., a Saskatoon-based cultural resource management company, began excavating throughout the summer and early fall, with David Norris serving as project archaeologist. To date, thousands of artifacts have been found, including over 100 projectile points plus other tools - many of which are made of taconite, an iron-rich rock found in a formation that extends from northern Minnesota to the Thunder Bay area.

The Mackenzie Site will be completely excavated, in accordance with guidelines set out by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, before construction proceeds.

David Norris
David Norris
After finishing his undergraduate degree at Lakehead University in 1998, Norris went on to complete a master's degree in Anthropology at the University of Saskatoon. He credits Lakehead with helping him discover a career in archaeology.

Through his employment with Western Heritage, Norris says he has been able to "develop new techniques for testing archaeological sites, present papers at conferences, and disseminate the information that we have acquired during the course of our work." There were 30 employees working at the Mackenzie Site this summer, including two new Lakehead University graduate students who have developed thesis topics relating to the site − Christine Shultis in Geology and Samantha Markham in Environmental Studies: Northern Environments and Cultures (NECU).
"We know that this site was once the shoreline of Lake Minong, a huge super lake that predated Lake Superior," says Norris. "I like to think this was a good place for the Paleo-Indians to be - fishing in the nearby rivers and perhaps trading with people from other places around the Lake. This year we had a long, hot summer, but up here on the dig there was always a cool breeze coming off the Lake."

Dave Norris & Debra Babcock
Dave Norris and Debra Babcock survey the day's findings.
Dr. Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, notes that the Mackenzie site is one of several sites in the area occupied shortly after deglaciation. "The large excavation sample and the diversity of recoveries make it very important," he says. "The students are getting a chance to work at a kind of site that few archaeologists get to see. Several local archaeologists, including Lakehead faculty, are assisting in the project and will be contributing to the analysis. Lakehead University will also be the final home for the collection, assuring that it is locally available for study in the future.

Breana McCulloch  & Mike Blakely
Breana McCulloch, an anthropology graduate of the University of Alberta, works with Mike Blakely, a volunteer worker from the Red Rock Indian Band.

"For me, such projects are important because Lakehead students and faculty will be in a position to help maximize research and education about the ancient past. Our students are also getting a wealth of practical archaeological experience in an environmental assessment field to supplement their academic training.

"Having the artifacts stored at Lakehead University - a publicly funded institution that is a 30-minute drive from the site - means the collection will be readily accessible to all scholars interested in Aboriginal heritage."

Arlene Lahti
Arlene Lahti (HBSc'00, MSc'03) likes doing paperwork in the lab as well as digging in the field
Arlene Lahti has two degrees from Lakehead (an Honours Bachelor of Science in Anthropology and a Master of Science in Biology) and 10 years' experience working in forensic DNA with Molecular World and Lakehead's Paleo-DNA Lab.  She was one of approximately 17 Lakehead students and alumni hired by David Norris this past summer to work at the site - and she is expecting to be re-hired again next summer.

"I loved it," says Lahti. "I spent about three-quarters of my time digging and the rest of the time in the lab organizing the field data. I think this project has been wonderful for the crew.  It is great for Lakehead students looking for field school experience and really wonderful for the City of Thunder Bay!" 

Zebedee Kawei
Zebedee Kawei
Zebedee Kawei, Lindsay Curran, Margaret Schweitzer, Erin Collins and Shayna Mihalus were among the Lakehead undergraduates who worked on the site. For Zeb Kawei the job was more a mental challenge than a physical one, and overall it was a great learning experience. "It confirmed for me that I wanted to be an archaeologist," he says. "It helps when you get to actually touch the tools you read and hear about."

Lesley Kingsmill, Dave Finch, and Doug Yahn worked as field supervisors while NECU graduate students Andrew Lints and Jennifer Surette served as field and lab workers. "For the most part, everyone was excited to dig and to find that next interesting artifact," says Lesley Kingsmill. "You never knew what you were going to find, no matter how much experience you had. That's what makes archaeology fun."

Erin Collins
Erin Collins is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK - Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.
Spark Lakehead

Tracking Ancient Farmers in the Canadian Subarctic

Erin Collins*
Matthew Boyd examines computer images of food residues
Matthew Boyd examines computer images of food residues in Lakehead's Environmental Archaeology and Paleo-Ecology Lab
Dr. Matthew Boyd is on the cutting edge of archaeological research in Canada, and his latest project is shedding new light on the diet of ancient Northern peoples. His research involves the analysis of food residues on pottery sherds obtained through archaeological excavation. By digesting these ancient residues in acid and examining extracted plant remains such as starch grains, it is possible to gain new insight into the diet of these ancient peoples. What people eat, in turn, tells us a great deal about the ways that human societies organize themselves and how they interact with their environments.
"Anthropologists have always known about food residues," says Boyd. "It wasn't until recently that they have been used extensively... this [research] has provided a window to the past consumption of domesticated plants."
A particularly surprising finding was the discovery of maize and other cultivated foods on archaeological pottery from the Canadian Subarctic. These remains were dated to at least 1,000 years prior to European contact in this region. The location of these pottery sherds so far to the north, and so early, indicates that the spread of corn and other domesticated plants across North America was both faster and more extensive than previously thought. This discovery has generated much public and scientific interest and has paved the way for new questions and theories regarding the social complexity of ancient northern peoples. However, Dr. Boyd explains it is far too early for any conclusions:
"In terms of social complexity, we don't really know. We're in the early stages of this project and so really right now all we can say is that we are assuming people consumed these plants as far as 500 kilometres from the [northern] treeline. But were they growing it [or] were they trading it? We don't really know."
Working with Dr. Boyd are Clarence Surette, Lakehead's Bio-Archaeology Lab Technician, as well as Dr. Scott Hamilton, Chair of the Lakehead University's Anthropology Department. Their initial findings were the subject of a grant proposal to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, entitled, "Tracking ancient maize (Zea mays spp. mays) consumption in Boreal North America: Paleoecological, food residue, and archaeological investigations." This proposal was ranked first out of 106 applications sent to SSHRC's Anthropology and Archaeology committee and was awarded $177,100 in research funding in 2009.
Dr. Boyd and his team will be using these funds to delve more deeply into the ancient history of maize and other cultivated plants in the Subarctic, and to identify the antiquity of farming north of the limit of modern commercial agriculture. Their preliminary results were published in the January 2010 issue of American Antiquity. As well, this research will be profiled in an upcoming issue of Canadian Geographic magazine.
*Erin Collins is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK - Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.