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Royal Alberta Museum to crack open 1,600-year-old roasting pit with meal still inside

Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. This photo shows the preservation of the pit and plaster jacketing being started.
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. This photo shows the preservation of the pit and plaster jacketing being started. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum

Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists are about to start a lengthy and intricate process of figuring out what ancient Albertans cooked for supper.

Last year, they dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. The oven was intact and still had a prepared meal inside, which could make it the only known artifact of its kind.

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“Somebody — probably celebrating the success of a hunt — had a big feast afterward and prepared a bison calf and some kind of a dog, maybe part-wolf, in a pit side by side,” Bob Dawe, the Royal Alberta Museum’s lead archaeologist on the project, said.

“They roasted it overnight in the ground. It would have been a delectable feast in the morning.”

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The roasting pit was first discovered in 1990, but archaeologists didn’t excavate it until last year, before packing it up and moving it to Edmonton.

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That process involved laying fiberglass-reinforced plaster strips all over it until they hardened. Dawe said when the plaster hardened, they could pick up the pit with a crane and put it on a truck bound for Edmonton. That was a lot of work, but there’s still a lot left to do.

Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists beginning excavation in September 2016 at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Altogether there were about 50 volunteers and four staff involved in the excavation.
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists beginning excavation in September 2016 at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Altogether there were about 50 volunteers and four staff involved in the excavation. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists uncovering bison bones and ancient campsite debris from the area right above the roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta.
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists uncovering bison bones and ancient campsite debris from the area right above the roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum
In September 2016, Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. Notes from the crew: "In the foreground the edge of the roasting pit extends out of the excavation - this is what we first saw in 1990. You can see the big rocks that lined the base of the pit, plus some bison bones just above those. This meal was prepared 1,600 years ago by digging a hole, lining it with big rocks, burning a hot wood fire on the rock in the pit and let it burn down to coals, a layer of willows or similar wet brush laid on the coals, meat - in this case a bison calf and a dog placed on the brush, another layer of brush on the meat, a thin layer of dirt covered the brush and a hot fire built on top of that. It was normally allowed to cook overnight and by all accounts was tasty and tender in the morning. According to one account, bison calf cooked this way was the best food you ever tasted. In this case nobody got to taste it because the pit was mysteriously never reopened.".
In September 2016, Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. Notes from the crew: "In the foreground the edge of the roasting pit extends out of the excavation - this is what we first saw in 1990. You can see the big rocks that lined the base of the pit, plus some bison bones just above those. This meal was prepared 1,600 years ago by digging a hole, lining it with big rocks, burning a hot wood fire on the rock in the pit and let it burn down to coals, a layer of willows or similar wet brush laid on the coals, meat - in this case a bison calf and a dog placed on the brush, another layer of brush on the meat, a thin layer of dirt covered the brush and a hot fire built on top of that. It was normally allowed to cook overnight and by all accounts was tasty and tender in the morning. According to one account, bison calf cooked this way was the best food you ever tasted. In this case nobody got to taste it because the pit was mysteriously never reopened.". Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. This photo shows the preservation of the pit and plaster jacketing being started.
Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. This photo shows the preservation of the pit and plaster jacketing being started. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum
The roasting pit is completely clad in a fiberglass reinforced plaster jacket. Care has to be taken to undermine and stabilize the bottom to prevent collapse. Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta.
The roasting pit is completely clad in a fiberglass reinforced plaster jacket. Care has to be taken to undermine and stabilize the bottom to prevent collapse. Royal Alberta Museum archaeologists dug up a 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum
The 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta is picked up and sent to the new Royal Alberta Museum, where it now resides.
The 1,600-year-old roasting pit at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta is picked up and sent to the new Royal Alberta Museum, where it now resides. Courtesy: Royal Alberta Museum

“It looks like a 3,000-pound plaster lozenge, not quite two metres in diametre and about half a metre thick,” Dawe laughed.

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“We retrieved this assembly of rocks and sediment and bones intact with some great difficulty.”

Dawe expects it to take months to cut off the top, scrape away the dirt, and carefully clean and preserve every bone. They want it ready to display when the new museum opens in downtown Edmonton later this year.

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One of the barriers to the work will be psychological, since one set of remains belongs to a dog.

“A lot of dog-lovers are a little concerned that a dog was part of the meal, and as a dog lover myself I find that a little bit bothersome, but people have been using dogs as food in the Americas for 10,000 years and they still use dogs as food all over the world,” said Dawe.

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“I have a dog, and I’m sure my dog would be unhappy to hear that I’m digging up one of his ancestors.”