Archaeologists are finding a silver lining in the devastation of last summer’s Kenow wildfire, as historical trading artifacts have surfaced amid the scorched earth of Waterton Lakes National Park.
Research teams have now discovered more than 200 new sites containing artifacts that are believed to date back to the 1700s.
“Previous fires have not burned this intensely to remove this kind of vegetation,” said Bill Perry, an archaeologist with Parks Canada. “It’s almost like we’ve got the first few pages of the story of Waterton just exposed to us.”
After last summer’s fire burned more than a foot into the earth, researchers found objects laying on the ground’s surface such as trading beads, arrowheads and projectile points. The archaeological team in Waterton says these discoveries represent a unique point in time when European and First Nations people crossed paths in the iconic mountain passageways.
“We think the artifacts are from around the 1750s,” said Rachel Lindemann, also an archaeologist with Parks Canada.
“We’re seeing Europeans entering the area through exploration, trading, trapping and that sort of thing, and they’re starting to mix with the First Nations in the area. We’re seeing a neat meshing of the artifacts, of not only European goods coming in, but we’re also seeing them utilized in traditional First Nations ways.”
Though the area was used for just a short time by European travellers, Lindemann says the land has been occupied for centuries by Indigenous people who came from the plains, the continental divide and Montana, mostly for trade purposes.
Lindemann added that the burnt soil has also recovered a pivotal part of the area’s Indigenous history by surfacing the presence of bison, which would have acted as an important food source to First Nations populations in the area hundreds of years ago.
Archaeologists found several skeletons of the once-abundant animal, said Lindemann.
“To bring more awareness for our history, for Indigenous history, is my sticking point,” said Kevin Black Plume, another archaeologist with Parks Canada and a recent University of Lethbridge graduate. “To make sure we get more recognized and create a better awareness for how long we’ve been here… I feel good to be here; I feel like I’m meant to be here.”
The Parks Canada archaeological team has been sifting through these new sites all summer long, however they are now in a race against time to recover as much as possible before vegetation begins to grow back in the area.
Once September hits, the team will wrap up their field work to assess what has been discovered and try to answer important research questions that may have been unearthed with the presence of these ancient artifacts.