Cluny Fortified Village (Canada): Dig reveals 300 years of history on Siksika First Nation

Manisha Krishnan

Source -


Something died here.”

With a sniff, archeologist Dale Walde assesses the pungent odour lingering in the air, then, nonplussed, continues toward Cluny Fortified Village, the site of an archaeological dig where a group of migrants lived and died 300 years ago.

Walde, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, and a rotating team of students have spent the past seven summers picking away at the site, located at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park on the Siksika Nation. Now, the public is invited to join them.

I really enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out what folks did in the past,” said Walde, who has participated in excavations in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, B.C. and parts of the U.S. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Cluny is the only known fortified village on the Canadian Plains. Walde suspects its inhabitants were corn traders who moved from North Dakota and set up shop here. For protection, villagers, about 300 in total, built a ditch around the land’s perimeter that runs 120 metres wide by 80 metres long.

There was a tradition of trading and raiding,” said Walde. “If they weren’t prepared to defend themselves, the other folks would simply raid them.”

Members of Walde’s team are sprawled out in various ditches Monday morning, their expert eyes trained to pick out even the tiniest pieces of rock or bone fragment. Over the years, they’ve discovered pottery, arrowheads, beads, buffalo remains and, most recently, a hearth. The most interesting observation, said Walde, has been a previously unknown pattern in ground posts, signalling a new type of housing.

It must’ve held up some super structure.”

This summer, the university opened the program to the public. Participants are privy to a tour, followed by a briefing on excavating techniques. Then, they get their hands dirty, digging, screening and recording findings.

Calgarian Michelle Ceaser, an oil and gas executive, took the day off work to partake.

Ceaser said she’s always been interested in archeology, having taken a course in university, but didn’t realize she could participate in a dig so close to home.

The opportunity to find something totally brand new, that’s kind of exciting,” she said, adding the experience makes her feel more connected to the past. “You can kind of put your head back in time and picture another mom making dinner.”

U of C student Ana Castro enjoys the methodical nature of the excavation. Everything from the texture of soil, colour changes and artifact discoveries is recorded.

Archeology is kind of a mix of science and anthropology. This is all scientifically done, but it’s deeper and goes into social and cultural (significance).”

The work can be physically gruelling, especially in the heat, added fellow student Brittney Sorensen, while sifting through a pile of dirt. But she said it’s worth it in the end.

It’s nice to be a part of digging up the past.”