Sisson (Canada): Rare artifact at mine site dates back 8,500 years

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Hl artifact

This stark point was discovered during archaeological work at the proposed Sisson mine site north of Fredericton. (Julianne Hazlewood / CBC)

Archaeologists have recovered hundreds of artifacts at the site of the proposed Sisson mine north of Fredericton, including a rare find that could be up to 8,500 years old.

However, two other artifacts recovered from the site have been lost and aboriginal leaders are concerned the "precious items" recovered aren't being handled with enough care.

The stark point that was found measures about five centimetres long and a couple of centimetres wide at its base and tapers to a point at the top. It could have been used as an arrowhead or a knife.

It's the first such artifact to be discovered in an undisturbed area in the Maritimes and dates back to the middle archaic period, between 7,000 and 8,500 years ago.

"No artifact of this time period has been found in an undisturbed context in New Brunswick or in fact the Maritimes," states an internal government memo from December 2013.

The term "undisturbed" indicates the artifact was recovered from an open area and not a lake or beach.

The artifact is invaluable to Beverley Perley and Ramona Nicholas from Tobique First Nation.

"It's part of the story. It's part of our history. It's part of who we are," said Perley, who worked on the Sisson project site as an aboriginal archaeological monitor.

"When you find a piece of a puzzle like that, it means that, `Wow, we have another piece of our story.' It's a treasure in that aspect for us."

The artifact was found above the body of ore that would be extracted from the proposed mine, said Nicholas, who has worked in archaeology for several years in New Brunswick.

"In my way of thinking, that was an indication that the ancestors were like, `No, this is where we were. This is where we want to remain.'"

"This is our territory. These artifacts prove that we've been here for a long time," said Nicholas.

The site is located on Crown land in what was historically Maliseet territory that was never surrendered to European settlers.

Possible artifacts lost on site

On the same day in November 2013 that the stark point was discovered, two other potential artifacts were lost.

Archaeologists working in the same hole from Stantec, a consulting firm hired by mine proponent Northcliff Resources, found two small pieces of quartz which were placed in a sealed bag and documented, but then the bag was lost.

The Stantec incident report obtained by CBC says the bag could have been lost in the snow.

St. Mary's First Nation Chief Candace Paul, who opposes the proposed mine, says the loss of those artifacts raises major concerns.

"I don't feel we're protected in the dig," said Paul. "I feel that the guidelines are too loose regarding archaeological finds and so I'm concerned about what they're finding and how they're treating it."

Northcliff president Chris Zahovskis says the problem was dealt with openly and the archaeological work has been up to par.

"Look, there is no doubt in my mind that artifacts that are found are handled properly on site," said Zahovskis. "We have never had any complaints from the ministry."

The lost possible artifacts are described as "micro-flakes," which are very small pieces of chipped stone less than five millimetres in length.

Stantec said the potential loss was immediately reported to the on-site First Nations monitor at the time, as well as to their entire crew on site, including First Nation staff. The loss was also reported to the province within a few days after two searches of the area.

Following the loss, Stantec changed its artifact-handling procedures and now uses sealable plastic containers rather than sealable plastic bags. The company did apologize to the province and to First Nations people in a letter to the province's archaeological services branch.

Artifacts weren't expected at site

The environmental impact assessment for the Sisson mine project identified the area as having a "low probability of artifacts."

Sisson mine project map

The Sisson mine project would be located 60km North of Fredericton, near the surrounding communities of Stanley, Millville, Juniper and Napadogan. (Northcliff Resources Ltd.)

But with 541 artifacts recovered to date and more likely when archaeological work resumes later in the spring, an internal government memo states New Brunswick's archaeological surveys need to be revised to "ensure all other areas like this are tested thoroughly in the future throughout the province when projects are planned."

"The fact that we are finding a site of this size in an area where consultants suggested low probability for encountering evidence of occupation is a clear indication that we need to better understand why people chose to live at this site so that consultants on the ground can incorporate that information into their consideration of potential for future projects," states the memo.

However, the province maintains the EIA did identify areas next to streams as having a higher probability of artifacts, but the 8,500-year-old stark point and other artifacts were found more than 50 metres from the main site.

The province has asked the company to complete a heritage mitigation plan for the Sisson site to ensure the area is properly excavated.

Ave Dersch, an Alberta-based archaeology consultant who has worked with St. Mary's and other First Nations to assess the Sisson project area and oversee some independent archaeologists on site, says the heritage mitigation plan is step in the right direction. However, Dersch says more could be done to make sure archaeological work at the Sisson site is rigourous.

Dersch said she is surprised at how archaeology and natural resource development is handled in the province.

"The one thing that always shocked me for New Brunswick is there is no archaeology required for forestry activities. In Alberta, that is required," said Dersch. "I find that disturbing because I imagine there are a lot of sites being destroyed."

"It's the history of humans so, to me, it's as important to the non-aboriginal New Brunswick guy as it is to the Maliseet person," said Dersch.

"It's a non-renewable resource. When we lose stuff like that, we're losing our history and I think everybody should be quite concerned about that."