Walterdale Bridge (Canada): Archaeology dig at old campsite paints picture of the good life

Elise Stolte



Archeologists with Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management excavate around a campfire hearth in Queen Elizabeth Park about one metre below the surface. The site work was done during the summer of 2012. Photograph by: Supplied , Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management

 A man took a puff from his pipe in the red glow of a campfire, wiped the fish drippings from his fingers, nibbled a few berries. It could be a scene in Queen Elizabeth Park today.

Instead, it happened pretty much exactly like that 1,400 years ago.

Archeologists dug up a campsite before city crews excavated the road right of way for the new Walterdale Bridge. It’s a site not that much different than the thousands of other prehistoric campsites scattered up and down the river, but because it is in such a public location, they pushed hard to get every detail possible.

They even boxed up the dirt in the campfire hearth, trucked it to Calgary and spent days washing it through a screen and sorting it under a dissecting microscope. From those charred specs, a scientist at the Royal Alberta Museum was able to identify seeds from a kinnikinnick plant, chokecherries, pin cherries and bunch berries. The kinnikinnick was likely for smoking.

They also identified bones from rabbit, gopher, bison, duck, geese and even the thin gill cover of a whitefish.

You can imagine these guys sitting around, eating rabbit and whitefish, smoking their pipes, making stone tools, having a good time, eating cherries. Sounds all right to me, sounds delightful. Nice camping trip,” said Gareth Spicer, archeologist with Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management.

They weren’t poor people. They had everything they needed right at their finger tips.”

The City of Edmonton plans to redevelop Rossdale and Queen Elizabeth Park, and has talked about including a historical interpretive aspect. The site is just across the river from Rossdale, the site of the original twin forts, which as been a focus for historical activists for years. A monument there marks a fur trade-era graveyard disturbed during road construction.

Spicer and representatives from several local aboriginal groups monitored excavation crews while the contractor dug the footings for the new bridge. That work is now complete, and they did not find any human bones.

The archeologist also ran numerous tests to determine the exact age of the banks on either side of the river. That report is not yet complete, but an early analysis shows the two sides of the river here are very different in age.

Rossdale is certainly old. It has an ash layer two metres down that has a chemical signature matching that of the Mount Mazama volcanic eruption about 7,700 years ago. However, their tests could not confirm human habitation that far back.

The south bank there is much younger, said Spicer. Five radio carbon dates came back between 1,400 and 1,000 years old.

To understand that, picture a huge river cutting out this massive valley about 10,000 years ago as the last ice age ended. Then the river shrunk, and began to meander back and forth across the valley floor, cutting the bank in some places and building it up elsewhere. Occasionally, it would flood and spill over the banks, leaving a layer of silt as it receded.

Spicer tested one piece of wood found just above the underlying gravel close to today’s river edge. It was only 1,200 years old, which means the six metres of sediment on top of it were put down over a period of just 1,200 years. “Think about it, that’s a massive amount of (sediment). I thought the site was going to be much older.”