1600 year old dinner unearthed at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump

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A Blackfoot roasting pit carbon dated to approximately 1600 years ago has been excavated from a site at the base of Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, to be transported to the Royal Alberta Museum’s new home in Edmonton, where it will be fully excavated before becoming part of a permanent exhibit of Alberta First Nations artifacts. The pit, carefully encased in a plaster jacket to enable its extraction, is completely intact and includes a prepared meal that was left uneaten.

The artifact (which is really a number of artifacts) was hoisted from its original location on Tuesday October 4, after a ceremony that began with a prayer from Piikani elder Conrad Little Leaf which included a traditional ceremonial offering of tobacco by the small group present for the event. The prayer, conducted in the Blackfoot language, included blessings for the archaeologists and the crew responsible for moving the artifact. The dirt that was removed during the excavation was placed in several piles to enable it to be placed back in the hole in the same layers as it was removed.

Quinton CrowShoe and Conrad Little Leaf
Following Little Leaf’s prayer, Head Smashed In’s Marketing and Special Events Coordinator Quinton CrowShoe (“Kainaikoan”) commented about the blessings, prayers, smudging, and the ceremonial painting of those who worked on the project. “This is our ancestors’, it is a sacred thing, and it really shouldn’t be moved, but that decision has already been made, so we really wanted to take care of everybody who worked here, through our prayers.”

The site was home to tribal gatherings by Aboriginal people of the Northern Plains for 6000 years or more, and includes a wealth of artifacts as a result, but never before has a complete roasting pit containing a complete uneaten meal been found.

Earth oven aka roasting pit illustrated
Several signs of other roasting pits could be seen around the edges of the excavation, and a small archaeological team of 3 conducted one more investigation of the hole after the roasting pit was removed before filling it in again.

Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump (estipah-skikikini-kots in Blackfoot) was designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in 1981. According to Unesco, “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is one of the oldest, most extensive, and best preserved sites that illustrate communal hunting techniques and the way of life of Plains people who, for more than five millennia, subsisted on the vast herds of bison that existed in North America.” The Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre was opened in 1987. It is a significant facility, but is not a museum, and doesn’t have the necessary climate controls and other criteria necessary to properly store and display artifacts of this complexity and potential fragility, according to Royal Alberta Museum Inventory Curator Robert Dawe. Dawe discovered the roasting pit in 1990 at the end of a four year excavation project adjacent to its location.

Robert Dawe and Darren Tanke
“I really didn’t know what I had, at first,” said Dawe. At that time they found a dog paw and the leg bones of a bison calf still in their anatomical positions. The jump area meant that the bodies were by the cliffs, and the clearing was a good place to process the food. Some of those processes included drying meat for storage and transportability, and making pemmican with a mixture of dried meat, berries, and fats. “By and large what we’re looking at is the processing and the celebration of a successful buffalo hunt.”

Layers of history seen at edges of dig
“To get down to that object, we had go through 1600 years of history.” Some of the items found at Head Smashed In over the years include roasting pit stones, bones, discarded tools and weapons, evidence of tools being fixed or made, children’s toys, beads, and ornaments. “By and large it is mostly debris from pemmican making.”

According to Dawe, once the encased roasting pit is at the Royal Alberta Museum the protective coating will be carefully removed, and then over the course of several months the roasting pit will be delicately excavated in full and properly preserved. “This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago. Nobody has seen the contents of this meal since it was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason, the people never came back and opened up this object.” Dawe said they do not know what is in the roasting pit. “It hasn’t been fully excavated, yet. As soon as we know what we had, we covered it back over, and protected it.” He added “We have never found anything like this before. We have found other roasting pits, but never with everything left in place.”

“Every bone has to be kept in anatomical position, and in place.”

“To be able to have the aide of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, having them send Darren Tanke (Royal Tyrrell Museum Canadian fossil preparation Senior Technician Darren Tanke) here, to help plaster jacket this and preserve it, it’s a first, as far as we know, for Canada. To have this kind of a collaboration to preserve an archaeological specimen.”

“It’s a one of a kind thing.”

“Sometimes we forget that these are people and they were out here trying to make a living, and their concerns are to eat, and take care of their family, just like ours are.”

Dawe said approximately 50 people have been involved with the excavation project, in many different roles.

Crane Operator Sean Hanson said he has moved large and delicate items before, but nothing like this. He was visibly moved when talking about the historical significance of his precious cargo. Hanson said, “I feel pretty lucky, to be in on this.” For the record, so did these two reporters.

Royal Tyrrell Museum Canadian fossil preparation Senior Technician Darren Tanke was brought in on the project to help stabilize the entire find as a single unit and prepare it for transport, protecting layers of the pit within a plaster case. “I was very nervous about this project,” said Tanke, explaining he is used to preparing specimens for travel in plaster, but this project offered a special challenge. Dawe requested the entire roasting pit be encased before anything was moved. Tanke said that usually artifacts he works with are stabilized, and then plaster is applied to approximately 80% of the mass, including the whole top, the sides, and some of the underside. Then the artifact is carefully moved and the bottom is then encased. The process involves carefully protecting the entire unit with tinfoil and making sure all the seams are made water tight, after which it is coated in fiberglass-reinforced gypsum. For this project the artifact was physically undercut and stabilized with wooden blocks when the top and sides were plastered so the encasing could be achieved without moving the specimen until it was totally enveloped. After it was on the truck Tanke said “I am very relieved.” He said this was the largest specimen he has ever encased 100% in place.

University of Lethbridge Associate Professor of Archeology Shawn Bubel
Robert Dawe explained the basic of a buffalo jump event. “You would need hundreds of buffalo to make it work, and hundreds of people to orchestrate this thing.” He explained a buffalo can run faster than a horse, are very agile for their size, and gregarious in temperament. If it was only a few buffalo involved, they would not get so crowded or confused as to be chased over the edge of a cliff. A jump would require a large number of the buffalo, who could be panicked and stampeded over the cliffs. For the indigenous people it was a dangerous procedure of herding wild and wary animals. “The whole way this thing works is you have the mass of buffalo pushing them, all the time.” This mass blocks the view of those buffalo behind, and the momentum of those animals behind forces the one further forward to keep proceeding forward, even if they realize they shouldn’t.

“If you get 50 yards away from the edge of the cliff, and you look this way, (east) even though you know that cliff is there, you cannot see it. It is like an optical illusion, it looks like continuous prairie. If you are a buffalo, and you are running scared, and there’s a bunch of guys behind you, and it’s all dusty, and you have poor eyesight to begin with, you would not see that cliff until it was way too late.”

Some of the practices during a buffalo jump included making funneling laneways with brush to narrow the passage of the animals, using smoke and the scent of carnivores to help herd the animals away from areas and keep them confused, and using the scent of a younger buffalo to create a pathway for the cows to follow.

The Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, which is located just north and west of Fort Macleod, and also just north of Piikani Nation, has a special theatre that shows a polished movie made using local Blackfoot talent that demonstrates the mechanics of a buffalo jump, and the value to the community that surrounded such an event. If you visit the centre, it’s well worth taking the time to see it.

Several people at Tuesday’s event expressed the hope that one day the roasting pit will be repatriated to the Head Smashed In site, perhaps after proper storage facilities for it are in place.