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Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains, Second Edition

Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains, Second Edition

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Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains, Second Edition

230 pages
4 heures
Jun 24, 2015


Stone by Stone takes readers on a fascinating journey across the short-grass prairie of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan in search of tangible evidence of the region’s ancient past—a civilization dating back at least twelve thousand years.

In this revised and updated edition of her one-of-a-kind guidebook, author Liz Bryan explores archaeological sites that are accessible to today’s inquisitive travellers and provides enough detailed information, striking photographs, maps, and illustrations to satisfy any armchair archaeologist. With riveting insight and clarity, Bryan presents the stone effigies, cairns, medicine wheels, buffalo jumps, rock art, and remains of settlements scattered across this vast prairie, creating an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to navigate these ancient sites and understand their significance.

Jun 24, 2015

À propos de l'auteur

Liz Bryanis a journalist with an extensive background in magazine editing and publishing. She is one of British Columbia’s premier travel writer/photographers and the author of four previous books, including The Buffalo People, Country Roads of Alberta, and Country Roads of British Columbia. She and her late husband, Jack, co-founded Western Living magazine.

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Stone by Stone - Liz Bryan








To my son, David


A book such as this, which covers so much ground, both physically and intellectually, could not have been written without a great deal of help from experts in the field. I would like to thank the following for advice, information, and help with photos: Jack Brink, John Brumley, Richard Cherepak, John Dormaar, Margaret Hanna, Tim Jones, Michael Klassen, Brian Kooyman, and Rod Vickers. Other people helped to make the fieldwork easier and more pleasurable. Among them are: Bonnie Moffet, Quenton Heavy Head, Dixie Green, Lorraine Goodstriker, Armand McArthur, Clifford Many Guns, Jeanette Many Guns, Ted and Allene Douglas, George and Margaret Tosh, Velma Booker, Doug Richards, Betty McFarlane, Tim Dutton, Tillie Duncan, David Munro, Michael Sherven, Kevin Hronek, and the staff at the Minton municipal office. For help with revisions/additions to the second edition, thank you to the following: Nathan Friesen, Dale Walde, Margaret Kennedy, Brian Reeves, Shawn Bubel, Christie Grekul, Trevor Peck, Jack Brink (again), Gail Russell, Rachel Booker, Jim McMurchy, Parks Canada, Nature Conservancy of Canada, and Saskatchewan Tourism. My apologies to any I have inadvertently omitted.





James Pass

Wally’s Beach Site

New Weapons

Prehistoric Quarries



Bison on the Plains

Buffalo Rubbing Stones

Buffalo Jumps

Buffalo Effigies



Tipi Designs

Legend of the Buffalo Tipi

Where to See Tipis

The Tipi Liners

Tipi Rings

Where to See Tipi Rings



Medicine-Wheel Astronomy

Alberta Medicine Wheels

Saskatchewan Medicine Wheels

Circles of Ceremony


Napi Figures





St. Victor

La Roche Percee

Rocky Mountain Sites

Erratics and Glyph Stones


Mud Lake


Dinosaur Park


Bear Hills


Old Man’s Bowling Green


Blackfoot Crossing






This book is a travel guide to the ancient world of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The sites along the way, often stupendous, are not always signposted or readily identifiable, but they are the only tangible relics of the ancestral people of the grasslands.

The bison-hunting nomadic traditions of the Canadian Plains flourished for longer than 12,000 years before the land that was their living was overtaken by immigrant farmers with a technology stronger than stone and a deep need for the alien concept of settlement. Diminished by European diseases and demands, the nomadic way of life faltered. It is only in the study of the things they left—and in the myths and memories of the First Nations who still live here—that we can begin to know them.

Circles of stone scattered across the Bear Hills. GEORGE TOSH PHOTOGRAPH

Zephyr Creek pictograph, adapted from Keyser and Klassen.

Archaeological excavations provide most of the clues, but still visible on the windy shortgrass plains is surface evidence far richer than one might guess. For the nomads used a readily available raw material—stone—to mark their passage: stones shunted down from the north by glacial ice and scoured from mountains and river valleys by floodwaters. On parts of the prairie considered unsuitable for cultivation one can find rings of stones used to hold down tipis or circular tents; stones placed around firepits; stones shaped into tools and intricately flaked points for hunting; stones etched or painted with symbols and stories. And stones brought in for important monuments—stone piled on stone over the millennia into cairns, laid out on the grass in the outlines of men and animals and placed into huge circular designs that are known as medicine wheels and ceremonial circles, their uses still a matter of guesswork.

Some of this tangible prairie past is as old as Stonehenge; though visually it may not be as monumental, it is equally compelling. Walk up to a medicine wheel—they all have wonderful hilltop views—and feel its antiquity and its mystery. Look at the stones themselves, some of them still deeply embedded in the sod. They are all different sizes and shapes and colours, and they have different origins, often from far afield. Each one was gathered by hand from hillside and coulee and placed reverently here, at the centre of a forgotten spiritual world. Most carry the natural embroidery of lichens in red and green and grey, a clue to their immense age.

LEFT—Ribstone at Herschel, Saskatchewan. GEORGE TOSH PHOTOGRAPH

RIGHT—Boulders were cleared from the land for roads and fields in the pioneer era. Were these once tipi rings or part of a ceremonial construction?

Tread softly between the stones of old tipi-ring clusters and think of the families who once camped here with their dogs and, later, their horses. Look at the pictures they made on stones and cliffs. Do they record historic events, or dreams, the results of a vision quest? Were they magic spells to bring success to the hunt or victory in battle? They are the closest one can come to the workings of the Stone Age mind.

Some sites in this book are protected or lie on private land and cannot be visited. But, as you will see, many are available for those who choose to seek them out. For these, travel guidance and contacts are given. Treat all sites with respect—they are all we have left of a bygone age.

Ribstone at Viking, Alberta.

The Landscape

Prairie bedrock, born of thick layers of sediment accumulated over tens of millions of years, once lay submerged beneath a vast, shallow sea. In a fairly recent (in geologic terms) cataclysm, the Rocky Mountains to the west heaved skywards, buckled, and folded. Eroded rock and soil from the mountain upstarts were sluiced into the sea and gradually land emerged, a tropical land where giant beasts feasted and fought. But this was just the begin-ning, the raw canvas on which the picture of the prairie landscape was to emerge. The final painter was ice. In the past billion years, at least three great ice ages, each lasting 100,000 years or so, advanced and retreated. In the last, thick ice masses carrying huge rocks and debris from Hudson Bay to the north and the Rocky Mountains from the west crept southward over the prairies, smoothing and smothering. For eons, hardly any land could be seen at all, only a thick ocean of ice. Then, around 12,000 years ago, the ice began to shrink.

LEFT—In the foothills of the Rockies.

RIGHT—Migratory birds in a lake near Carmangay, Alberta.

Red Deer River badlands, near Drumheller.

Geologists can trace the most recent ice age by mapping terminal moraines, formed by the ice front’s farthest advance, where humps and ridges of detritus and some mammoth boulders were abandoned as the ice melted. They can also point out where once gigantic ice dams created huge lakes and diverted rivers, and show what happened when these dams burst and water gouged escape channels—often 60 metres or more deep. Ironically, it was the furious gush of melting ice that bestowed such peaceful variety to the prairie grassland. It’s a voluptuous landscape of hills and valleys and plains, of lakes and tiny twinkling potholes, of flower-filled coulees and vast sand dunes, its rivers flowing in deep valleys and canyons. In some of these, notably the Milk and the Red Deer, the canyon walls have been eroded by wind and water into fantastic badlands—caves and pinnacles, hoodoos and cliffs striped in many colours as different sediments are exposed. It is a land where climate and soil conspired to create ideal conditions for a sea of grass where bison and other animals thrived and where the earliest inhabitants took nomadic possession, touched the land lightly, and left behind only modest signs of their passage. From the limestone peaks of the Livingstone Range, the great expanse of grass stretches east halfway through Manitoba, interrupted by the forested thrusts of the Porcupine and Cypress Hills; the badlands of the Milk, the Red Deer, and the Big Muddy; the sensuous curves of sagebrush uplands; and bony ridges of exposed sandstone bedrock. It is a magnificent landscape, a magnificent heritage.

LEFT—Spring green, east of the Foothills near Pincher Creek, Alberta.

RIGHT—Giant rock concretions in Red Rock Coulee.

LEFT—Alberta badlands.

RIGHT—Prairie crocus, one of the first signs of a grasslands spring.

Artifacts and Early Man

Found occasionally on the surface of the ground, but more useful to archaeologists if buried at levels where ancient feet in their moosehide moccasins once trod, are small stone implements, clues to the buffalo hunters’ way of life. Made from many different types of rock, they provide a wealth of information—if one knows how to decipher the codes. From the sizes and shapes of the worked pieces archaeologists identify their function: household (chopper, knife, scraper) or hunt (projectile point). Because hunting was critical to survival, projectile points changed over the centuries as hunters honed their techniques and adopted new weaponry, and thus they provide a basis for scientific dating. When a radical change in shape or size occurred, it happened, seemingly, all at once throughout the grasslands, almost as if new people had moved in to displace the old. Occasionally this seems to have been so, though in some cases the changes indicate an advance in technology: from thrusting spear to hurling atlatl to the marvellous invention of the bow and arrow. But often the changes were simply stylistic ones; perhaps there were new fashions to follow.

The meadows at Sibbald Creek, where people camped 11,000 years ago and left behind a stubby Clovis point.

Stone spearpoints date from 9,000 years ago. Left: Alberta point; right: Scottsbluff. PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB DAWE, ROYAL ALBERTA MUSEUM

The earliest stone points found in North America are large and leaf-shaped, with a channel gouged out for a secure insertion of a bound-on shaft. These fluted points, known as Clovis and Folsom (all point styles are named for the site where they were first identified), were spear points and have been dated at around 12,000 years old, some at kill sites of now-extinct Ice Age animals.

In Western Canada, the search for signs of really ancient man, with his fluted points for the killing of monstrous Ice Age animals, has focused in Alberta, mostly along the eastern flanks of the Rocky Mountains, where 10,500 years ago the main valleys were free from the grip of the last ice age. These valleys provided liveable corridors that encouraged game movement and provided fresh water, shelter, and firewood, everything early man needed for survival in the harsh post–Ice Age terrain.

Bighorn sheep still come to Vermilion Lakes for water. Their bones have been found in a 10,800- year-old campsite.

Short fluted point known as a Clovis stubby.

At Sibbald Creek, east of mountainous Canmore, Alberta, an 11,000-year-old campsite in a meadow between the aspens yielded sure proof of ancient man: little heaps of rock flakes and a beautiful green siltstone fluted point, of a variety known to archaeologists as stubby, a short version of the Clovis point only found so far in Western Canada. The stone point had been made on the site: one of the flakes fitted back onto it perfectly. Farther

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