First Major Saskatchewan Archeological Dig

Article appears courtesy of Leith Knight. Published in the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, February 1st, 2002.

The first archaeological "dig" in Saskatchewan was undertaken in 1954 in the Besant Valley, 5KM east of Mortlach, by Provincial archaeologist Boyd Wettlaufer. The Mortlach site, as it became known, was a stratified site with distinct layers which would play an important role in establishing a framework for archaeology not only in Saskatchewan, but across the Great Plains.

The site is located on the south side of Sandy Creek, a small spring-fed stream which has its origins near the base of high bluffs south of Mortlach. It meanders through the Besant valley, on its way to join Thunder Creek near Caron. It eventually empties into the Moose Jaw River.

After M. McLean of Mortlach found arrowheads on a cow path at Besant, enthusistic amateur diggers and artifact collectors moved in, destroying much of the valuable archaeological evidence. When the provincial archaeologist and his crew arrived on the scene they were hardpressed to find a piece of undisturbed ground.

Wettlaufer found eight clearly defined levels of occupation which he called "cultures". He wrote: "Culture would be defined as a complex of tools (stone and bone artifacts) sufficiently different from the cultural complex above and beneath it to be considered the work of a different peple." He named these cultural levels after nearby place-names e.g. the Mortlach Culture, the Moose Jaw Culture, etc..

The top or latest layer, called the Mortlach Culture, dated from 1780 to the time when the last buffalo inhabited the area. It was located near a Bison kill-site where great quantities of bones and masses of bison hair, preserved for a century in the sandy soil, had been dug out by the amateurs.

Below the Mortlach Culture, Wettlaufer found another layer of occupation which he called the Moose Jaw Culture because he was certain, from observing materials in private collections and from his own explorations along the Moose Jaw River, that the centre of this culture was in the vicinity of Moose Jaw.

The excavation revealed fire hearths and among fragments of pottery was a pot rim clearly showing thumb and finger impressions that resembled the finished edges of our current pie crusts. One blue trade bead and a metal scraper made by flatening a small piece of a gun barrel, indicate that the Moose Jaw Culture, dating from 1700 had contact with Europeans.

The next layer of occupation belonged to the Caron Cutlure dating from 1600. These prehistoric hunters fashioned their points and blades from brown chalcedony or Knife River flint from a quarry in North Dakota. This indicates that they had access to the resources of other areas.

The Besant Culture, whose periodic occupancy spanned nearly a thousand years from around 34 A.D., was one of the main cultures of the Mortlach site. These people with their darts and corral-building knowledge were masters of the pound hunting technique. At Besant they left behind evidence of a post-in-ground dwelling, the first "house" of this kind to be found in Saskatchewan. Nomads who followed the migratory bison were not known to construct stationary shelters but resorted to the hide-covered conical teepee which could be moved from camp site to camp site.

There were more cultures: The Sandy Creek people around 445 B.C. and the Pelican Lake Culture at 800 B.C., before archaeologists reached the earliest cultural level at the site i.e. the Thunder Creek Culture which rests upon the clay of the valley floor. Carbon dating gave an age of about 3400 years, which places the finds in the 14th century B.C.. An historian pointed out: "In the east the Phoenician alphabet had just been invented; Agamemnon was beninning the siege of Troy: and somtime later Moses would lead the Israelites out of Egypt."

May 31, 2016 | Village Office