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Archeological site near Rocanville offers exciting glimpse into life of early people in Sask

by Kara Kinna - The World-Spectator

Jake (left) and Brenda (right) Sarazin searching for freshly exposed artifacts at the Rocanville Folsom site, looking down into the Qu’Appelle Valley bottom.

Jake (left) and Brenda (right) Sarazin searching for freshly exposed artifacts at the Rocanville Folsom site, looking down into the Qu’Appelle Valley bottom.

An archeological site in the Qu’Appelle Valley near Rocanville has yielded some important finds that date back to the end of the last ice age, and the discovery of the site and the meticulous recording of the artifacts there is all thanks to the work of some local collectors.

The site was discovered by Jake and Brenda Sarazin and their son James of Rocanville in 2000. Upon discovery, Jake and Brenda began collecting the artifacts found there and contacted the Saskatchewan Heritage Conservation Branch about their finds.

Their collection of artifacts became known as the Sarazin Collection. The collection was donated to the Rocanville Museum who in turned have loaned it to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for study.

Phillippa and Tom Richards are two of the archeologists who have been studying the collection, and they are excited about some of the artifacts that have been found in the collection.

How it was found
“Jake and Brenda Sarazin were both long-time residents of Rocanville, and in 2000 Jake and his son were out looking for some sand for a pen for their turkey chicks. And they went onto this property and when they were looking at the ground they saw artifacts on the ground, and there were quite a few—arrowheads and spearheads and other stone artifacts,” says Tom Richards, Senior Archaeologist with the Heritage Conservation Branch.

“They got their sand and went back home and talked to Brenda about it and Brenda was very excited, and Brenda and Jake went out there and started collecting.

“They put in for a permit from the Heritage Branch—they did the right thing—and so we brought the records of the permits that Brenda and Jake took out in 2000, 2001, 2002, up to about 2005. They went there once or twice a year after it had been cultivated or after there was a rainstorm or a very windy day that might have exposed more artifacts, and they would go back to the location and collect them.”

What became apparent after some analysis of the site was that some of the artifacts dated to the Folsom period, a time around 11,000 years ago marked by the retreat of the glaciers on the prairies and by the Folsom people who hunted the Bison antiquus, an extinct species of bison that is larger than today’s bison.

“But it wasn’t immediately that they found the Folsom material,” says Richards. “As we’ve analyzed the collection, we can see that there are spearheads and arrowheads from lots of periods, not just the really early materials.

“And once they did start to recognize that they found that particular Folsom point (a type of spearhead from the Folsom period), then they were very excited that they had some very early material.”

The Folsom complex
“It’s an archeological complex that dates between about 11,500 and 12,750 years ago,” says Richards. “So around 10,000 BC. These were not the earliest First Nations people in North America. But they were an early group. They were big game hunters and they hunted the extinct bison Bison antiquus, which was 25 to 30 per cent larger than the modern day bison.

“And they made these very distinctive spearheads, very well made, and they were very thin and they had this big flake taken off each side from the base to thin them. That’s called a fluting flake, so they are called fluted points, and they have a very distinct form, and you can recognize them right away.

“In the 1920s, the Folsom complex was named after the original find site, which was in Folsom New Mexico, and it was the first time that human artifacts were found in association with extinct animals in North America. So they found those bison bones together with the Folsom points, and that proves that First Nations people were here way back, at least at the end of the last ice age. Prior to that, there was a lot of argument that First Nations people had only been in North America for a few thousand years. This really knocked it back to

about 10,000 or 12,000 years right away.

“People could have been living here 14,000 or 15,000 years ago in the southern part of Saskatchewan. The ice had melted and vegetation was growing again. Animals were moving into the area. There were people living south of the ice so they could have easily moved up.”

About the artifacts
Richards says the artifacts found at the site span a few different periods and are consistent with tool making and camping at that location.

“There were quite a few different periods. There are other periods that follow Folsom. They would have different spearheads and also you get the introduction of pottery much later on, and then arrowheads, not just spearheads, and they are quite different forms and they are made differently, of different raw materials, different flaking, different sizes. And there are a lot of flakes, chipping debris from when you are making artifacts, and other scrapers and things that are not easily identifiable as belonging to one particular period.

“There were stone scrapers—which are mostly used for scraping hides—cutting tools, little drills. There was also some animal bone, a few bits and fragments of animal teeth as well.

“We went through all the material that Brenda and Jake had collected. Brenda unfortunately passed away a few years ago, and then Jake donated the collection to the Rocanville museum.

The Folsom Ultrathin Biface on heat-treated Swan River chert from the Sarazin Collection.

The Folsom Ultrathin Biface on heat-treated Swan River chert from the Sarazin Collection.

An exciting find
One of the most exciting discoveries at the site was something called a Folsom Ultrathin Biface, a type of knife made of heat treated material that was very thin and took a lot of skill to create.

“It’s a very rare type or artifact,” says Richards. “I had hardly heard of them before we found this one in the collection and identified it for what it was.

“It’s 13.5 centimeters long, but it’s between 4-6 centimeters thick. It’s very thin and very well flaked. And those only occur in the Folsom period as well.

“That was a really major find by Jake and Brenda. They found it in three pieces on three separate times that they went out to the site collecting. It was exposed and then they went out another time and another part was exposed, and then they glued it together.

“That’s a major find. There are not that many of them known, period. They are found at some Folsom sites. They are extremely well made, they are very thin and they hadn’t really even been recognized until about 20 years ago as a distinct artifact. As far as I know this is the first one that has been documented in Saskatchewan. There are probably other ones out there in collections and small museums, I just haven’t seen anything written up about them and I haven’t seen any in museums.”
Richards says many of the artifacts found at the site near Rocanvile are made of a material found in North Dakota, but the Folsom Ultra Thin Biface was made of a local material.

“They use a lot of Knife River flint. The Knife River flint quarry is in North Dakota about 340 km in a straight line,” says Richards. “There are several ultra thin bifaces made out of knife river flint that have been found in the U.S. That material was widely used in the folsom period. At that time people tended to focus on one or two high quality raw materials even if they had to go a great distance to get them.

“They would hit that location once or twice a year and would have this material with them before they camped in the Qu’appelle valley north of Rocanville.

“But the Ultra Thin Biface (found at Rocanville) is not made of that material. It is made of a local raw material that we call swan river chert. And it doesn’t flake as well as knife river flint. But this material was heat treated to make it flake better.

“They have to be heated to quite a high temperature and it alters the microcrystalline structure of the artifact to make it flake more readily.

“It’s really big and really thin and it takes incredible skill to flake something like that without breaking it.”

Few Folsom sites in Sask
“There is a possibility that there could be intact deposits at that site,” says Richards. “There are other areas nearby that are not as heavily wind eroded as the area where this material was found, that are close but look like they are not as disturbed. If the landowners agree, we wouldn’t mind going in there and doing some testing just to see if there are any deposits there.

“That’s significant because we have no excavated Folsom sites in Saskatchewan. They are all like this, surface finds where you find Folsom projectile points on the grown in a blown out area usually.

“That can tell you something. It tells you that those people were there and you know from the style of the spearhead that it was around 12,000 years ago, plus or minus 500 years, but it doesn’t tell you much more than that. What you really want is to be able to find an intact deposit where you will have the stone artifacts and maybe fireplaces, animal bones, or perhaps the remains of structures that will really let you delve into the details of what people were doing at that time.”

There are only around 40 documented Folsom find points around Saskatchewan,” says Richards.

“They are very rare and nobody has found an intact deposit yet of this age,” he says. “This folsom material is least 1,000 years if not 1,500 years older than the next oldest site that has been excavated.

“There are some sites that date to 10,600 but nothing earlier than that that we know that belongs to any particular complex.

“They are very hard to find. There are not a lot of them. The human population would have been relatively low compared to later period, so you have that combination of the sites being there for a long time, so they could have been eroded away or deeply buried, and not that many of them to begin with.”

Site was a camping area
So what were people doing on this site around 11,000 years ago, and over the years following?

“I think it was a major camping area that people were at for quite a while, and then they would be retooling,” says Richards. “You would have broken damaged spearheads, so you would be taking those out of the hafts and be making new ones and retooling, doing a lot of camping activities. There are quite a lot of scrapers there.

“There are spurred end scrapers. They have a little spur on the corner. That is typical of this really early period. It’s not conclusive that it’s that early, but many of the scrapers from the early period are like that. They have that form to them, and so there was a lot of hide scraping going on as well at that site.”

Site and artifacts were treated with care
Richards says one of the best things about the site near Rocanville is how Brenda and Jake treated it with so much care as they collected the artifacts.

“We are looking at this like it’s an archeological site, we’re looking at the whole assemblage, particularly the items that can be assigned to the Folsom period and then we will talk about what we think people were doing on the site on that basis. The reason we can do that is because Brenda and Jake maintained very good records and they kept all the material from this site separate from the one or two other sites that they looked at. A lot of collectors would have just picked up a whole bunch of arrowheads and spearheads and they mount them in frames and put them up on the wall and they aren’t sure where they come from and you lose the context, and the rest of the material that was with them might be in another box. Here you have a whole collection that was kept together and curated very well.

“So that makes it very important. And if we can find some intact deposits it will be extremely important.”

The collection is on loan to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and Richards and his wife Phillippa have been studying it and have written an article in Saskatchewan Archaeology Quarterly about the site.

“Phillippa Richards, my wife, who co-wrote that article, and I have been studying the material at the museum since we’ve had it on loan for about a year. And in a few month’s time we will be finished and will take them back to Rocanville and do a talk at the museum there about our findings,” says Richards.

So what’s next for the site near Rocanville?

“We are going to finish our analysis and write up that paper on the analytical results,” says Richards “We are also going to see if we can get permission to do some small scale test excavations on the property and see if we can determine if there are any intact deposits there. That would be the next step.”

Richards thankful
Richards says he’s grateful to the Rocanville Museum for lending them the collections, and to Brenda and Jake Sarazin for their work.

“We are just really grateful to Jamie MacLeod, the president of the Rocanville and District Museum, for arranging for us to have the loan of this material and for her support of our research. And particularly Jake Sarazin and James Sarazin for their support for our research.

He said that Brenda was so interested in this site and you can tell from her documentation of their finds and their visits to the site that she was studying archeology. She had wanted to become and archeologist.

“Jake was saying that they are carrying on that work and they were happy to. She recognized the significance of the site, and we do too, and we are really pleased to carry on that work and hopefully something will come of it. I think there already is something coming out of it with our research. This is a very significant site.

“If Brenda and Jake didn’t curate it and document it as well as they did, there wouldn’t be much for us to do. It would have been another Folsom find spot where ‘yep, they were there’ and that’s about all you could say.

“To further this research we think this sort of information should get out. We are just trying to find that intact Folsom or Clovis site so we can extend our knowledge of the pre-history of Saskatchewan a few thousand more years.