Stone artifacts teach human lessons and tell human stories

"I've never seen a site like this in the Yukon; there were flakes coming out every five or 10 minutes," says Yukon College instructor and archeologist Dr. Victoria Castillo.

by Erling Friis-Baastad

“I’ve never seen a site like this in the Yukon; there were flakes coming out every five or 10 minutes,” says Yukon College instructor and archeologist Dr. Victoria Castillo. The site, near the college and on a ridge overlooking McIntyre Creek, seemed to yield up flakes and microblades faster than Castillo’s students could process them.

“They were saying, ‘Oh, no, I found another artifact. I have to fill out another bag,’” she says laughing.

Of course, the complaints weren’t serious. The students were part of the college’s Heritage and Culture Certificate field school and over nine days in June they were getting just what they signed up for – lessons in the ethics, protocols and methods behind archeological excavation.

Castillo would banter back to the mock complaints, “But what are you saying? Try digging for a week and finding nothing!” The instructor, who has also worked on excavations in Latin America and British Columbia, knows she and her students were onto and into a very good thing. Those many lithic (stone) fragments were last touched by human hands thousands of years ago and have much to teach.

“The first week, students don’t know what they’re looking for, but by the end students are picking up artifacts all over the place,” says their instructor.

So why is that particular ridge so co-operative? Why are all those teaching aids so near a college?

People of the distant past were drawn to the same locations that appeal to us today, she says. “This area probably wasn’t covered by trees. You had the ability to see over this ridge into the creek area. It’s a good place to be. Everyone wants to go to the same spot, animals too … a ridge, a little bit hidden and you were sitting there making tools and watching animals go by.”

The ridge has been swept fairly clean by wind over the years and there’s very little dark, organic material decomposing on top of the worked flakes, making them harder to spot.

The flakes are primarily grey chert, though bits of red chert and obsidian have also been found there.

Someone likely carried a core, a chunk of stone, from which they fashioned sharp blades when the need arose, says Castillo. Or perhaps there were many toolmakers over an extended period of time, as there are many flakes at other sites along the creek.

The grey chert found at this site is likely a local material, but the red chert is believed to have originated at a site near Carmacks. The program students travelled to the heritage centre in that community to view samples of tools fashioned from red chert. Obsidian, a sort of black volcanic glass, is much more rare, though a bit was found at the McIntyre site. The students hope it arrived along trade routes from California, says Castillo. That’s possible, but the resource is likely from a deposit somewhere in northern British Columbia.

Obsidian is easily worked into incredibly sharp blades, says the instructor. Possession of the shiny blackish stone would have likely conveyed a certain status on the owners.

Because the obsidian looks and cuts like glass, students had to be very careful. Nocturnal partiers of recent times – as recent as this summer – have littered the excavation area with broken glass, so students had to run fragments past Castillo to assure themselves that a common bit of broken beer bottle, say, was not actually rare obsidian. As well, says the instructor, students have been known to cut their fingers on obsidian flakes, “which can be sharper than metal.”

How old are these flakes and tools? They were found well below the belt of ash left from a devastating volcanic explosion in southeast Alaska about 1,200 years ago. That much is certain. But, fortunately, greater accuracy is possible. Archeologists, such as the Yukon government’s Greg Hare, have managed to date similar microblade styles found elsewhere to within a range of 4,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Microblades, small sharp bits struck from a core, are twice as long as they are wide and no more than 50 mm long. They could be affixed to a shaft – likely wood – which is organic and rarely survives the elements for long. Or at least that was the case until preserved organic artifacts were found in the retreating ice fields of southwest Yukon during the past decade.

Not surprisingly excavating little lithic artifacts is a demanding process. ‘We photograph everything,” says the instructor.

“We map everything. We describe everything. We bring it back to the lab and in the winter try to recreate that site on paper.”

“As an archeologist the ethical thing to do is to take many notes and record everything as best you can,” she says. “I have to be very conscious that everything that I’m recording is not just for my research but for future researchers as well.” And that could mean in a hundred years from now or more, when Castillo and her students are not around to serve as guides.

“We’re not looking for things. We’re looking for the story behind things,” she stresses. “It is not the object itself – it is what the object is about that’s important. Why it’s here. Who put it here. When was it put here. I don’t care so much about the object. I care about the people behind the object.”

As essential and fascinating as it is, the field school is just one part of the rich, intense one-year Heritage and Culture Certificate. Other courses include the History of Yukon First Nations Government, Heritage and Culture Administration, Archives and Collections Management, Preservation of Traditional Knowledge. Language and Culture Preservation and English Composition. Anyone who is eligible to enter the college undergraduate liberal arts program can apply. The courses are university transferable.

For more information on taking part contact the School of Liberal Arts at the college at HCCP@yukoncollege.yk.ca or phone (867) 668-8879.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your_yukon

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