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4 June 2006
Bison slaughter site offers clues to prehistoric past

Buried deep below a shallow southeastern Alberta valley (Canada) lies evidence of a slaughter that took place 2,500 years ago. There a precious archeological dig is teaching University of Lethbridge researchers what one of Alberta's few known bison kill sites can tell us. "From what we can tell, the hunters followed the bison into this valley, scattered around the dune and ambushed them," professor Shawn Bubel says, while her team of 14 students meticulously picks away at the dirt. "They slaughtered about 10, maybe 15, cut them open, ripped them apart for food, chopped their legs off, ripped the ribs open to get the meat, tore the hide off and the bones fell all around here. Then they took what they could carry and continued on to their camp, which is probably about four kilometres that way, to the Oldman River," says Ms. Bubel.
     Over the past three years, researchers have spent a total of five months excavating the site. The bone bed at this relatively secret location near Purple Springs, about 220 kilometres southeast of Calgary, was first discovered by professionals in 2003, when Ms. Bubel, president of the Archaeological Society of Alberta, learned that a local man was desecrating the area. The man dug up bones on his own, and later recruited his children to help, Ms. Bubel says. Angry archeologists nicknamed him the "pot hunter." He and his family were spotted carting shovels and pick axes into the area, unearthing artifacts and removing them without a permit - an act that has been illegal in Alberta since 1973.
     Once RCMP and Alberta government officials were notified, Ms. Bubel was sent to the site to investigate the extent of damage and to map the land. On that first visit, she discovered evidence that assured her the area was potentially a bison kill site. The first dig began in May 2004. By September, radio carbon dating determined the artifacts were 2,500 years old. On May 1 of this year, after a hiatus from the dig in 2005, a University of Lethbridge crew returned to the site. It's a finicky field study, the students say, although rewarding. At this dig, seven teams of two work in roped-off sections, one-metre square, for up to 10 hours a day.
     So far, the researchers have found nearly 7,000 clues left behind by the hunters. Ms. Bubel says less than 5% of the site has been studied. But the work doesn't end with the excavation. Indeed, it's just beginning. Ms. Bubel estimates it will be at least four years before the entire collection will reach its final destination at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton. If another permit is granted, the dig will resume next May.
     The professor and her students feel uneasy about leaving the site for another year, given the number of people who know where the dig is but don't appreciate the historic value. "We care about this place. We dig with precision, and painstakingly preserve every artifact," Ms. Bubel says. "But looters come in here with shovels and disturb the place. It's sickening."

Source: CanWest news Service, National Post (3 June 2006)

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