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Edmonton project unearths the city’s history

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by Russell Hixson

Construction on the new Walterdale Bridge in Edmonton is giving archeologists a window into the city's past. Gareth Spicer, principal archeologist at Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management, said the most recent discovery shows how a fort progressed into a city.
Edmonton project unearths the city’s history
Photo: Ryan Eldridge / Turtle Island Cultural Resource Management

"That's how the city started off," he said.

"There would be people camping around it. That is the beginning of that process."

During excavation on the site, a clay pipe bowl, lead shot, trade beads and a broken glass inset trade ring were recovered.

According to Spicer, markings on the pipe bowl and the type of trade ring are not uncommon and have been recovered from Northwest and Hudson's Bay Company sites from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Lakes.

In Alberta, these items have been recorded down river at Fort George and up river at Rocky Mountain House and may date to the early part of the 19th century.

That places it at the very beginning of the fur trade era in Edmonton.

To date these features are the only intact 19th century Fur Trade Period sites in Edmonton to have been recorded outside the area of Fort Edmonton proper.

He explained that it shows a time when the fort was becoming significant enough that people began to camp outside its boundaries to provide goods and services to those inside.

It's just one of three sites marked by archeologists working with the city and contractors on the south side of the new Walterdale Bridge.

According to Spicer, the oldest is a prehistoric period camp site identified in the fall of 2011 and excavated in the summer of 2012.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that it is around 1,500 years old.

It includes a hearth surrounded by dense debris left by its residents, including 3,956 pieces of stone tool making debris, rocks for boiling water and a wide array of bison, rabbit, duck, whitefish and other animal bones.

Inside the hearth, archeologists found carbonized seeds like choke cherry, pin cherry, bunchberry, and kinnikinnick.

Other items were found as the south side of the North Saskatchewan River was prepared for the new alignments of Queen Elizabeth Park and Walterdale Hill Roads.

Surface grading exposed the old surface of the flood plain, which included a pit dating to the early part of the last century.

An aerial photo from 1924 shows several homes near the pit in the old Walterdale neighborhood.

Spicer suggested it was likely a backyard garbage pit.

Various glass bottles were recovered with labeling showing they used to contain common medical treatments like Chamberlain's Cough Remedy, Dr. Eno's Fruit Salt and Bovril. Animal bones, fruit seeds and vegetable seeds were also found in the pit along with a discarded china doll.

All of the items have been turned over to the Royal Alberta Museum where Spicer said they can be preserved and studied. He said the city and the project's contractor, Acconia-Pacer, have been great partners in helping his company preserve Edmonton history.

"It's a huge thing to have amiable partners and they have been great on this project," he said.

The new Walterdale Bridge will replace the old bridge, spanning the North Saskatchewan River.

It will connect the intersection of Queen Elizabeth Park Road and Walterdale Hill on the river's south side to the River Valley Road/Rossdale Road/105 Street intersection on the north side.

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