It started out as a typical day for Charles Gowen, a heavy-equipment operator at the Saskatoon landfill. It was his job to scrape away dirt from a borrow pit and layer it over the trash.
But on Sept. 1, 1977, when his grader had dug down about a metre, Gowen noticed that the colour of the soil was much darker, not its normal light sandy brown. Stopping to take a closer look, he found bone fragments and other organic material.
That’s when the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Saskatchewan was called.
Dr. Ernie Walker, then a graduate student, was one of the people sent to investigate. He would end up incorporating the findings into his doctoral studies on early plains people.
Gowen had uncovered an ancient site — that much appeared certain from the depth at which the artifacts were found. But how much of the site, Walker wondered, had been removed or scattered by the heavy equipment? Was it confined to the immediate area? And did it represent past occupation by one or more cultural groups?
The city’s engineering department stopped work in the area for several weeks so that formal excavation could proceed. But it was still a salvage operation. Although city officials tried to be as accommodating as possible, the landfill could not be shut down indefinitely.
Walker coordinated the digging of a series of test pits to determine the extent of the site. Artifacts unearthed in the undisturbed portion of the landfill were found between two “sterile” layers of soil. In other words, there was no mixing of cultural materials from different periods, but a single “cultural assemblage.”
What was most intriguing, though, was the age of the artifacts. Radiocarbon dating determined that the items were 6,000 years old.
Charles Gowen did not know it at the time, but his accidental find was about to turn archaeological thinking on its head.
Around 7,500 to 5,000 years ago, present-day western Canada was in the grip of the Hypsithermal, a period when the climate was decidedly warmer and drier.
The archaeological community initially believed that the Hypsithermal forced plains people to vacate the western interior for several centuries. This “cultural hiatus” theory, as it was called, seemed to be supported by the lack of archaeological deposits from the period, suggesting that the extremely arid conditions had effectively led to the forced abandonment of the northern plains by both humans and bison.
The Gowen site, named for its discoverer, suggested a different scenario.
Here, along an ancient sandy shelf on the South Saskatchewan River, Walker and other archaeologists uncovered a multi-purpose camp site, small in size and occupied for only a short duration, probably from late summer to early fall. The range of artifacts included chipped stone and bone tools, fire-cracked rocks, and projectile points (used on spears). Most of the faunal remains were bison; the bones had been split open to get at the marrow and grease.
It would appear, then, that there was no Biblical-like exodus from the northern plains during the Hypsithermal. Early hunter-gatherer societies persisted in hunting the thinning bison herds from small temporary camps, especially along major waterways, such as the Saskatchewan.
The Saskatoon part of the story does not end there, though. In 1980, Gowen made another discovery with his grader, this one about seventy metres from the first find. Gowen 2, as it became known, was a bison processing site from the same period. The stratigraphy of the two landfill locations were correlated and found to be a match.
Then, in the early 1990s, a man was digging a full-size basement for his mother’s house on Avenue M South when he found bison bones sticking out of the sandy soil. The Norby find led Walker to excavate several backyards along the street with the help of students from King George school. He’s convinced it’s no coincidence that the location is only about one kilometre north of the Gowen sites.
Nor is he finished. Walker notes that Holiday Park golf course sits on the same sandy terrace as the Gowen discoveries. And he’s just itching to find out what lies beneath the soil there. Maybe he needs to borrow Gowen’s grader.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Excavating the Gowen 1 Site at the Saskatoon Landfill, fall 1977.
Photo by: Ernie Walker
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers.