Bill Waiser

Saskatchewan’s oldest graveyard is ancient

In April 1963, Earl Gray was out walking his land checking whether it was dry enough for seeding. It was a ritual he and countless other Saskatchewan farmers performed every spring.

On a south-facing hillside, where the wind had carved out a depression in the sandy soil, Gray spotted a human skull. He dutifully alerted the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment, and it was subsequently determined that the remains were quite ancient.

Excavations over the next several years revealed that the Gray homestead sat atop a burial ground that had been used for more than 2,000 years, starting around 5,000 years ago, and that it contained the remains of probably more than 500 people.

In many instances, bones from the skeletal remains of several individuals had been bundled and buried together, sometimes on top of other bone bundles. These bones had been collected after the dead had first been exposed to the elements. Skulls were found at one end of the bone bundles.

Only a few complete skeletons were unearthed. These individuals likely died nearby and were interred shortly thereafter. The people in the graveyard had also died young. Few of the remains were from people older than forty years, while more than half of the bones were those of children and infants.

Precious items were often found with children, a clear indication of their special place in these indigenous societies.

Some of the burials included dogs, whose skeletal remains showed distinct signs of stress from hauling loads on travois.

Other grave materials included fire-cracked rocks (from stoneboiling), scrapers, mauls, and hammerstones, and native copper and marine shell items.

Gray had stumbled upon the oldest known cemetery in Saskatchewan. That in itself was significant, but even more so because first peoples often left behind little evidence of their existence. It has either eroded away or not been found because it lies deeply buried.

On the Gray farm, the human remains were at least eighteen inches below the surface. That’s why decades of cultivation had not disturbed the bone bundles.

Describing and understanding the lives of these early people is difficult and open to considerable speculation. In fact, archaeologists have largely come to identify early societies in Western Canada and separate them into distinct complexes, traditions or phases by meticulously studying their projectile points and denoting any modification or innovation.

The remains at the Gray site are from the Oxbow complex – so named because their distinctive spear points, with side-notches, were first recovered in artifact assemblages at Oxbow, Sask. The bow and arrow had not yet been introduced.

The Oxbow people were more numerous than earlier cultures, but they were still a nomadic hunting society subsisting largely on bison.

Like other early societies throughout the world, they had struggled to meet the challenges of the environment, constantly adapting and finding ways to survive and flourish.

They also had their traditions and stories, their spiritual beliefs and practices, their interactions and trade, and their pleasures and their grief.

It is actually something of a disservice to these first Saskatchewan peoples to call them “prehistoric” and describe their timeline as “prehistory,” for it conjures up images of primitive, if not backward people. Nor do these terms help in imagining who they were and how they lived.

One thing is certain, though – it will never be known what they called themselves.

The Gray burial site has been formally recognized by the federal government as a place of national historic significance. The government of Saskatchewan has also declared the site a protected place and owns the land today.

But a bronze plaque has never been erected there. Its location is also not provided in any public documents.

It’s best that way. Those in the cemetery should be allowed to rest in peace – as they had done for thousands of years before Earl Gray made his accidental discovery.

Originally published in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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