With photography by

(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.)

CHRISTIE GREKUL HAS A CONFESSION.

I have trowel issues,” she says, carefully scraping away a few centimetres of Alberta Prairie dirt from around an ancient hunk of bison vertebrae. “Can we trade?”

Not wanting to get between an archeologist and her favourite trowel, I hand the tool over and stand up at the edge of a onemetre- square excavation pit neatly demarcated with string, my knees and back moaning a thank you.

Grekul loosens some more earth, gently sweeps it aside and into a bucket, then whisks a small paintbrush over the piece of bone, eyes peeled for some clue from millennia ago — a nick from a projectile point, perhaps, or a ragged cut mark made by a stone blade.

As senior archeologist at the Bodo Archaeological Centre & Dig Site, Grekul has done this many thousands of times before. And although she’s made progress, she also knows that unearthing even one-quarter of one per cent of this approximately seven-square-kilometre patch of east central Alberta, where First Nations people lived and hunted 5,000 years ago or more, will never be accomplished in her lifetime. Still, it’s a job worth pursuing. “The work you put in adds up to such a small amount of information, but it all builds to a more complex and complete story,” she says. “Not just of First Nations history, but of our history, the history of Canada and Alberta.”

Sore knees and back be damned, I think, bending back down. I want a hand in telling that tale.

THE FIRST PERSON TO DISCOVER BONES AT BODO, a community of fewer than 30 people about 320 kilometres southeast of Edmonton, wasn’t a professional or amateur archeologist, but a backhoe operator, who unearthed a bison skull in 1995 while digging a trench for a pipeline.

Little did anyone know then, but Bodo would go on to become one of the largest pre-contact archeological sites in Western Canada. Long before Europeans arrived with their guns and steel, the Cree, Blackfoot and Assiniboine were here with their finely chiselled obsidian arrowheads and quartzite axe blades, hunting the bison that roamed the region’s grassland and rolling, poplar-studded parkland. And they left behind plenty of evidence of their activity. Artifacts — those arrowheads and axe blades, plus butchered bones, scrapers, pottery fragments and more — are buried across the site, in some cases mere centimetres under your feet.

What makes Bodo different from many archeological sites across the country, however, is that you can come here and actually dig — work that’s usually reserved for student or professional archeologists (the Bodo Archaeological Society, the non-profit that runs the multi-day dig programs, also offers drop-in, guided and school tours).

That’s a big part of the appeal for Lis Bianco and her younger sister, Rose Bennett, who are both from British Columbia and on their third summer dig at Bodo. They spent the previous two summers here with their oldest sister, Daphne Samuel, who wasn’t able to make it this time. “There’s nothing like this in Alberta,” says Bianco, whose reddish-brown bob matches the colour of her arms, already tanned from work at the site. “There are lots of digs, but nothing where people like us can come out and learn how to work a site properly under the supervision of an archeologist.”

And when they do unearth an artifact? “It’s so exciting,” says Bennett. “Finding something that someone touched all those years ago is a link to the past. The fascination comes from that human connection.”

Under Grekul’s watchful but relaxed eye, the siblings have not only helped reveal a small part of Bodo’s story but forged their own deeply personal connection to a place they’ve come to love. In Bennett’s case, that link is on her left shoulder, in the form of a tattoo of a bison and three snowflakes — one for each sister.

IT MIGHT SOUND MONOTONOUS, but the rhythm of an archeological dig at Bodo — scrape, sweep, scoop, screen, repeat — is oddly soothing. In fact, it’s easy to get lost in a square-metre patch of earth, thinking about who or what was here before you. Having Grekul provide some historical and geographical context helps.

As I brush away dirt from a piece of buffalo tooth enamel and what looks like obsidian but ends up being a shard of brown beer-bottle glass (the mundane turns up here as frequently as the ancient), she explains how Bodo was an oasis in the grassland. Its hills provided protection from the cold in fall and winter, while the sustenance offered by its trees and water drew the bison. The people followed, hunting the animals and butchering them where they fell.

Sometimes that would occur at the muddy edges of waterholes, where the animals would either be slowed down by the muck or become stuck in it. “The people would have been up there,” says Grekul, pointing at some high dunes in the distance. “They would have been able to watch over the bison and then basically ambush them.” She waves at the surrounding land, a series of gently sloping, crescent-shaped sandy hills. “They also used the natural shape of the land as a bison pound. They knew the animals would stay together as a herd, and would find it difficult to run uphill on a sandy surface.” Once the bison were effectively corralled by topography and terrain, arrows and other projectiles would rain down, and the really difficult job would begin.

“I can see how hard it was,” says Bianco later that afternoon, after a tasty meal of bison stew and bannock, washed down with cold cans of locally produced Ribstone Creek lager. “You’ve just killed 100 bison. Imagine the stink and the blood and the flies and the massive amount of work, which you had to do really quickly because the meat would rot.”

Centuries later, the signs of that labour were still evident — not just in the bones, blades and arrowheads that were dug up, but in the very odour of the earth itself. “When the original area was excavated,” says Grekul, “people said it smelled like rotting carcasses, that the ground was almost juicy.”

Welcome to Bodo: where you can touch history and — if you dig in the right place — maybe still smell it, too.
 

Editors’ behind-the-scenes insights through Twitter and Instagram

Canadian Geographic editors share their experiences in Bodo and Edmonton

Video: Digging into the past

Click for video (Photo: Laura Stanley)

From Cree history to bison hunting, archaeological digs reveal the story of the land

Photo: The bison rubbing stone near the Bodo site. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

Aye, There’s the Rub

Rubbing stones used by bison

Not all the ancient history of the era when bison roamed across the region is buried. Not completely, anyway.

Bison rubbing stones, like the one that sits just inside the fenceline of a farmer’s field about three kilometres southeast of Bodo (left), are large rocks (known as erratics) that receding glaciers deposited more than 10,000 years ago. As migrating bison passed, they’d use the rock as a scratching post, rubbing themselves against it to dislodge hair and insects.

Over the centuries, the weight of the animals created a deep, circular groove in the earth around the rock, which, while scarred from the glacier, is also incredibly smooth and, on this warm summer day, hot to the touch. How much bigger did it used to be?

How many of the bison that wore its surface smooth ended up dying three kilometres away? Or right here, where nearby hills offer commanding views and provided yet another ambush opportunity for hunters?

The answers to these questions will never be known. But in a province where today the chances of seeing an animal that once carpeted the Prairies are limited, there’s something magical about Bodo, about standing in a quiet field under a huge sky, closing your eyes and letting your imagination run wild. Just like the bison once did.

Photos:


Sisters Rose Bennett (left) and Lis Bianco excavating. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

Archeologist Christie Grekul points to partially unearthed bison bones at Bodo. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

Tools for excavation. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

A small paintbrush is used to sweep dirt away. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

Sunset over Bodo. (Photo: Laura Stanley)

After a hard day’s dig, nothing’s better than barbecue and locally-brewed Ribstone Creek beer. (Photo: Laura Stanley)