So much of what we do in archaeology, as in life generally, is determined by chance. Certainly, we gather data, form hypotheses, and create research programs in an attempt to support or refute these ideas; in short, we are doing science. But the details we actually unearth are unforeseen, dependant upon which square meter of earth we choose to excavate. We can only hope we have chosen the one that will best address our questions. When we do manage to wrest a clue from the soil, we feel unaccountably lucky, as though some magic guided our choices.
This spring the Glenbow Town and Quarry Project of the Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre focussed on locating the foundation of the bunkhouse, residence of the single men who worked at the quarry. Reputed to be 80 feet long and two-stories high, it was the largest residential building at Glenbow, but has been the hardest for us to pin down. Apparently, the men slept in 90 beds on the upper level, while cooking and eating was done on the main floor. We know where the building should be, based on historical accounts, landform shapes and vegetation patterns. In 2015, we even turned up a bedspring in a shovel test in the area. This season we set out to find the bunkhouse remains.
We began by laying out transects in an attempt to intersect the outline of the bunkhouse. Then we put narrow units (50cm X 100cm) along these transects and started digging. On our opening day, our first volunteer uncovered a fork with only a few scrapes of her trowel! We knew we were on the right track. We could explain this utensil as a remnant of the activities on the main floor of the bunkhouse, however, it really is only anonymous domestic debris: an indication of someone eating. (The bedspring is similarly a remnant of a bed, not necessarily a bed in the bunkhouse.) Nevertheless, we took it as a good omen.
Through the weeks of digging, an actual foundation continued to elude us. We began to wonder if the base of this large structure had a different form than the foundation of the smaller residence next door, which we excavated in 2015. Perhaps the bunkhouse foundation was not made of river cobbles at all. It could have been supported on beams laid across the large sandstone boulders evident in the area. If so, the foundation would be virtually invisible. Or, the beam supports could have been brick masonry or blocks of wood that were constructed at intervals across the site, in which case, our transects may have missed them completely.
We struggled along, searching for the foundation, uncovering clues to the past activity at the site. Eventually, we came across a scatter of broken bricks, interspersed with bent rectangles of metal, which were pierced by small nails — evidence for a toppled chimney and the flashing that had sealed its exit through the roof. Likely, when the bunkhouse was salvaged for wood, the chimney was pushed or fell into the building depression. So, we were digging inside the bunkhouse, perhaps in a cellar pit or crawl space below the building floor.
Various types of artifacts were jumbled together with the bricks. One day, I discovered a metal doorknob with the pin that connects to the knob on the other side of a door. I imagined I was close to the building entrance and called it my “door to the past.” In response, a volunteer suggested I just go through, snap a photo of the bunkhouse and be done with it! Soon, two more of the same kind of knob turned up — clearly, we had at least two doors. This suggested internal rooms, not the edge of the building at all. I was still trapped in the cellar.
Ironically, this spring I realized I already had a photo of the bunkhouse. Two circumstances helped me recognized this. Firstly, I was regularly viewing the landscape from the same perspective as that particular historic photograph. Secondly, as I was doing so, I spotted my assistant’s car, parked near the excavation. It acted as a shiny reference point in the distance that allowed me to approximate the location of the building in the background of the photo. The very first photograph I was given by a descendant of a Glenbow resident shows a building of the right size and orientation in the right place to be the bunkhouse. Unfortunately, that portion of the aged, faded image is blurred, so we can’t see it in detail. It is tantalizing, though.
In a sense, this spring we did open the door to the past when we began to dig for the bunkhouse remains. We may not have discovered conclusive evidence for the exact outline of the building, or how it was constructed, but we know more about the structure and its location than we did before. At least we have made a start. We also experienced the magic of archaeological discovery at Glenbow — the dawning realization that, against the odds, a few puzzle pieces have just fallen into place.
Read about our summer adventures on our project blog.
This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.