Last month, I described the recent excavations at Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park carried out by the Archaeological Society of Alberta – Calgary Centre. This spring, we focussed on finding the remains of the large bunkhouse constructed for the single men who worked at Glenbow Quarry around 1910. While we did not locate the exact foundation, we did uncover debris that allows us to peek into the past through the window of context. Context ties artifacts and features together to reveal the story of what happened long ago. The thrill of discovering these artifacts can lead to flights of imagination — that magical knowledge that helps us understand the experiences of people we never knew.

As archaeologists excavate, we maintain scientific control. For example, everything we find is measured in relationship to our grid system; we note where each item is in three-dimensional space. Also, we dig down layer by layer, not willy-nilly; thus, we excavate backwards through time — the last item to fall to the ground is the first we remove, and so on.

Recording the physical relationship between artifacts allows us to grasp their significance. The nails we recovered illustrate this nicely. Near the ground surface was a scatter of bent nails. After digging through several centimetres of soil, we found a group of straight nails that were aligned in a particular direction. This revealed the history of our building. The straight nails indicate the construction of the bunkhouse. Perhaps they fell out of someone’s pocket or bag and were lost in the snow or mud. Time passed and soil accumulated. Then, when the bunkhouse was demolished and the wood salvaged, the bent nails were removed from the planks and left where they fell. If we had not dug down in layers and noted the location of everything, we would have only a pile of rusty nails, instead of the life story of the bunkhouse.

I have already described the discovery of a tumbled chimney, which was composed of broken bricks, mortar fragments, and pieces of metal flashing. The association of these various materials allowed us to identify the structure they formerly composed. The bricks themselves illustrate another type of context — the relationship of artifacts to the wider world, outside the specific archaeological site. In this case, the bricks had the letters  A.P.C.Co. stamped into them, indicating the maker: the Alberta Portland Cement Company. This Calgary manufacturer operated from 1906 to 1909. This agrees with the 1909 date of the bunkhouse construction that we have from other historic documents. Also, knowing the source of the materials at our site helps us comprehend the relationship of this site to others of a similar period. We can imagine the bricks being transported from the Calgary factory to the Glenbow construction site.

Sometimes the context of an artifact shows us that we are still missing too many puzzle pieces to fully grasp the artifact’s meaning. One of the most evocative artifacts recovered from among the bricks, was a small ceramic shard. When the excited volunteer handed the white porcelain to me, he thought it was part of a teacup, but when I turned it over, I saw pink bisque. Those of you who recall the saga of our 2015 excavation (see December 2015 — Gifts from Gophers: Another Coincidence Occurs at Glenbow) will recognize the significance of this find. I had been haunted by pink bisque doll fragments in the residence next door to our current dig. Now I had another piece! This time I cradled in my hand not a shattered limb, but an oddly shaped piece with painting on it. I rotated it and the doll winked up at me — I held a fragment of the doll’s face with black eyelashes and portions of brown eyebrows.

It may seem odd to find traces of a little girl (a likely assumption, given the era of the site) in the bunkhouse, however, there is supporting evidence. The 1911 census lists a Glenbow family with 21 single male boarders, the residents of the bunkhouse. The family included a four-year-old girl; perhaps she was the doll’s owner.

The scale of the doll face is similar to the fragments of petite limbs discovered next door. Could it be from the same doll? Or, was there a fashion for diminutive dolls in 1910? If it was from that particular doll, how had the pieces been so widely distributed? Did the children inhabiting the neighbouring houses divide up the broken doll, or were natural forces like burrowing gophers or tromping cattle involved? Clearly, we do not have enough clues to know the full story, yet.

Context is the key to understanding the meaning of the artifacts and features that we uncover in archaeological excavations. Our careful records of the dig provide us with a window through which to view the activities of the past. Sometimes, as in the case of the doll’s face, the window is a bit too dirty and our vision of the past is obscured. This is when the magic of archaeology is most evident. It is easy to visualize nails slipping from a pocket and clinking into a pile, or a chimney crashing to the ground, but there is room for lots of conjecture when you find a doll’s face in the demolition debris of a bunkhouse.

Read about our summer adventures on our project blog.

This article was originally printed in the BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.