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Centuries-old artifact comes home to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Fort Macleod resident John Viens and archeologist Jack Brink unveiled the framed atlatl dart Saturday at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

Fort Macleod resident John Viens and archeologist Jack Brink unveiled the framed atlatl dart Saturday at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

The atlatl dart comes from the Mummy Cave Complex era and is believed to have been made more than 5,000 years ago.

The atlatl dart comes from the Mummy Cave Complex era and is believed to have been made more than 5,000 years ago.

John Viens recalled Saturday how a special artifact strengthened his connection to the past.
Viens donated an atlatl dart he found a half century ago at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump for permanent display at the museum.
“When I held that point in my hand I always thought to myself somebody 5,000 years ago was doing exactly what I was doing by holding it,” Viens said. “That somebody was a very skilled craftsperson . . . it’s a very beautiful point.”
The framed point, which dates back about 5,000 years, was unveiled during an Alberta Arts Day celebration at the interpretive centre.
Viens said it took a while but he finally got to the point where he could take it from his collection back to the place where he found it.
“I never considered myself to be the owner of the point,” Viens said. “I felt I was more of a custodian.”
Archeologist Jack Brink has had a 30-year relationship with Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, having begun his work there before the interpretive centre was built.
“I’m pretty familiar with the artifacts that have been found at Head-Smashed-In and the stories that they tell us about the ancient people who used this site,” Brink said.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump was first used 5,780 years ago and is the oldest discovered site on the plains.
“That is really one of the most significant things about Head-Smashed-In,” Brink said of the site’s age.
Brink would spend about four months of the year each summer excavating the buffalo jump.
Brink recalled how he got to know John and Donna Viens, long-time residents of Fort Macleod.
“They were some of the most hospitable people we had the good fortune to run into,” Brink said.
Viens said Brink and another archeologist, Bob Goth, are good friends of the buffalo jump.
“They have almost a mad passion for what they do, and they do it very, very well,” Viens said.
As their relationship strengthened, John Viens showed the archeologist and his team some of the pieces he had collected over the years.
“Over the years we got to see more of John’s collection and there was one particular artifact that really stood out,” Brink said. “It was a very special piece.”
That piece was an atlatl dart point.
Plains people used the atlatl — a throwing stick — to hurl a long, spear-like arrow with a sharp point, or dart, on the end.
The atlatl was a powerful and accurate hunting tool prior to bows and arrows.
Brink immediately recognized the significance of the point when it was first shown to him by Viens.
“It was not only exquisitely made, it was also from that time period when the jump was first being used — somewhere around 5,000 years ago,” Brink said.
Although it is impossible to accurately date the point, it’s style matches the style of points used by the plains people about 5,000 years ago.
“I knew, stylistically, this was a very old tool,” Brink said.
Brink recognized that the point is representative of the Mummy Cave Complex era in archaeology. The name comes from the Mummy Cave site in Wyoming.
“It’s a style that dates about 5,000 years old,” Brink said. “It could be as old as 6,000, it could be as young as 4,000, but my feeling on this particular specimen is probably 5,000 years old.”
The archeologists knew how important the point was in terms of significance to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and encouraged Viens to consider donating it to the museum.
Viens recalled how he came to the buffalo jump when he was 17 or 18 years old, long before it was developed into an interpretive centre.
Viens found the point near a spring at the site in the 1960s, long before passage of the Historical Resources Act.
The point, which has a white face, stood out clearly on the black dirt.
“When I found it I think I jumped about three feet in the air,” Viens said. “It was an exciting day.”
The point became the symbol for the Friends of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, of which Viens was a director.
“This site is nothing but magnificent,” Viens said of Head-Smashed-In. “It truly is a marvellous place.”

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