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Unopened roasting pit from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump forms new museum display

Archeologist Bob Dawe of the Royal Alberta Museum and Darren Tanke, a senior technician with the Royal Tyrell Museum with the roasting pit.

Archeologist Bob Dawe of the Royal Alberta Museum and Darren Tanke, a senior technician with the Royal Tyrell Museum with the roasting pit.

The excavation site at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

The excavation site at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

A crane was used to load the roasting pit, encased in plaster, burlap and foil, onto a truck for transport to the Royal Alberta Museum.

A crane was used to load the roasting pit, encased in plaster, burlap and foil, onto a truck for transport to the Royal Alberta Museum.

The end of a successful hunt thousands of years ago was cause for celebration by the Blackfoot people at the base of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
As people laboured to process the meat, children laughed and played and the women prepared a feast.
For one family 1,600 years ago, dinner was interrupted.
Archeologists last week excavated an unopened roasting pit that will be displayed in the new aboriginal gallery at the Royal Alberta Museum at Edmonton.
“We’ve never found anything like this before,” lead archeologist Bob Dawe said. “We’ve found other roasting pits, but never with everything left in place.”
“It’s going to be fun to open this thing up and see what was for dinner 1,600 years ago.”
Dawe speculated it could have been a prairie fire or blizzard that disrupted the peoples’ dinner plans.
“We’ll never know the answer,” Dawe said. “It’s one of those little mysteries that will plague us forever.”
Dawe found the roasting pit in 1990 at the tail end of a four-year excavation.
“I realized it was a roasting pit, and that it was intact,” Dawe said. “I thought I would come back — some day — and pull it for a museum display.”
“Some day” turned out to be 26 years later.
“I didn’t really know what I had at first,” Dawe said. “It’s not uncommon to find bones when you’re digging down. It is unusual to find them when they are articulated, that is, in their anatomical positioning when they haven’t been removed from the other bones.”
The archeologists found a dog paw and a bison leg bone before they knew they were on top of the roasting pit.
As Dawe dug down he found the roasting pit and realized that because the bones were not taken apart, no one had eaten the food.
“We thought that might make a good museum display some day,” Dawe said. “This was our first opportunity, 26 years later.”
After Blackfoot elder Leo Pard conducted a blessing ceremony at the outset of the excavation, a crew of about 50 people set about excavating the roasting pit, uncovering knives and projectile points along the way.
“This thing hasn’t seen the light of day since 1,600 years ago,” Dawe said. “Nobody has seen the contents of this meal that was prepared for a delicious feast. For some reason the people never came back and opened it up.”
“We don’t really know what exactly is in there. It hasn’t been fully excavated yet,” Dawe said. “As soon as we knew what we had and started to uncover it, we covered it back over and protected it. We know that inside are probably the remains of a bison calf, the remains of a dog-like animal — probably as much wolf as dog, also three great big marrow bones.”
“It would have been a delicious meal,” Dawe said. “We don’t know what interrupted the people that they wouldn’t come back. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Dawe said the excavation crossed 1,600 years of history to reach the roasting pit, which is located in the processing area of the buffalo jump, where animals were brought following the hunt.
“This is a classic example of an earth oven,” Dawe said. “This is a common thing that is found all over the world.”
Dawe compared the earth oven or roasting pit used by the Plains people thousands of years ago to the modern luau in Hawaii.
“The idea is you dig a pit, line it with rock, and build a hot fire and let it burn down to coals,” Dawe explained. “Typically they would put down a layer of vegetation like willows here, put the food on top of the willows, another layer of willows, an insulating layer of earth, and then they would build a hot fire on top.”
“They would let it cook overnight and the heat from the upper fire would bring the heat from the coals through the animal, and in the morning it would be fall-off-the-bone tender — just delicious.”
The roasting pit excavated at Head-Smashed-In has big sandstone slabs at the bottom, the bones from the animal, the insulating layer of earth, and the stain from the fire.
“We know that they never came back and opened it,” Dawe said. “It’s completely untouched from 1,600 years ago. Cool, huh? What are the chances of that happening?”
The roasting pit was encased in plaster, burlap and foil for transport to the Royal Alberta Museum, where it will be opened for display.
The work at the new Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton will be slow and painstaking.
“We’re basically going to be excavating it with toothpicks and a light vacuum cleaner,” Dawe explained. “Preserving everything as we go.
The bones will be treated to help preserve them. The meat is long gone.
“We don’t know what else could be in there,” Dawe said. “There could be something else. That alone, is very interesting from our perspective.”
Once the roasting pit is excavated, it will be put on permanent display in the new aboriginal gallery scheduled to open at the end of 2017 at the Royal Alberta Museum.
The excavation and preparation of the plaster jacket around the roasting pit was a joint operation between the Royal Alberta Museum and the Royal Tyrrel Museum.
It is believed to be the first collaboration of its kind in Canada to preserve an archeological specimen.
Dawe didn’t rule out the roasting pit one day returning to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
“Ultimately I could see it coming back if the building is suited for it,” Dawe said. “Right now, Head-Smashed-In is an interpretive centre. It doesn’t have the environmental controls that you need to preserve museum objects. It was never intended to be built that way. It was intended to be an interpretive centre and showcase the site, not the artifacts.”
Putting the roasting pit on display is another first in museum circles.
“It’s a one of a kind thing,” Dawe said. “It’s a unique object and I think it will showcase the Blackfoot culture very well up in Edmonton, and give people the opportunity to get a little more insight into the daily activities and bring us a little closer to the humanity of the people here. Sometimes were forget these are people and they’re out here trying to make a living, and their concerns are to eat and take care of their family, just like ours are. Unfortunately they didn’t capitalize on this opportunity.”

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