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Rewriting Alberta’s past


Undergrad uncovers new aspects of 18th century life in Cluny.

By Caitlyn Spencer

Six years into her career as a photojournalist, Colleen Hughes wasn’t expecting her visit to an archaeological dig in Cluny in the summer of 2009 to result in a return to school. “I always wanted to photograph a dig,” she explains, “and Dr [Dale] Walde said, ‘Sure, come on out!’”

While there, Walde’s enthusiasm for his work astonished Hughes. “They found this beautiful piece of pottery, and he was so excited,” she recalls. “He’s still so passionate about it, and he’s been doing this for something like 30 years.”

Shortly after, Hughes registered for a BA in Archaeology, and this summer she returned to Cluny to research the sources of Cretaceous marine fossils, strangely shaped rocks, stone slabs and rare fused shale found in the village.

“The site has so many mysteries, and then we find these ammonite fossils,” Hughes says. “There are so many different things here that don’t connect to what we know about the Blackfoot. It’s a big mystery: who are these people? There’s not another known site like it on the Canadian Western plains.”

The fossils contradict one of the understandings of the inhabitants of the Cluny site as an aggressive group, a conclusion drawn from the fortifications surrounding the village. “Where the site is located, we shouldn’t be seeing these fossils naturally,” Hughes explains. “What that tells us is that they went somewhere to get them, perhaps from a source nearby. Either they were able to get them from a site nearby peacefully, or they got them through trade.”

Hughes undertook her research upon receiving a Program for Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) grant. “The fieldwork is so fun,” she says. “You get to meet people and go exploring, and it’s so satisfying when you find what you’ve been looking for. But I like the writing, too. I had to do an extensive literature review to grasp the geological and palaeontological terms, but I like the research.”

Although the results of Hughes’s research are still being written up, she believes a marine fossil-bearing outcrop on the eastern side of the reserve is a likely source of the mysterious fossils. Members of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, in which the Cluny site is located, were instrumental in helping her explore possible sources.

To find out how you can apply for a PURE grant, click here. To learn more about the Department of Archaeology’s field opportunities, click here.