The word archeology conjures up images of Egyptian tombs and the buried civilizations of antiquity. It’s a hard act to follow, especially if we view Alberta’s history existing only within the narrow framework of the colonial settlement of North America. Though we may lack universally recognizable artifacts, the ground we stand on in Alberta is no less ancient — telling stories rich in shared geological, environmental and cultural histories, with deep connections to the present.
Todd Kristensen, a PhD student in anthropology, is passionate about Alberta’s archeological past. Through his work with the Alberta government’s Alberta Historical Resources Foundation (AHRF), Kristensen is committed to instilling knowledge and inspiring an appreciation for Alberta’s archeological history. His project, the Heritage Art Series, is a collaboration of Historic Resources, the Royal Alberta Museum and the University of Alberta. Its goal is to showcase significant episodes in the evolution of western North America through art and storytelling.
“I wanted to write a chapter in my dissertation about the way that archeological information gets told to First Nations communities,” says Kristensen. “But it’s evolved into something bigger. When I got this position with the archeological survey, I carried that interest in by coming up with unique ways to share archeological history, which is often very dry in format. There are lots of things archeologists find fascinating that the public probably wouldn’t, and even if people made an attempt to share this research, it was in a way that either wasn’t interesting or wasn’t accessible to some of the local communities.”
The project began in 2014 with four artists. Now at the midway mark, the collection has grown to 14 original artworks, along with supporting interpretive stories, posters and magazine articles. Kristensen hopes to complete the project by 2018, with 20 to 25 pieces, which he intends to publish. Ideally, says Kristensen, the Heritage Art Series will show up in elementary and junior high schools across Alberta, with supportive materials prepared for each grade.
Drawing from Alberta’s archeological record, Kristensen begins each new chapter by identifying an episode to highlight. He says diversity is imperative when it comes to selecting the artist.
“We have good regional coverage from across northern and southern Alberta, including some First Nations artists,” he says, “working in a bunch of different styles like watercolour, oil, silkscreen and pottery.”
Although Kristensen is wary of picking favourites (“It’s always the current one because I get so caught up in the stories!”) he says one episode in particular (Thirty-One, pictured above) resonates with the present—a story about the oilsands and a megaflood that occurred 11,000 years ago.
“Millions of cubic kilometres of water poured out, scouring the landscape of northeast Alberta. It exposed raw material that pre-contact people used for stone tools and it also exposed bitumen on the edges of the valleys, which First Nations used for caulking their canoes. First Nations relayed that information to some of the earliest explorers, who then relayed these bitumen discoveries to the geologists, giving birth to our oil and gas industry.
“When you tie it all together, it’s a neat story,” he says. “It puts our modern industry into context.”
Why should Albertans care about what’s going on beneath their feet? According to Kristensen, understanding the past puts us on better footing to make decisions about the world around us.
“Each story has a different value to Alberta,” he says. “By providing a cultural context or some kind of paleontology or paleo-ecological background, we can understand the situations we’re dealing with and what’s happening in our landscapes now and in the future.”
Kristensen says the side benefit of being immersed in the Heritage Art Series is that it has reaffirmed just how fascinating archeological information can be.
“It’s not just black-and-white diagrams in an archeological journal,” he says. “It’s colourful, it’s dramatic, it’s relevant and it involves these fascinating Alberta characters and stories. We just haven’t been as good at sharing them.”
The Heritage Art Series recently won an award from the Archeological Society of Alberta and a national award from the Canadian Archeological Association. The project can be viewed on the Government of Alberta’s RETROactive blog.