Anthropology students dig deep

August 17, 2017

Archaeological field school teaches students real-world skills and forges community connections


When the anthropology department at MacEwan University caught wind of archaeological dig in the Mill Creek Ravine, faculty members jumped to find out more. A few students had volunteered to help University of Chicago PhD student Haeden Stewart with his doctoral research, but the Department of Anthropology felt with a bit of planning and collaboration, MacEwan students could have an opportunity to get their hands dirty.

“Part of my role as lab instructor is to facilitate student opportunities,” says Dr. Katie Biittner, field school director for the Mill Creek Historical Archaeology Project. “When Associate Professor Dr. Paul Prince and I sat down with Haeden, we realized this would be a great opportunity for a field school. It was one of our concerns that while it’s great for our students to volunteer, some of them didn’t actually have field school experience, so what were they really learning and taking away from volunteering? The idea was that we could formalize this and make it a field methods course to give them that knowledge.”

Katie also notes that archaeology field school opportunities in Edmonton are rare. MacEwan students often have to travel far away (past locations include Japan and Russia), and while international field schools give meaningful experience to those who take part, personal circumstances prevent others from participating.

“Archaeological field schools are seen as really fundamental parts of an undergraduate experience,” says Katie. “Having a field school under their belts is seen as integral for success in graduate school and for careers in archaeology as well.” 


Katie also loves the idea of students being able to learn field skills in a local community. “I’m very big into place-building. I was born and raised in Edmonton, so to do archaeology in my own backyard is so lovely, and our students really connect with the idea of learning more about our city from a different perspective.”

As part of Haeden’s research, eight anthropology students worked on the Mill Creek site to unearth a chapter of Edmonton’s industrial period of the early 1900s. Mill Creek Ravine was once an industrial hub in the city—though you wouldn’t know it today, says fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student Josalyne Head, because of the lush, natural green space. The students soon discovered, after carefully surveying and recording the site before excavation, that the area is a hotbed of archaeological finds.


“ I just started pulling bones out of the test pit.” Josalyne Head


By day three, students were finding remnants of Vogel’s Meat Packing Plant.

“I just started pulling bones out of the test pit,” says Josalyne. “Cow bones, mostly leg and foot bones, craniums and mandibles—all the pieces that wouldn’t end up in the meat. We’re figuring out the layout of the space and how it was used, which does tell us that animals were butchered on site, not just packed there.”

The students spent four days in the field over six weeks in July and August. On Fridays, they examined their discoveries in the lab.

Ravine theft

The students weren’t the only ones excited by the discoveries made at the Mill Creek Ravine site. With just a few days left to complete their fieldwork, the students learned that the site had been looted the night before.

Because only one of the test pits was disturbed, the students believe that they may have given a tour to the culprit or culprits, who returned after hours to make off with the most interesting pieces. Though the cow bones and other items have no monetary value, the real value is in the information the items could have provided the students about the area and the former Vogel’s plant.

Read CBC’s coverage.

Because the field school took place in a public area, students were also assigned to act as site interpreters to answer questions and provide information to curious passersby. On July 29, they opened the site to the public for the day.


“ People are very aware of this project and they're excited to hear MacEwan students are involved.” Katie Biittner


“We’re in a highly visible public park, and the residents of Mill Creek and nearby communities are very invested in this project,” says Katie. “Haeden has already been actively participating with them and giving public talks at community league meetings. People are very aware of this project and they’re very excited to hear MacEwan students are involved.”


Katie ensured that public access to the dig was part of the project to help students develop the ability to communicate what they’re learning. “You really find out what you know when you have to tell someone what you’ve learned.” And, she says, the students also learn the importance of engaging with the community they’re working in.

“There’s something lovely about MacEwan, a downtown university, having a field school in the river valley, which also runs through downtown,” says Katie. “It says a lot about who we are—we’re very much a part of Edmonton.”

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