Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Field Days

Erin Collins
Published April 14, 2011

David Norris (HBA'98) is leading an archaeological dig near Thunder Bay that has uncovered a remarkable number of artifacts dating as far back as 9,000 years.

He and a team of employees – many of whom are university students and graduates from across Canada – have been working furiously at the Mackenzie site to find, catalogue, and store the ancient artifacts before the site is closed for highway construction.

The Mackenzie site is located just 20 km northeast of Thunder Bay near where the water of the MacKenzie River flows under the TransCanada Highway on its way to Lake Superior. The site and several others of similar age were identified last year during preliminary work for construction of a four-lane highway between Thunder Bay and Nipigon.  

In May 2010, Western Heritage Services Inc., a Saskatoon-based cultural resource management company, began excavating throughout the summer and early fall, with David Norris serving as project archaeologist. To date, thousands of artifacts have been found, including over 100 projectile points plus other tools – many of which are made of taconite, an iron-rich rock found in a formation that extends from northern Minnesota to the Thunder Bay area.

The Mackenzie Site will be completely excavated, in accordance with guidelines set out by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, before construction proceeds.

Breana McCulloch, an anthropology graduate of the
University of Alberta, works with Mike Blakely,
a volunteer worker from the Red Rock Indian Band

After finishing his undergraduate degree at Lakehead University in 1998, Norris went on to complete a master's degree in Anthropology at the University of Saskatoon. He credits Lakehead with helping him discover a career in archaeology.

Through his employment with Western Heritage, Norris says he has been able to develop new techniques for testing archaeological sites, present papers at conferences, and disseminate the information that they have acquired during the course of their work. There were 30 employees working at the Mackenzie Site this summer, including two new Lakehead University graduate students who have developed theses topics relating to the site − Christine Shultis in Geology and Samantha Markham in  Environmental Studies: Northern Environments and Cultures (NECU).

"We know that this site was once the shoreline of Lake Minong, a huge super lake that predated Lake Superior," says Norris. "I like to think this was a good place for the Paleo-Indians to be – fishing in the nearby rivers and perhaps trading with people from other places around the Lake. This year we had a long, hot summer, but up here on the dig there was always a cool breeze coming off the Lake."

Arlene Lahti (HBSc’00, MSc’03)

Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology, notes that the Mackenzie site is one of several sites in the area occupied shortly after deglaciation. "The large excavation sample and the diversity of recoveries make it very important," he says. "The students are getting a chance to work at a kind of site that few archaeologists get to see. Several local archaeologists, including Lakehead faculty, are assisting in the project and will be contributing to the analysis. Lakehead University will also be the final home for the collection, assuring that it is available for study in the future.

"For me, such projects are important because Lakehead students and faculty will be in a position to help maximize research and education about the ancient past. Our students are also getting a wealth of practical archaeological experience in an environmental assessment field to supplement their academic training."

Hamilton adds, "Having the artifacts stored at Lakehead University – a publicly funded institution that is a 30-minute drive from the site – means the collection will be readily accessible to all scholars interested in Aboriginal heritage."

Erin Collins is one of several Lakehead students taking part in SPARK – Lakehead, a student writing program sponsored by The Chronicle-Journal.

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