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More questions than answers at Original Humboldt site

They've found more questions than answers so far, but they will work on reversing that this summer.
The bones of a large draft horse, some stained green from copper items left in the area, were uncovered at the Original Humboldt site west of the city last year.

They've found more questions than answers so far, but they will work on reversing that this summer.
The three archeologists from Western Heritage Services (WHS) who have been researching the Original Humboldt site west of the current city presented their findings to a healthy crowd of 75 people at the Humboldt and District Museum and Gallery on April 7.
The project at Original Humboldt is "an exciting, unique combination of many important aspects of Canadian history," noted Rev. Al Hingley, master of ceremonies for the evening. "Not just Humboldt's history."
The site was part of the original Dominion Telegraph line of 1876, with its own telegraph station complex. It was also where General Middleton camped temporarily in April of 1885 when he and his 950 men marched to confront Louis Riel and the Metis at Batoche. And it was where Colonel Denison set up a fortified camp and depot during the Riel Resistance, guarding stores of supplies for the Canadian troops.
Humboldt also had the nearest operating telegraph station for communication with the federal government during the 1885 Battle of Batoche.
There is also, reputedly, a grave in the area that is said to date from the Resistance.
Archeological work on this site began in 2009, after private donations were gathered to purchase the property, and it was given to the City of Humboldt.
It has been designated a Municipal Heritage Property by the RM of Humboldt.
What has been called Fort Denison, where Colonel Denison was ordered to guard supplies in 1885, was the focus of last year's archeological work.
"The goal of archeology is to find answers," noted Jim Finnigan, one of three from WHS to work at the site in 2010. But they were left scratching their heads by the end of the year.
"It was kind of frustrating," Finnigan smiled.
They seemed to have more questions when they finished than when they started, he indicated, and ran into issues with rain and general wetness at the site, due to last year's record rainfall.
They did manage to get some work done at the Fort Denison site last summer, despite the hardships and frustration. They did a number of geophysical surveys, looking for the grave supposedly out there and any other anomalies, did some actual digging, and found a number of artifacts, including a nearly complete skeleton of a horse on top of a sandy knoll in the Fort Denison area.
Finnigan filled the audience in on the background of the site they chose to focus on this year.
The Fort Denison part of the site was a fortified camp, Finnigan explained. When ordered to stay at Humboldt, Denison dug in, creating fortifications around the supplies, which included food and munitions, to protect them.
The troops did not have to fire a single shot to protect the camp, Finnigan said. He and his soldiers mainly kept the camp clean and waited.
When the soldiers started coming back through the area on their way home after the Battle of Batoche, Denison asked to use some of the empty wagons to transport the supplies home. That request was denied, so things had to be left behind when Denison and his troops left.
After the soldiers were gone, the site closed in on itself, grew over, was eventually cultivated by a farmer before becoming an archeological site.
Archeologist Peggy McKeand was in charge of the geophysical surveys of the site last year.
They surveyed the Telegraph Station site, the Fort Denison site and the area where there was reputedly a grave that was visited by a government official in the late 1800s, and which was marked on a map of the Original Humboldt site made in the 1960s.
They looked at the potential grave area, McKeand said, because they noticed that where it was marked on the map was quite close to where the parking lot entrance to the site is planned.
They made a 30 by 30 foot grid with both a magnetometer and a ground penetrating radar (GPR), and found no anomalies of interest. Both these surveys look for disturbances in the soil.
"There were no anomalies consistent with a grave," McKeand concluded.
At the Telegraph Station Site, which they had surveyed in 2009, they found nothing new, and the surveys didn't work out as expected.
But at Fort Denison, despite wet soil which caused some issues with running the GPR, they collected some good data and were able to merge it with what they had collected in 2009.
They mapped a large anomaly on a sandy knoll, which was where a dig took place last fall.
The 10-day excavation began in September, and was run by archeologist Karmen VanderZwan, who was assisted by volunteers.
Where they dug was based on the geophysical survey, and it turned up a wealth of artifacts.
On the surface of this spot, they found fragments of ceramics, a pipe stem, cartridge casings, both metal and shell buttons and tin cans. That these things were still there, despite all that has happened since, shows just how many things were left behind in 1885, it was noted.
Digging down 10 centimetres at a time, they found a badger hole and bones, along with the first of many fox bones - both skulls and limbs.
They also began to find some darker soil that piqued their interest, and found bones that were burned.
"We were crossing our fingers that it was a hearth," VanderZwan said.
They started digging in a new direction and found more evidence of a hearth in charcoal and bones. Finally, they found a huge number of artifacts near what they believe to be the centre of the hearth.
Leather straps, nails, glass fragments, a suspender clip and a large knife were among the non-bone items found there.
Of the animal bones found, those they could identify belonged to at least two wolverines, 35 red foxes about five and coyotes.
Among the bones were skulls of all three species. Those of the fox and wolverine showed cut marks across their foreheads - a classic sign that the animal was skinned.
"The high proportion of fox compared to the other (species) indicates the soldiers are definitely making an effort to hunt or trap these animals," said VanderZwan.
Just why they did it is a mystery, but they do have theories: that the soldiers were killing them to make the camp safer, to sell some furs, or to collect furs to take home.
Evidence also shows that this activity was ongoing throughout their stay at the site.
Another huge find, literally, at the site were the bones of a draft horse. The skeleton of the horse is nearly complete - though it is missing important features, like a skull, one leg, hips and pelvis, which would indicate its breed.
It was a very large draft horse, VanderZwan said, and its bones suggest it pulled a lot, due to the strain shown on the neck bones. The bones also indicate that there was more strain on its right side, which means it could have been part of a team, or that it was used to pull in one direction more than the other.
There was no indication that this horse ever wore a saddle, but the bones show that it worked very hard in its life.
Along with the bones, they also found parts of harness around the ribs and neck, and a horse comb. The horseshoes were left on the horses feet.
Leaving all this equipment with the bones of the horse indicates that it was not a farmer's horse, that it was likely used by the military at the time.
"A farmer would have taken the things and re-used them," VanderZwan said.
There are still more things to find out in the Fort Denison area, VanderZwan noted, and they plan to continue their dig this year where they left off.
About 20 volunteers helped with the dig last year, and some have already indicated they are ready to go in 2011.
"It's probably going to be an interesting one," VanderZwan said of the upcoming dig season.
This season, they will focus more on the Fort Denison area and research, Finnigan said, and hope to get some of those unsolved mysteries from last year solved.
They plan to gather more topographical and soil information, along with elevation measurements.
"By the end of that, we should have a really good idea what's going on," Finnigan said.
They also plan to re-excavate the trench they dug last year, and bring in a soil specialist to tell them more about what happened when.
Information gathering will begin in June, and the dig should occur in August.
It was suggested by a member of the audience that they look for the latrine at the site.
"Privies are a great source of information for archeologists," Finnigan agreed with a smile, as they reflect the history that is not always written down. They are usually full of alcohol bottles and other things people kept secret.
"Definitely, we want to find it.... if we find a latrine, we'll be looking for volunteers to help dig it up," he laughed.
Finnigan urged those interested in assisting with the information gathering or digging at the site to sign up as volunteers with the HDMG.
Financial support to continue the work is also always needed, he added.
A commemoration of the Original Humboldt site is being planned for June 2, with a special presentation by the RCMP.
A second presentation of the play, "The Trial of Louis Riel," will also be held in the Humboldt courthouse that day. The first presentation was held in 2010.