Sandy lands stretched across the horizon in Mortlach, Sask. Farmers worked the land with little money and equipment. With the drought in the 1920s and the depression in the 1930s, many people moved into the village to live out the rest of their lives. But the great winds stirred up the earth, removing the top soil and exposing many artifacts from original cultures, including arrowheads. People began to collect them, having no idea how significant these relics really were.
Dale Walde, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calgary, is an expert on the Mortlach site. Often referred to as ‘Dr. Mortlach,’ Walde has been involved with the site since he wrote his dissertation in 1988. The site itself was excavated in 1954 under provincial archaeologist Boyd Wettlaufer and it was the first specialized archaeological dig done in Saskatchewan. Artifacts found in the area, like arrowheads, form the foundation of knowledge archaeologists have about the progression of Saskatchewan’s early history. Some of these artifacts, including Clovis points, are 13, 000 years old.
“The whole sequence has been found in the Mortlach area, right from when the people who dropped the (Clovis) points were probably seeing the edge of the glaciers to virtually what we see today,” said Walde.
Clovis points, Walde explained, are the first recognised indicative points found extensively across North America. They are tools from the late ice age Clovis culture. Their existence proves that people have been in Canada for a long time.
“We keep talking about Canada as a young country, but in fact there were people here 13, 000 years ago...we need to think of ourselves as part of a long history, not a very brief blip,” said Walde.
“When we tell the story of Mortlach, we’re essentially telling the story of the continent.”
- Dale Walde
Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, it was very common for people to collect arrowheads and other artifacts. People kept shoeboxes and drawers full of arrowheads and it was a competition to see who found the most. One of the most prominent and famed collectors who put Mortlach on the map was Kenneth Francis Harris (Casey) Jones.
Bernie Forbes, a resident of Mortlach, collected many arrowheads as a child and knew Jones personally. Jones, he explained, was a carpenter, painter, and amateur archaeologist. He loved entertaining kids on the street corner. Bernie remembers how he used to pretend to eat grasshoppers and frogs, which sent all of the children running.
“Everybody loved Casey. Everybody knew Casey,” said Forbes. “And even today in archaeological circles everybody has heard of Casey Jones and his collection of artefacts.”
In 1924, Jones found Folsom points in the Mortlach area. The points dated back 20,000 years. The only other ones found in the entire world were in Folsom, New Mexico. Jones’ discovery demonstrated that early humans were in North America, and there were also different tribes. This attracted the attention of many archaeologists in United States centres, such as the Smithsonian Institute, and Mortlach received a great deal of publicity.
“He’s the individual that brought fame to the community and he certainly earned it,” said Forbes.
Larry Forbes, Bernie’s brother, remembers when he used to do chores for Jones. Jones hit his knee with a hammer in a carpentry accident, contracted gangrene, and had to get his leg amputated in 1956. Young Larry used to retrieve his mail, buy him groceries, and fetch coal for his stove, among other things. He also went out looking for arrowheads with Jones.
“You’d drive down the road, you’d see a field that was blowing so you’d just stop the truck and get out and walk around the field. It’s great when you can look down and see an arrowhead laying there and find it and pick it up.”
But Jones was “as poor as a church mouse” according to Bernie Forbes. He had no money and little to eat in the Dirty ’30s. Consequently, he sold most of his collection to U.S. collectors and later to the Glenbow Institute in Calgary. It took almost two and a half weeks to pack away his entire collection, which is now under the supervision of Walde. The Institute’s mostly private collection is used as a “backbone for plains archaeology training in Calgary” said Walde. Walde hopes to initiate a centre in Mortlach to bring Jones’ collection back home. He believes it is essential for people to know the history of their home region.
“When we tell the story of Mortlach, we’re essentially telling the story of the continent,” he explained. “Certainly it’s a locally oriented story but nothing happens in isolation.”