Archeologists dig into Alberta's past at Bar U Ranch slaughterhouse

Archeologists are getting a glimpse of Alberta's ranching history as they excavate the floor of a slaughterhouse at a national historic site.

120-year-old Bar U Ranch National Historic Site is restoring the slaughterhouse

An archeologist uncovers artifacts in the floor of the Bar U Ranch slaughterhouse in southern Alberta. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Archeologists are getting a glimpse of Alberta's ranching history as they excavate the floor of a slaughterhouse at a national historic site.

"We had a complete sheep's skull, which was a bit surprising because of its size," said Parks Canada archeologist Jessica Hill, who is working on the federally funded project to restore the Bar U Ranch slaughterhouse.

"The area we're excavating was the active killing floor, so we wouldn't expect to find really large things."

The Bar U Ranch's slaughterhouse was used for decades as part of what was once one of the biggest ranching operations in Western Canada. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The slaughterhouse on the historic site, located south of Calgary on Highway 22, is a small, rectangular building with batten walls. It was built at a time most ranches practiced slaughtering out-of-doors, with improvised equipment, according to Canada's national register of historic places.

The ranch was founded in the 1880s and over the course of its history was owned at different times by two men who helped found the Calgary Stampede — cattle baron Patrick Burns, who took the ranch over from fellow Big Four member George Lane. 

"We found cartridge cases, from the firearms used to dispatch the animals. Also things like tobacco tins that the cowboys who were here would have discarded. They were using chew tobacco usually," said Hill.

Archeologist Jessica Hill says she loves the chance to touch Alberta's past. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

"I think it's really neat to find the personal items like the tobacco tins, and drinking glass bottles, those kind of things that talk to the individuals who were here."

The artifacts are being sent to a lab for analysis, before they're catalogued and sent to one of Parks Canada's long-term storage facilities.

Archeologist Miriam Fry said she looks at different diagnostic features to determine what animal, and what part of the animal, remains came from.

"That's sort of the waste material from the slaughtering process so we're getting a lot of the lower limb bones and the foot bones especially," she said.

A sheep's skull was one of the larger items uncovered at the slaughterhouse. (Parks Canada)

Hill said she loves the opportunity to reach back and touch the past.

"Touching the same thing that no one else has touched for maybe 100 years or 200 years or longer, I find that really neat to connect with an individual who I have never met, will never meet," she said.

Once the building is restored, it will be used to help demonstrate what life was like on the ranch.

Hill is encouraging people to come visit and participate in activities relating to the excavation. The dig runs until Sept. 3.

With files from Anis Heydari