1,600-year-old meal unearthed at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

An ancient feast, left untouched for 1,600 years, unearthed from the foothills of southern Alberta will be preserved inside Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum.

'The meat would just be falling-off-the-bone tender ... it would have been a wonderful feast'

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is a buffalo jump located where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains begin to rise from the prairie 18 km northwest of Fort Macleod, Alberta. (Matt MacGillivray/Flickr)

An ancient feast, left untouched for 1,600 years until it was unearthed this summer in the foothills of southern Alberta will be preserved inside Edmonton's Royal Alberta Museum.

The roasting pit was excavated from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, on Blackfoot First Nation territory.

The earthen oven was discovered perfectly intact with a prepared meal sealed inside.

"The unusual thing is someone prepared this meal and they didn't go back and open it up and eat it," said Bob Dawe, the museum's lead archeologist on the project.

"It's as unusual as if you were to put your turkey in the oven and never take it out for your turkey dinner."

The area was home to tribal gatherings by Aboriginal people of the Northern Plains for 6,000 years or more, and the grassy landscape is riddled with artifacts of the past, like bones, tools and arrowheads, but Dawe says this find is unique.

'A wonderful feast'

Dawe says the meaty meal would have been cooked by digging a hole in the earth, lining it with rocks and willows, and placing the food inside, before covering it with dirt and building a fire, creating a dense layer of piping hot coals.

"Usually it would be left to cook overnight and then in the morning, when it was dismantled, the meat would just be falling-off-the-bone tender. 

"It would a be very delicious meal … and this is probably no exception. It would have been a wonderful feast."

What exactly was on the menu remains unclear. The contents of the pit won't be revealed until the artifact has been carefully transported back to its new home.

'It's a tricky process'

The pit hasn't seen the light of day in hundreds of years, and unearthing it, without disturbing its fragile content, was a painstakingly difficult task.

The museum called in experts from the Royal Tyrrell Museum to aid in the delicate excavation.

"It's a tricky process," said Dawe, who found the artifact during another dig years ago and has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to excavate.

"To get down to this object, you had to dig through 1,600 years of history, carefully stripping back off each layer of bones and artifacts and soil to uncover it intact.

"It was really a lucky find in the first place. If we had dug 20 centimetres one way or another in 1990, we would not have found it at all."

'We'll never know'

After a traditional blessing by a local elder, the kitchen-table sized artifact was carefully enveloped in layers of plaster, burlap and foil before being hoisted out of the ground with a crane.

Once carefully transported up the highway to its new home among the exhibits of the provincial museum, those protective layers will slowly be peeled back, revealing the contents inside.

But even after its meaty innards are fully explored, one question will remain for Dawe. Why didn't they finish dinner?

"There is no ready answer," Dawe said.

"It may have been a prairie fire or perhaps a blizzard, or maybe some other party of people interceded. We're not really sure. We'll never know."

The roasting pit is set to be added to the permanent indigenous exhibit at the Royal Alberta Museum next year.