Ancient grave in Alberta farmer's field unearths historical mystery

​It was late summer and Brian Rozmahel’s organic hemp crop near Viking, Alta., had already been devastated by drought. One morning as he set out to check some snares something caught his eye that would change him profoundly.

Ancient burial site offers insight into early encounters between indigenous people and European settlers

Mysterious ancient grave in farmer's field

8 years ago
Duration 1:58
Featured VideoOld burial site offers insight into early encounters between indigenous people and European settlers

It was late summer and Brian Rozmahel's organic hemp crop just outside Viking, Alta., had already been devastated by drought.

Now gophers were feasting on anything left over. And one morning as he set out to check some snares, something caught his eye that would change him profoundly and set in motion an anthropological mystery.

Protruding from a badger hole in his field was a human skull.

"I realized when I picked it up that it was light, and ... I recognized it right away as a human skull. It took me aback."

Seeking advice, he called a relative working for the RCMP.

In very short order Rozmahel's field looked like a crime scene with ribbons of yellow police tape and a 24-hour guard watching the site.

Two days later the Mounties pulled up stakes when an examination of the skull determined it was from the early nineteenth century, before European settlement in the area.

Start of a new adventure

"That was the start of a new adventure for me," Rozmahel says.

"I would come out here every day, and I would look at the badger pile and I would sift through, and then we started discovering some beads and some rings and buttons.

Organic farmer Brian Rozmahel shows the spot where he uncovered a human skull in August. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"And I started collecting them, and I put them in a container to keep them all together until the people from the government could come out and examine them."  

In the meantime, a group of indigenous elders paid a visit, and along with Rozmahel and a few of his family members, held a ceremony at the newly-discovered gravesite.

"I was very honoured to witness the ceremony and to take part in it," Rozmahel says. 

"I felt like I was entering a world that was really unaccessible to most of us. A world of mystery, of great reverence."

Grave suggests a person of prominence

Afterwards, archeologists with the Alberta government began a proper excavation of the site, and unearthed a human skeleton, thousands of beads, jewellery, brass buttons and a thimble.

"We left the body intact as we were going down," said archeologist Wendy Unfreed of the Archeological Survey of Alberta. "The purpose for that was that we needed to make a record of how the person was lying, where some of the remains were in association with that."

After being thoroughly documented and photographed, the remains were taken to the medical examiner's office in Edmonton.

An examination of the field around the site turned up no other graves, and the area had no history of aboriginal settlement.

Still, the state of the grave and the artifacts found suggest the person buried there was of significance.

The mystery deepened as investigators concluded that the person in the grave was young, about 13 or 14 years old, and very likely female.

"We tend to be of the view now that this was a young girl of some status," says Matthew Wangler, Alberta Culture's director of historical resources.

"Because she was buried in what appears to be a shallow grave away from any known sites that we believe would have been important at that time, it is possible that she died in transit between two locations. But at this point it is all very much a mystery."

Adding to the intrigue — a series of European-style brass buttons, with fabric still attached, was found among the bones.

It appears the young woman in the grave, buried far from existing European settlements, was wearing what may have been a European military-style jacket.

Find sheds light on historic trading routes

The nearest trading posts at the time were in Edmonton and Elk Point, Alta., each about 150 kilometres from where the grave was found.

Archeologists believe the young woman may have been part of a group travelling along a trade route between one of the forts and aboriginal settlements in the southern part of what is present-day Alberta.

Wangler says the jacket provides a substantial clue about the young woman's status.

"This suggests that whoever this individual was, there may have been some stature in the community.

"There may have been some connection to a leader, to a chief. Maybe this was the daughter of a chief, but certainly there was some level of wealth."

Wendy Unfreed of the Archaeological Survey of Alberta helps excavate the original gravesite. (Caroline Hudecek-Cuffe/Alberta Culture)

Whoever she was, her remains have been treated with reverence.

As archaeologists at the University of Alberta examined her bones and the artifacts found with her, crafts people at the Ukrainian Heritage Village outside Edmonton went to work constructing a pine casket in which she would be reburied, along with all of the material that had been dug up with her.

Everything would be replaced as accurately as possible.

"So we actually did take all of the beads and we put all of the beads — if they came from the arms we would put them near the arms, there were a few large beads that looked like they were a necklace around the neck and so we would replace all of those around the neck," Unfreed says.

 "And so that was a large part around why we were doing the detailed and careful recording we were doing as well."

Reburial a solemn, respectful ceremony

Rozmahel, meanwhile, carved off a quiet, grassy tree-lined corner of his farm, and dug a grave where the bones and artifacts would be reburied.

Oct. 29th was cold, grey and gritty, as the pine box containing the remains and artifacts arrived at his farm. Red-serged Mounties, elders, aboriginal drummers and the Rozmahel family stood graveside for the ceremony.

"One of the most moving parts of the ceremony was, as they were chanting and singing, we were covering up the grave by hand. Really connecting with what was happening. These are scenes I'll never forget," Rozmahel says.

He visits the site daily, and is struck by how the discovery has changed his perspective.

"I really feel part of the eternal cycle," he said, looking down at the new grave, then up at the sprawling farm where long ago the young woman died while, presumably, on a long journey to trade with the early European settlers. "So yeah, I feel part of the mystery, it has moved me in ways that I hadn't imagined it would."


Terry Reith

Network News Producer

Terry Reith is CBC's network news producer based in Edmonton. He's also served as the network's medical reporter, and senior writer for the consumer section of cbc.ca. Reith joined the CBC in 1992 as a local radio and television reporter.