Located in the Besant Valley south of the town of Mortlach, Saskatchewan, the Mortlach Site was first discovered in 1948 by amateur archaeologists. It was not until 1951 and 1952 that the Provincial Museum (now the Royal Saskatchewan Museum) became involved in testing the site and identifying it as an important archaeological discovery. The first professional archaeological excavation in the province was completed at the Mortlach site by Boyd N. Wettlaufer in 1954. He published a site report through the Department of Natural Resources in 1955.
Eight layers of occupation were identified, starting with the Mortlach archaeological culture of 450 – 250 years before present (BP). A unique style of round-bottomed/conoidal Mortlach pottery was identified along with other cultural material remains whose origins have been debated about by archaeologists since the discovery. Plains side-notched points that date between 550-170 BP are associated with the Mortlach culture and represent bow and arrow technology.
The Besant archaeological culture (2000-1150 BP) was found below the Mortlach remains with Besant side-notched dart points, used with the atlatl and another unique style of round-bottomed/conoidal pottery used to cook foods. Something quite unexpected showed up with this layer of the excavation—postmolds. Holes were dug in the ground by the people living at the site during Besant times. They have been associated with a different style of living structure from the tipi that we normally associate with living on the plains. Besant structures are surmised to be somewhat similar in shape and structure to the sweat lodge, but built larger, to accommodate family life. The poles were imbedded into the ground to stabilize the structure. This rounder habitation structure was seen in cultures from the eastern woodlands. Below Besant, the Sandy Creek culture (2450-1950 BP) and Pelican Lake culture (3300-1850 BP) were also identified, both with unique point styles associated with other cultural material remains.
The Mortlach site excavation and report represents an important milestone in Saskatchewan archaeology—the beginnings of professional interest and work and recognition that there were important sites out in the landscapes of the province. Three radiocarbon dates were acquired from different layers in the site and represent some of the early work in a science-based method of dating started in 1953 out of the University of Saskatchewan. Since these early days of archaeology, over 23,000 archaeological sites have been identified throughout the province of Saskatchewan. There are likely many more archaeological sites to be found in the future.
The Mortlach Site report was first published in 1955. A reprint can be purchased here.