Alberta's Provincial Historic Sites, Interpretive Centres and Museums
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

Archaeological Facts

Archaeology: Background of the Buffalo Jump Story

Archaeology is the branch of anthropology that concerns itself with the study of the human past. Unlike the historian, who relies on written, verbal and pictorial records to learn about lifeways of the past, the archaeologist reconstructs cultural history by examining the objects the early people made, used and left behind in the places they occupied. Archaeological research, like any scientific investigation, is carefully planned and executed. The activities undertaken by an archaeologist include:

  • Identification of major problems or topics to be addressed by archaeological study
  • Background historical, archaeological and ethnological research
  • Archaeological survey and excavationCataloguing and analysis of artifacts
  • Dissemination of research data to members of the archaeological community and the general public

Planning Archaeological Research

Because archaeological resources are limited and an archaeological site is permanently altered once it has been excavated, the archaeologist will only dig when it is absolutely necessary. To answer important questions about the human past, the archaeologist first studies historical documents, ethnographic material and previous archaeological research reports to determine whether more information is needed. If excavation is needed to uncover further information, the archaeologist must submit evidence that this preliminary research has been done and show that excavation is necessary.

Archaeological research at Head–Smashed–In Buffalo Jump has been conducted to assist the provincial government in the development of the interpretive facilities and programming at the site. This research was conducted in addition to, and as a result of, previous historical, ethnographic and archaeological research.

Past historical and ethnographic documents dealing with buffalo hunting provided much needed information of techniques used in killing and processing buffalo. Previous archaeological research at the site indicated the nature and depth of the cultural remains at the buffalo kill site. There remained, however, questions about the Head–Smashed–In site that had to be answered in order to ensure that the site was both protected an interpreted effectively.

It was also discovered during preliminary research that while a great deal of information existed in regard to buffalo hunting, there were few physical descriptions detailing certain processing activities such as bone boiling. Much of the archaeological work, therefore, concentrated on excavation in areas associated with camp activities rather than the killing site itself. The information gleaned from this research was combined with ethnographic and historical information to develop the interpretive themes and displays featured at the site.

Dissemination of Research

Pages of data on litchis and bones do not automatically tell us what we wish to know about the past. It is the archaeologist's task to take the sum total of the information and apply it to solving the research problem. In order for archaeological research to benefit other members of the archaeological community and the general public, these conclusions must be presented in a form readily understood. For fellow archaeologists, the researcher will generally prepare scholarly papers for publication or presentation. These papers are very technical and generally require some background in the field to be readily understood.

For members of the public at large, information on archaeological research is communicated through public talks, films, interpretive displays and tour, and written materials – all of which are used Head–Smashed–In Buffalo Jump.

More about the archaeology of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump...


Last reviewed/revised: March 18, 2016
Bison skulls


Publication by Jack Brink, head archaeologist for Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.