Brian Lenius Acceptance of the Margaret and James F. Pendergast Award

Award recipient: 

I feel honoured to have been chosen as the 2004 recipient of the James and Margaret Pendergast Award. I wish to thank you for establishing the award as a way of acknowledging contributions to the field of Archaeology by avocational archaeologists.

I remember seeing and reading National Museum of Canada monographs many years ago, decades ago in fact, authored by James Pendergast and remember being impressed by the quality and quantity of work that he produced. I naturally thought he was a professional archaeologist employed by the National Museum. Although I never met him, I am sure he must have encountered this form of “mistaken identity” on many occasions. I don’t feel my accomplishments compare in any way to those of James, but I too was misidentified as a professional archaeologist from time to time during my avocational years. While this is one way of realizing one’s work is considered “professional” in nature, the James and Margaret Pendergast Award through the Canadian Archaeological Association is a wonderful way to recognize an avocationalist’s achievements in a very direct and clear way.

I want to thank Dr. E. Leigh Syms for nominating me for this award. Dr. Syms has been a mentor and a driving force in many of my archaeological endeavours for more than 25 years. His enthusiasm and dedication have been an inspiration for countless students and avocationalists over the years. He has always been available as a source of knowledge and ideas as well as allowing use of his extensive library. At times, the names on his “sign-out” list read like a who’s who of Manitoba and north-eastern Plains archaeologists today. When I had doubts about my abilities due to a lack of formal education, he was always there to encourage me and dispel my concerns.

I first became interested in archaeology during High School in 1971. At the time, my focus and interest in school was in the area of science. A schoolmate and friend, Dave Olinyk (another avocational archaeologist), told me about the exciting things that his uncle John Tomenchuk (now Dr. John Tomenchuk) was doing with some “Indian artifacts” found in a field above the Qu'Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan. Dave introduced me to his uncle and we were assigned the task of cleaning, labelling, and cataloguing the artifacts that had been found. It was interesting and fun. John showed us flake scars on stone tools and coil breaks in pottery sherds to illustrate how some artifacts were made. He began to tell us which groups he thought had made these artifacts and what they might have been doing at the site. He was using measurements, ratios, and theories that all seemed very scientific. My interest was piqued and I was hooked on archaeology. During the summer of 1971, I discovered a series of sites on Middle Lake near Kenora, Ontario. I submitted a short write up with artifact drawings and site locations to the Royal Ontario Museum and obtained the first Borden Site numbers for the area from the National Museum of Canada.

During the winter of 1971/72, I joined the Manitoba Archaeological Society and began regularly attending the monthly meeting presentations and in a few years held the office of Membership Chairman. I have been a member for most years since. At the same time, I began to read and study any and all archaeological literature for Manitoba and surrounding areas that I could find in order to learn as much as possible about the subject. I also joined the Archaeological Society of South-western Manitoba and was a member for the full term of its existence from 1974 to 1981. I had several papers published in the ASSM journal Archae-Facts such as a report on the first proton magnetometer surveys in Manitoba, introduction of a method to calculate the volume of a ceramic vessel from a profile, and a report on a turtle petroform I discovered near Rainbow Falls in the Whiteshell Provincial Park. I was a founding member of the Association of Manitoba Archaeologists and served on the Constitutional Committee in 1975 and was active with the organization for many years.

In 1972, together with Dave Olinyk and Terry Tottle, I took part in the Bird River Survey Archaeological Project in southeast Manitoba resulting in the discovery of over 40 previously unrecorded precontact sites, the discovery of over 70,000 artifacts, the first Old Copper artifacts in Manitoba found in excavation, and the discovery of a new lithic material type that we named Bird River Rhyolite. I continued fieldwork in the Bird River area for the next 4 years. I was also involved in other fieldwork such as two seasons at the Eveline Street Burial, a survey of the Winnipeg River, survey of the Vermillion River in Riding Mountain Park, and excavation at the Maskwa River site. In addition, many weekends were spent with Dave Olinyk on long treks without trails through the rugged Precambrian Shield in the Bird River and Lake of the Woods areas searching for rhyolite lithic quarries.

It did not take long in the lab to realize the very unique nature of the major type of Late Woodland ceramics from Bird Lake. An exhaustive literature search was undertaken to try to identify the ceramics, but our findings did not fit any of the existing typologies of the day such as MacNeish or Hlady. In fact, Archaeologists had identified similar vessels as Blackduck, Selkirk, Laurel, Duck Bay, “aberrant”, “other woodland”, or “indeterminate.” In 1983, after years of trying to find an existing identification for the Bird Lake ceramics, the decision was made to embark on a major re-analysis of all available Late Woodland ceramics over a very large geographic area including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, northern Ontario, Minnesota and North Dakota. Many research trips, all without any financial assistance, were made to institutions in these states and provinces. In Winnipeg, collections at the Transcona Museum, Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, University of Winnipeg, University of Manitoba, and the Historic Resources Branch of the Manitoba government were studied. Collections were also borrowed from the National Museum in Ottawa. Sherds from 3,500 vessels were examined resulting in the inclusion (based on rigid selection criteria) of 676 vessels that were extensively observed, measured and documented. Over 100 attributes, including rare ones such as the Mouth Flare Angle, were recorded for each vessel and entered into a computer database that we developed. Statistics programs were employed to test our emerging hypotheses. At the outset, it was expected that the unique Bird River ceramics might result in the identification of one new “phase” or “complex” within one of the existing taxonomies. Instead, the large parts of the whole Late Woodland Taxonomy was redefined and realigned. For example, it became obvious that the taxonomic unit known as Blackduck had been morphed many times by researchers over the years and each time the overall definition became broader and effectively was reduced to nothing more than a large catchall for rimsherds with cord-wrapped-object impressions.

The culmination of our ceramic study was a major paper published in 1990 by the University of Minnesota in the volume titled The Woodland Tradition in the Western Great Lakes: Papers Presented to Elden Johnson. The paper, titled “The Rainy River Composite: Revisions to Late Woodland Taxonomy,” besides defining a new composite, also included a new complex that we named the Bird Lake Complex. Other existing complexes such as the Winnipeg River Complex and the Duck Bay Complex were reassigned to this new composite. Of particular interest was the discovery that all the associated complexes were tied very closely to the Late Woodland mounds along the Rainy River in northern Ontario. The similarity of the Bird Lake ceramics to those found on the Rainy River were first brought to our attention some 15 years previous by Ken Dawson in 1975. At the time, his intuitive observations were simply noted and added to the plethora of widely varied comments and ideas given to us by numerous professional archaeologists of the day. In 1995, I was asked to participate in a Scholar Pair lecture sponsored by the Minnesota Humanities Commission. The presentation was titled The Rainy River Mounds: Focus of 160,000 Square Miles of Interaction. It took place at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Grand Mound and History Center in Minnesota. This was a very fitting location for the presentation as the Grand Mound is the largest and most famous of the Rainy River mounds. We are honoured that the new taxonomy that we developed has been accepted by most of the professional archaeological community.

There are many other aspects to my avocational archaeological activities that I could mention, but I fear that this letter is already filled with too much detail and archaeological specifics. However, I would be glad to expand this or add other dimensions if you would like. I decided to write this as if I were speaking to James Pendergast himself and let you, the family members, decide which parts to read past. Once again, thank you for the recognition and award.

Brian J. Lenius
December 1, 2004