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British Block Cairn

The British Block Cairn in Canada: A Sacred Site of the Niitisitapi People

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The British Block Cairn in Alberta is of great archaeological and historical importance and is one of the most noteworthy First Nation Sites in the west of Canada, recognized nationally as well as internationally. It is one of the best examples of a block cairn in North America and is central to Niitisitapi heritage and culture.

The British Block Cairn is set on the Plains of Alberta

At the foot of the hill is a large seasonal lake. The cairn is on the land of the Canadian Forces Base, Suffield, Alberta and is located on a rocky eminence. It is situated some 45 miles (65 kilometers) to the north of Medicine Hat, Alberta.  The area is protected by the Canadian government and not only is the rocky outcrop a site of historical importance, but also the four hectares of land that surround it.

A National Historic Site

A block cairn is a collection of stone that has been arranged to form some type of monument and this is a particularly fine example of a large boulder cairn being 30 feet or 9 meters in diameter and approximately seven feet or 2 meters high. Set upon a high knoll, the site is a landmark visible for 15 kilometers (10 miles) or more.

An example if a sacred Medicine Wheel (Public Domain)

An example if a sacred Medicine Wheel (Public Domain)

The cairn is located in a ring of stones that are believed to date from over three thousand years ago. Within the stone ring are several other arrangements of rocks - lines of stones that represent symbols, known as brands, and a representation of a humanoid or human figure. In the area outside the stone ring, there are smaller cairns, mounds, and rings, known as tipi rings.  The British Block Cairn site also has several medicine wheels made from stones that are important in the spiritual life of the First Nations.

Niitsitapi Heritage

The site is associated with the Plains First Nation peoples who roamed the area hunting buffalo for thousands of years until the arrival of the Europeans and it is believed that the cairn and stone monuments date from about 1400 BC. The Niitsitapi, sometimes known as the Blackfoot Indians, inhabited the plains of Alberta since at least 1200 AD. They originated in what is now the American Mid-West and migrated into the area of Alberta via the Great Lakes. They became adept at the hunting of bison and became known as ‘Lords of the Plains’.  Archaeologists and experts have not as of yet identified the culture who first built the cairn. However, based on pottery finds, which are of the check-stamped style, it appears that those who used the site were part of the common culture of the Plains Indians in the parries of Canada. It’s likely that the Niitsitapi people began to use the site at some time after they had migrated to the areas now known as Alberta.

Blackfoot Indian on horseback (Public Domain)

Blackfoot Indian on horseback (Public Domain)

Archaeological excavations at the site have uncovered distinctive artifacts which include stone pipes and very unique pottery remains. There is also the possibility that at some stage there was a small burial pit at the center of the stone ring that surrounds the cairn. The site may have been in use for thousands of years and if so, successive cultures would have added to the cairn and other stone formations. It was clearly central to the spiritual life of the cultures who lived in the plains of western Canada for many centuries.

Years passed before the Canadian military gave permission for the examination of the site, since the Suffield military base was involved in the development of chemical and biological defense technologies and therefore, the cairn was only examined by archaeologists in 1961 during the Cold War.

Getting to British Block Cairn

It is rather difficult to access this remote site as it is located on land controlled by the Canadian armed forces and the site is not usually visited by sightseers or tourists. There is also not a great deal of accommodation near the British Block Carin. The nearest accommodation is in Medicine Hat which includes motels and lodges, but it is some 45 miles (65 km) from the British Block Cairn.

Top image: British Block Cairn                                   Source: Public Domain

By Ed Whelan


McMechan, M.E., 1995. Structure of the Foothills and Front Ranges-Smoky River to Peace River, Alberta, and British Columbia. Geological Society of Canada open file, 3058, pp.89-92.

Neuman, R.W., 1963. Check-Stamped Pottery on the Northern and Central Great Plains. American Antiquity, 29(1), pp.17-26.

Peck, T.R. and Hudecek-Cuffe, C.R. 2003. Archaeology on the Alberta plains. Archaeology in Alberta: A View from the New Millennium (eds JW Brink and JF Dormaar). Medicine Hat, AB: Archaeological Society of Alberta, pp.72-102.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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