ARCHEOLOGY

Slices of history under the sidewalk

Shona McKay March 29 1982
ARCHEOLOGY

Slices of history under the sidewalk

Shona McKay March 29 1982

Slices of history under the sidewalk

ARCHEOLOGY

Shona McKay

With cameras in tow, they follow a mammoth backhoe as it carves out a sewage trench at the 5,000-year-old Tsimshian Indian site near Prince Rupert, B.C. Under the gaze of an impatient developer in a cordoned-off area in Dawson, they labor to salvage a 19th-century prospector’s shack. And in Kingston, Ont., they aré allowed 14 weeks to find what they can at a waterfront site before a revving bulldozer churns up the ground. To the enchantment of pedestrian audiences, like scenes are being enacted in towns across the country as archeologists turn toward the treasures buried beneath Canadian city sidewalks.

Urban archeology has been a respected practice in Europe for more than 100 years—understandably so when a Roman temple can be unearthed beneath a London market built in the 18th century. But only recently, as North American cities reach an honorable age, has interest begun to flourish on this continent, where pieces of glass, stone, wood and metal can reveal a

city’s history. In labs across the country, researchers are still analysing last year’s finds and preparing for the numerous digs already scheduled for this summer. Inspired by the success of previous excavations, British Columbia, for instance, is preparing to examine the land near St. Mungo Cannery in Vancouver before it is demolished to make way for a bridge. The cannery is believed to have been built atop a Kwantlen Indian village. In Toronto, eyes are turned toward the lake area south of King Street. Slated for development, the location is sure to contain remnants from the earliest British settlements. As Phill Wright, a regional, archeologist with the Ontario ministry of culture and recreation, notes, “Roman ruins are all well and good, but the feeling is now that we live in Canada and we have to work with our past.” With budgets tight and excavation costs tunnelling into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, governments are increasingly looking to the private sector to help defray expenses. In Alberta alone, private developers pay archeological consulting firms more than a

million dollars yearly to inspect sites before construction is allowed to commence. Given the rapid pace of construction, however, archeologists must work in haste. Often enough, the fragments they seek must be rescued from the bulldozer’s path.

Nowhere has the fervor to uncover the past been keener than in Quebec City. Among meandering cobbled streets, stately buildings and grand vistas, archeologists search for traces of structures no longer standing, but alluded to by yellowing documents and parchment maps. In 1979, taking advantage of its intention to reinforce the structure of the 425-m boardwalk, Parks Canada embarked on a five-year project to investigate the underlying area. Recalls Pierre Beaudet, a Quebec City Parks Canada archeologist: “We knew there would be things of interest there if we started digging.” He was right. Last summer, under the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac, fieldworkers unearthed the foundations of two houses built in the 1700s. From contemporary records, researchers ascertained that the larger of the two dwellings had

last been the home of a Maj. George Augustus Elliott in the 1820s. Shards of stone, pine and pottery formed a picture of a well-to-do, early 19th-century Quebec family. From the latrine (in those days a repository for everything from tired toys to trash), researchers even learned what the major had for dinner—an abundance of lamb and wine. As work progresses on the smaller building, dating from the period of French occupation, hopes rise for a broader story. Says Beaudet: “Within a year or two, if we can put all the threads together, we will be able to make comparisons between the French and English culture of that time.”

For Canada’s archeologists, it is a short journey from the Plains of Abraham to Portage and Main. Last summer, six blocks away from Winnipeg’s centre, a team from the University of Manitoba excavated the foundations of the west wall of Upper Fort Garry, a 147-year-old Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post. Passing through the remains of early 20th-century streetcar tracks, the archeologists found not only the stone wall of Fort Garry but the remains of an earlier wooden structure. Its origins await further exploration. Until work can resume in warmer weather, the dig is being protected by layers of cotton batting, plastic, fibreglass, plywood, more plastic and earth. “Of course, it’s a treasure,” asserts Greg Monks, a University of Manitoba professor of archeology. “Upper Fort Garry was at one time the major social and economic centre of Western Canada.”

Half a continent away, in Dawson, Parks Canada archeologist Brian Ross sits waiting for the Yukon’s June thaw. “Archeologically speaking, this is where it is happening,” enthuses Ross. From excavations on the town’s periphery, he and his colleagues have already been able to determine the origins of many of the people who came searching for gold in the 1890s. The log cabins, which have been left to fall in upon themselves over the years, enclose glass from Germany, coins from Sweden and cloth from England. Within the town, archeologists have been working with historians and architects to preserve and refurbish structures such as Winaut’s Dry Goods, the Northwest Mounted Police jail and the Presbyterian manse. Over the next 25 years, Parks Canada hopes to resurrect Dawson to its appearance at the time of the gold rush. “The population has gone from 20,000 in 1898 to a present 1,000 souls,” says Ross. “In discovering the past, we want to ensure the town a viable future as a tourist attraction.”

In a privy in Quebec City or a jail in Dawson, urban archeologists face similar obstacles. Says Beaudet: “We find we have to work through a crisscrossing of modern drainage systems,

electricity wires and the foundations of modern buildings.” People, too, can create problems. Every archeologist working in a city tells a favorite story of sidewalk superintendents who bring their lunch so as not to lose a front-row seat. Phill Wright recalls how public interest swelled in Kingston, Ont., in the fall of 1980, when archeologists embarked on a 14-week dig to excavate a site slated for development as a provincial government super-block. As traces emerged of an early 19th-century British Engineers’ yard, Victorian row housing and a Grand Trunk Railway depot, says Wright: “We had to be not only archeologists, but PR men.” In between logging military buttons and 100-yearold whisky bottles, the fieldworkers set up a display of artifacts in an on-site trailer and led scores of schoolchildren and university students on guided tours of the excavation.

Ironically, time, too, becomes an enemy of the urban archeologist. The extent of an excavation is dictated less by the potential richness of the find than by the rigors of construction schedules. Moreover, the very nature of the environment is at odds with archeological aims. Says Paul Donahue, director of the Archeological Survey of Alberta: “There are only so many options open to use because we are in a condensed and occupied area.” Often a site cannot be explored—only marked for future consideration. Last year, for instance, road crews in downtown Edmonton were persuaded to build over instead of through an old Hudson’s Bay Co. burial ground.

Yet in spite of the physical obstacles, archeology continues to carve out a place for itself in Canada’s cities. “The wealth of archeological material is overwhelming,” explains Donahue, “just because a town site has more than

likely been a place of constant occupation.” It was just such reasoning that led a survey team to the village of Metlakatla on the periphery of Prince Rupert. Knowing that a new sewage system would destroy land that held secrets of the 5,000-year-old Tsimshian Indian community, archeologists are currently photographing the open trenches. As each segment is dug, the two fieldworkers have only three hours to capture a cross-section of centuries on film. The work will continue this summer. After the earth is piled aside, other researchers in the Prince Rupert lab will quickly sift the soil with sable brushes and grapefruit knives before the mechanical maw thrusts it back onto the laid piping. Borrowing technology developed for aerial satellite photography, researchers hope to compile a composite picture of the entire excavation. Says George MacDonald, senior archeologist at the National Museum of Man, who heads the group: “What we are attempting here is a graphic mosaic of a treasure trove of history.”

But as the machinery plows through an estimated 1,000 human skeletons and hundreds of generations in Metlakatla, most of the ground will become useless to archeologists. Ninety-eight per cent of the information a normal excavation would yield will disappear. Mourns MacDonald: “So much will be lost, it is something of a disaster.” Although Alberta has since 1973 required an archeological accounting of proposed building sites, other provinces still make no such demands, nor does the federal government. Yet the pattern is changing as B.C., Ontario and Manitoba move toward following Alberta’s lead. Perhaps the day is not far off when George MacDonald can stop worrying about “all the Vancouver gardens blooming on the remains of past populations.”