Science

Finding a ‘lost’ tribe: one man’s discovery is another man’s desecration

FRED McCLEMENT November 29 1976
Science

Finding a ‘lost’ tribe: one man’s discovery is another man’s desecration

FRED McCLEMENT November 29 1976

Finding a ‘lost’ tribe: one man’s discovery is another man’s desecration

Science

Lawson Allez had been working for less than an hour when he saw it—a mound of earth that needed leveling. Applying his rake to the topsoil, he uncovered three flint arrowheads. His curiosity piqued, the Grimsby, Ontario, park employee grabbed a shovel and started to dig further. In a short time he had unearthed a copper pot and what his instinct told him was a very old human bone. After that. Allez drove straight into town to tell Grimsby officials about his little find. It was not so little after all. As subsequent digs confirmed, Allez’ accidental discovery turned out to be one of Canada’s richest archaeological treasures of the century—and sparked a bitter dispute over its ultimate disposition.

Located on the eastern outskirts of Grimsby, about 60 miles southwest of Toronto in the Niagara Peninsula, the site was part of a large, ancient burial ground of the Neutral Indians, who flourished in the area until the middle of the 17th century. Rarely mentioned in history texts, the Neutrals—the merchant class among Indian tribes—once boasted a population of 20,000, comparable to the well-known Hurons. The Grimsby dig turned up ample evidence of the Neutrals’ commercial enterprise: a dozen copper pots made in France during the early 17th century; a conch seashell from the tropics; catlinite ore (probably from Minnesota); a large collection of beads and necklaces; and thousands of arrowheads, buried, according to Indian custom, for use by warriors in the Happy Hunting Ground.

Anxious to preserve the site from vandals, the province quickly directed the Royal Ontario Museum to remove bones and artifacts for display in Toronto. But 19 days after digging began, Delbert Riley, research director of the Union of Ontario Indians, made a citizen’s arrest of the ROM’s chief investigator. Dr. Walter Kenyon, charging violation of historic grave sites. “The intrusion into graves of pioneers of that period is considered desecration and is illegal,” said Riley.“Indians are likewise protected by the law ... or should be.” The ROM promptly halted excavations, but later agreed with the union to skim the area’s topsoil to determine the dimensions of the burial ground.

But while authorities wrestle with legal questions, Canadian archaeologists are exulting over the find itself, which included entire skeletons maintained in family groups. This burial pattern is distinctively different from that favored by the Neutrals before 1640, when they hung the dead on scaffolds or inside sealed family huts. When the flesh had rotted, the bones were collected and dumped in common burial pits with as many as 300 other skeletons. What changed the pattern? “A plague of smallpox that struck about 1640,” says William Noble, chief of McMaster University’s archaeology department. “Precise mention of the plague is made in the Jesuit journals.” Almost destroyed by the smallpox, the Neutrals were finally wiped out by the Iroquois in 1651.

Now, in addition to Kenyon’s pending court case, there is disagreement on what to do with the artifacts. The ROM would prefer to display them in Toronto. Officials in Grimsby hope to expose the cemetery and convert it into a tourist attraction. But disposition of the relics is complicated by another factor: the burial ground lies under property owned by Hamilton real estate developer Ed Robinson, who bought 41 lots eight years ago. Now valued at more than one million dollars, his prestige subdivision has already been approved by the Grimsby council.

FRED McCLEMENT