Archeology

the trowel’s race against time and tide

Peter Carlyle-Gordge August 27 1979
Archeology

the trowel’s race against time and tide

Peter Carlyle-Gordge August 27 1979

the trowel’s race against time and tide

Archeology

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

In its prime in the 1840s, it was blackly described by writer R.M. Ballantyne as “a monstrous blot on a swampy spot with a partial view of the frozen sea.” Today, in its brief summery garb, only the relentless swarms of mosquitoes are monstrous and York Factory, founded in 1682 at the mouth of Manitoba’s Hayes River, commands a partial view of a cold but unfrozen Hudson Bay.

Once the commercial centre of Canada’s West and North, it was home to 600, boasted 50 buildings and was noisy with commercial bustle, as Indians traded their furs at the massive Hudson’s Bay Company depot in return for the goods of Europe. Today the greenand-white depot is deserted, the other buildings have crumbled away, like the homes of the French and English who fought and lived there so long ago. York Factory wears a faded beauty that whispers of a glorious past, an image broken only by the steady scraping of archeologists’ trowels. The past is measured in trowelsful.

When Ballantyne penned his jaundiced words, York Factory commanded a trading empire of 1.5 million square miles and for almost two centuries had been the centre of a huge commercial

empire, a distribution centre for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s massive Northern Department. It was here that Lord Selkirk’s settlers first landed in 1811 and began their journey south to Manitoba’s Red River Valley. York Factory is heavy with history, its crumbling graveyard filled and faded.

After 1875, York Factory’s power began to dwindle, victim of the infant railroad which promised English merchants faster, larger profits for shipping to St. Paul, Minnesota, rather than to the remote, arctic depot, gripped by ice most of the year. Still, even as late as 1936, 700 Indians came here to trade their furs, but by 1956 the number had dwindled to 70 and York Factory had become a strategic anachronism. Few mourned when the depot was finally closed in 1957. Occasionally a lone canoeist paddled in, picked up an ancient souvenir here and there, and marvelled

at such neglect. Not until 1968 did the federal government see fit to declare it a national historic site and only then, ironically, after members of the Minnesota Historical Society had written letters.

Today the history-soaked site is in serious danger, a victim of time and tide. As permafrost melts, it turns the clay to slurry and the cliffs are slithering into the sea, the riverbank eroding several feet a year, taking with it thousands of artifacts and, with them, priceless clues to the past. In a century or less the surviving depot will teeter on the riverbank, where even now the firmer foundations of long-buried structures hang threateningly over the beach.

On the beach at York Factory clumps of sod crash to the sand and pieces of the past peer from their earthy tombs: rusting nails, horseshoes, clay pipes, bullets, buttons, bottles and all the brica-brac of an age forgotten. Young archeologists probe the matted roots, and are rarely disappointed. Last year, Parks Canada sent a team of three researchers to the remote spot to assess archeological potential and the erosion threat. Both are great. From a single yard-square pit 1,200 artifacts were recovered and in three brief summer months more than 6,000 were washed, bagged and coded for storage in a Winnipeg computer’s memory. This year a team of 10 experts has been busily digging pits, combing beaches, fighting the tide.

The real work, however, is on the cliffs, where six students trowel away at their pits eight hours a day, unearthing pallisades, timber foundations, beads, bottles, once even a felt hat and a pair of shoes. “If only we’d started this 10 years ago,” says John Combes, chief of Parks Canada’s prairie archeological research. “This is just a salvage operation. So much will be lost so soon. Even if the big project were to go ahead we could recover no more than two to five per cent of the site’s potential.” That would be 100,000 artifacts based on present progress. The “big project” is a proposal from York University Professor Arthur Ray, now being considered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It would cost about $5 million and involve an interdisciplinary, five-year excavation and research project with up to 70 people. Its fate—and York Factory’s— should be known next year.

“York Factory is probably the single most important site of the entire fur

trade,” explains Ray. “On top of that the Hudson’s Bay Company archives contain nearly half a million pages on York Factory alone—a detailed record of almost three centuries of European settlement in Canada’s North. We have to salvage as much as we can.” The project he has outlined would include ecological, agricultural, manufacturing, labor, transportation, medical and nutritional studies. Among 15,000 artifacts uncovered to date are bottles still containing medicine.

“We may also seek private funding,” says Ray. “This isn’t just a dry academic subject. It’s of great relevance now. Northern pipelines are being discussed and at York Factory we have a unique record over 300 years of how Europeans and natives interacted and how the activities of Europeans affected the environment.”

Back at York Factory, where quick,

clattering showers drench wild flowers and trowellers alike, archeologist Gary Adams strokes his bushy red beard and gazes intently at a carved wooden bowl, just unearthed. It will join the ceramics and glass, the birchbark baskets and beads, in a plastic bag bound for the “archilab” in Winnipeg, ferried out on the food plane that comes in every two weeks. “You must think we’re crazy getting off on all this junk,” he laughs. “It’s the isolation. We get strange.” Ballantyne’s partial view of the frozen sea will return soon enough, but at York Factory, as summer wears on and the plastic bags are filled and filed, winter seems as distant as the day the Selkirk settlers arrived. Massive and silent, the Hudson’s Bay depot stands as it stood when Queen Victoria was a girl, its single cannon pointing to the crumbling cliffs. Next year the river will be a little closer, the past will have receded a little more. And one day the monstrous blot will dissolve forever, as if it had never been.