Thousands of artifacts, from pieces of pottery and stone arrowheads to musket flints and glass beads, have been pulled from a construction site in a small Ontario town, offering archeologists a picture of more than 2,000 years of aboriginal history.
As archeologists finish processing the objects, first nations representatives are preparing to negotiate with the local municipal government over protecting the area, throwing into question the future of the town's development.
"We feel very strongly that our culture cannot be disturbed," said Ralph Akiwenzie, chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, one of two aboriginal groups in the area. "There has to be a major decision made about what to do with the site."
Workers started finding artifacts in March, when digging began on an expansion of the sewer system in Southampton, a community of 3,000 people on the eastern shore of Lake Huron. The work was stopped and archeologists moved in, combing the site for more than three months. The items were found in a trench about two metres wide and 100 metres long in a residential area on the north side of the town.
"The material suggests the area was of great cultural and ceremonial significance to our people," said Chief Randall Kahgee of the Saugeen First Nation, the other local aboriginal group. Located at the mouth of the Saugeen River, the area was a prime gathering place for native people, he said.
The artifacts range from stone knives dating to the time of ancient Athens to storage vessels from the era of the Black Death in Europe to objects from a 19th-century European trading post, where aboriginal people bartered for things such as "jingle cones," pieces of copper and brass that dancers wore on their costumes.
"If you wanted a museum spanning 2,000 years of history of the Saugeen and their ancestors, it's all there," said Bill Fitzgerald, an archeologist working on the site. "It points to a long-term and intensive occupation."
Archeologists have also discovered dog burial sites, which suggests there could be human graves in the area, Mr. Akiwenzie said.
Further reinforcing aboriginal interest in the site are two treaty claims, one covering some of the land involved and another related to fishing rights on the Saugeen River. Both claims are working their way through the courts.
The Town of Saugeen Shores, of which Southampton is a part, is waiting on recommendations from native groups before deciding what to do with the site. This could entail asking for the sewer project to be stopped or allowing construction to proceed while protecting specific locations.
Saugeen Shores Mayor Mike Smith said that because of the unresolved land claims and the town's duty to protect archeological sites, officials started negotiations with the first nations before handing out contracts for the work. He said he is confident work can proceed on schedule even if the archeological site has to be protected.
"There will be some appropriate recognition of it," he said. "I think we can go around it if we have to."
While Mr. Kahgee said the town has been supportive of his people's desire to protect the artifacts, Mr. Akiwenzie wishes he had been informed of the sewer-building project sooner.
"To take an excavator in there and dig up dog burials is totally unacceptable in this day and age," he said. "There has to be proper consultation."