Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Flora Davidson examines a 16th century anchor found in Red Bay Larbador at Parks Canada's archeological resource centre in Ottawa on March 1, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Flora Davidson examines a 16th century anchor found in Red Bay Larbador at Parks Canada's archeological resource centre in Ottawa on March 1, 2011. (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Archeology

Canadians dig their history Add to ...

The staff at Parks Canada's archeological resource centre in Ottawa's south end don't allow themselves to contemplate the monetary worth of the objects they identify and restore.

The axe heads, chipped pottery, leather shoes, ship planks, sword hilts and hundreds of thousands of other remnants of Canada's past are beyond commercial value - priceless despite having long ago outlived their usefulness.

More related to this story

But the physical bits and pieces of history are just visual aids that help to tell the story of the country in which they were found, said T.J. Hammer, the archeological resource manager for the National Historic Sites Directorate.

"Archeology is much more than the artifacts," Mr. Hammer said this week as Parks Canada prepares for a new season of digs in a year in which it will also celebrate its 100th anniversary. "The artifact is what people see," he said, but "it's all the associations and stories behind it that archaeologists pull out of archaeological sites."

The Ottawa facility is the largest of five service centres across Canada where federal staff collect and preserve the items of historic and pre-historic interest that have been found on the 366,000 square kilometres of land administered by the national parks agency.

There are roughly 12,000 archeological sites within Parks Canada's purview. Some are a little more than 100 years old. Some date back 13,000 years to the arrival of the first humans in North America.

"I don't think there's anywhere that you can walk in Canada where people haven't been, whether that is in [post-European]contact times or prehistoric times," said Mr. Hammer. The agency employs 31 archeologists to find the things that have been left behind.

They are searching for signs of ancient human life off the shores of Haida Gwaii on British Columbia's western shores where the water has submerged what was once habitable land. They are digging though the settlements of the earliest European settlers in places like the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. They are exploring the trails of the fur traders, and sifting through relics left by long vanished aboriginal groups in Newfoundland.

Many of the artifacts they find are brought to the Ottawa service centre for cleaning. Some of the more common pieces will remain there, stored on moving shelves in climate-controlled rooms. Most will be sent out to interpretive centres and museums to be shared with the Canadian public.

In August, as part of the agency's centenary celebrations, pictures and accompanying descriptions of many of the most intriguing artifacts in the Parks Canada collection will be put online to be enjoyed from a living-room armchair.

Brian Kooyman, head of the archeology department at the University of Calgary,said he has been to the Parks Canada historic sites both as an archeologist and as a tourist.

"I don't think you could get someone like an outside contract archeologist to do as good as job as they do with the budget they have," Dr. Kooyman said. "I think it is really important to have some staff archeologists for our national parks."

Jonathan Moore is one of eight underwater archeologists employed by the agency and was part of the team that last summer discovered the wreck of HMS Investigator, the ship trapped in ice in 1853 while searching for the ill-fated Franklin expedition.

This year, he will take part in the exploration of sites all across Canada including submerged villages under Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. And he will return to the Arctic where the search for Franklin's ships, the Erebus and the Terror, continues.

"We can protect sites, we can study them, we can excavate them, we can present them to the public, we can video them," Mr. Moore said of archeological explorations below the surface of lakes, rivers and oceans.

One of the most extensive underwater archeological explorations has taken place in Red Bay on the southern tip of Labrador that was a favourite whaling site of the Basques in the 16th century. The whalers left behind many things, including olive oil jars, shoes, boats and an anchor that is now soaking in salt water at the Ottawa centre.

Flora Davidson worked on the anchor at various times over the past five years, cleaning the massive piece of metal that was found mostly buried under the sea floor. She has scoured it inch by inch with a pneumatic chisel to remove barnacles and algae. In the process, she discovered ropes and fabric that could be carbon dated to prove that the relic is indeed five centuries old.

It's a lot of work and a lot of effort but Mr. Moore said Canadians have demonstrated an appetite for this kind of knowledge. He points to the popularity of television shows that tell the stories of ancient times.

There is a connection, said Mr. Moore, between a person in the present and a person in the past, and a need to understand "how people lived, and how they survived, how they scratched out an existence or the troubles they experienced - especially the way people lived and died and the hardships. That intrigues people."

Follow on Twitter: @glorgal

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular