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Editor’s Choice

Editor’s Choice

Protecting Our Shared Canadian Heritage

By Trevor Carter, Licenced Archaeologist & Kyra Howes, Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority

We are writing in response to Keeper of the Coffin Nail published on January 28, 2023 in Springwater News.

Our Canadian heritage is a fragile gift that requires constant protection.  Our buried history is a limited resource.  Once an artifact is dug up and its context is lost, it can never be replaced.  All archaeological work in Ontario, even on private property, requires an archaeological licence and must follow specific processes to make sure this information is not forever lost.

Most importantly, licensed archaeologists are required to report all of their findings. These reports can then be accessed by members of the public or for future research projects.  Since unlicensed excavators do not do this, some of our shared Canadian heritage is lost to researchers.

Activities like metal detecting can be an exciting pursuit, with detectorists often finding items that were recently lost at public beaches or other locations.  However, when metal detecting is used to dig up older historical artifacts, it not only causes archaeological damage, but it is also illegal under the Ontario Heritage Act.  Any type of unauthorized digging at an archaeological site permanently damages our shared Canadian heritage.

The story of our nation is drawn from three main sources: oral history, historical documents and archaeological artifacts.  Just as oral history can be lost to time, historical documents can be lost due to fire, carelessness or purposeful destruction, and archaeological sites can be damaged by accidental disturbance or wilful plundering. With the loss of each piece comes a loss in the ability to learn more about our collective history.

The Township of Springwater is a community with a rich history, and one site in particular has been designated as a provincial and federal historically significant site, now known as the Fort Willow Conservation Area. This property has been owned by the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority since 1974, but was once an important site during the War of 1812. Over the decades, this site has seen its share of accidental and purposeful destruction.

Fort Willow is a precious piece of our War of 1812 history. Sadly, it has suffered greatly at the hands of unlicensed excavators, site reconstructions, metal detectorists and periodic looting.

Poor quality excavations in the 1950s by Wilfrid Jury, followed by decades of looting by metal detectorists and curiosity seekers have all taken their toll on the archaeological remains at the site.

Like most professions, archaeologists must follow very specific requirements that guide the profession and must also hold a ministry-issued archaeological licence. Professional licenses require at minimum a Masters’ degree and the licensed professional must follow the profession’s Standards of Practice set out by the Ministry of Culture. The archaeological studies conducted by Trevor Carter have so far logged over 30,000 artifacts from the site. These items have helped uncover some incredible stories from before, during, and after the site’s War of 1812 period.

When Jury conducted his excavations in the 1950s, he removed the ceramics and generically labeled them all “China”, an inaccurate term for all kitchenware, without any additional identification of the different ceramic types, even though proper archaeological methods did exist at this time. More recent studies, based on the location and types of ceramic uncovered, made it possible to identify buildings at the site as being used either by officers or by soldiers at Fort Willow. In the early 1800s, an industrial method for printing designs on ceramics, called transfer printing, was growing in popularity. The trendy printed ceramics were rather expensive and tended to be used by society’s elites, while the majority of the commoners still used the ‘lesser’ hand painted ceramics. When pieces of predominantly transfer printed ceramics were identified within one particular structure at the site, it was determined the residents of that building were higher paid, higher class members of society able to afford these fashionable pieces and were likely from the officers’ quarters.

Interesting that now, the trend has changed and hand painted ceramics are highly sought after and prestigious, compared to mass produced, mechanically printed ceramics.

Studies have also uncovered the remains of a homestead, likely from settlers in the early 1900s. The study at this location found items that were indicative of life during that period, including a candle snuff, fragments of a child’s doll and kitchenware. Of particular interest was a small thimble. A common tool used at the time, this particular thimble was unique in that a wad of fabric was found inside the centre of the thimble, likely put in place to fit the finger of a small child.

Unlike what many people may envision, a professional archaeological study is very methodical. Think brushes and small trowels, instead of shovels. Measuring tapes instead of metal detectors. Every piece of soil is thoroughly examined, sifted and recorded to make sure no critical piece of information is missed or lost.

When untrained individuals dig up artifacts, this destroys valuable information surrounding those artifacts.

Archaeologists use a wide range of information to learn about an archaeology site.  Unlike treasure hunters, they don’t only look for individual artifacts, but they also look for patterns in the places where artifacts are found across a whole archaeological site. Archaeologists also look for other finds at a site like pits or trenches that aren’t really artifacts at all.

Looters, metal detectorists and curiosity seekers, on the other hand, are only looking for single objects, and when they dig them up, they destroy important information about them, including their precise location, the layer of soil they were found in, and a list of any other important finds found alongside them.

Those who plunder artifacts from an archaeology site might have a rough idea where they found an artifact, but they do not record their finds using a precise grid system.  This precise information helps archaeologists look for patterns in artifacts across an entire archaeological site.  Also, looters dig blindly through multiple layers of soil and do not record which layer an artifact was found in, which loses valuable information for dating the artifact.

Metal detectors are particularly problematic: since they only detect metal objects, the detectorist may dig up other important non-metal artifacts like pottery, bones or stone tools as they seek out the metal object that triggered the “hit”: in the process, details about these other non-metal objects are now also lost.

The information that can be learned from an artifact’s location, soil layer, and nearby finds is often more important than the artifact itself.  Regrettably, this valuable information is forever destroyed when artifacts are dug up by unlicensed excavators.

An example of the importance of context of location was in the discovery of the brick kiln at the Fort Willow Conservation Area. The kiln was protected from damage by looters because of its unique location. It was located in a valley just below the main fort. During the severe 1954 storm known as Hurricane Hazel, over two meters of sediment was deposited in the valley, creating difficult conditions for accessing and excavating the kiln.

In 2015, the professional archaeologist-led team painstakingly sifted through huge quantities of sediment to reach the kiln. Once the kiln was uncovered, researchers were able to determine it was constructed at the same time as the other buildings at the Fort, and not built during the late 1800s or early 1900s as had been speculated. The researchers were able to determine this because of the undisturbed layers of soil upon which the base of the kiln was sitting.  When these layers were compared to the soil layers in the Fort, it was clear that the kiln and the Fort were constructed at the same time.  The kiln’s relatively undisturbed state made this conclusion possible.

Uncovering the kiln however, didn’t uncover the whole story. For example, what were the bricks from the kiln actually used for? None of the buildings in the Fort seem to have used the sheer number of bricks that the kiln would have produced.  This may indicate that the bricks were constructed at this location and possibly transported to another settlement area. Based on the remote nature of this location, this would have been a very laborious task, likely involving ox-carts down the corduroy road and boats to transport them to another location. The report generated from this study will now be available for future researchers to help to continue to uncover the rest of the story of the kiln.

Buried artifacts help us create a shared history for all Canadians, but when they are dug up and pocketed by looters, they become the possession of a single individual.  Even if the objects are reburied, information about the artifact is forever lost: the reburied artifact can never be placed back into the same precise location or in the same layer of soil from which it was recovered.

Unlicensed excavation of any kind with the goal of recovering archaeological remains is illegal under the Ontario Heritage Act.  This applies anywhere in Ontario, including on personal private property. The Ministry makes it clear that excavating anything produced by past human activity, whether on a known or unknown archaeological site, is illegal under the Ontario Heritage Act.

Please contact the local authorities if you witness any unlicensed excavations of an archaeological site.  All Canadians deserve to have their shared heritage protected and preserved for today and for future generations.


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