The Day before Toronto: Managing the City's Prehistory

By Ellis, Glen | ROM Magazine, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Day before Toronto: Managing the City's Prehistory


Ellis, Glen, ROM Magazine


At the eastern edge of greater Toronto, the Rouge River winds through wetlands abundant with birdlife--herons and egrets, mallards and teals, wrens and bitterns, kingfishers and sandpipers--before finding Rouge Beach and Lake Ontario. In the 1920s, canals were dredged through the marsh to create a proposed "Venice of the North," a vision that dissolved in economic depression and war. Although the gondolas never arrived, the channels and the river mouth are plied by canoes, kayaks, and dragon boats. In earlier times, Paleolithic and Iroquoian peoples travelled these waters.

Adrienne Desjardine grew up on the Rouge River branch of the "Toronto Carrying Place" trail. Her childhood explorations in the Rouge Valley yielded discoveries of pre-Contact artifacts, mostly stone axe heads and arrowheads. Such finds gave her a sense of communion with the past and its people. She also encountered the ruins of more recent occupation of the area, including a stone hearth from one of the cottages swept away in the apocalyptic Hurricane Hazel of 1954, a tropical storm that hovered over Toronto with the power of a Category 1 hurricane.

Desjardine's work allows her a continuum of contact with the region's past. "As a technician," she explains, "I research, maintain, and manage the Museum's New World Archaeology collections and facilitate internal and external access to them." Many of the 150,000 holdings are native artifacts found in the Greater Toronto Area. She notes that Toronto is still a rich source of material from indigenous settlements once situated along the many streams, creeks, and rivers that flowed through a forest landscape. "Because of those waterways," she remarks, "Toronto is a great location for backyard archaeology."

The Museum's collections of effigy pipes and birdstones are of special interest to her. "The artistic expression is idiosyncratic. The effigy pipes connect to transformative experience, a link to the spirit world." Deposits of carbonized tobacco still present in some of the pipes are the subject of archaeo-botanical studies. Birdstones are especially enigmatic. Most archaeologists agree that these abstract representations of birds, fashioned from banded, striated slate and usually grey, deep charcoal, or green, were used as atlatl weights attached to spears to counterbalance thrust. …

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