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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Land Based Archaeology in Ontario

Land-Based Archaeology

(reprinted from Ontario's Ministry of Culture website)

At one time or another during the 10,000 years or so since the final retreat of the great ice sheets of the last ice age, people have lived just about everywhere in the Province. The age-old combination of curiosity and human need has led people into every corner of Ontario, from Pelee Island in Lake Erie to West Pen Island, by the Manitoba border in Hudson Bay. Of course, Ontario is an easy province to get around in. After all, it was common at one time to travel the 3,000 kilometres by canoe from Montreal to Thunder Bay and back during the course of one summer, and the Province possesses a remarkably extensive network of lakes and rivers. An equally extensive system of overland trails was also established over time, and if for some reason it proved difficult to get somewhere in the spring, summer, or fall, it was always possible to move there swiftly and directly in the winter. It is safe to say that even the earliest post-glacial settlers of Ontario were accomplished all-season travellers by land and water.

How do we know what it was like to live north of the Great Lakes after the retreat of the glaciers? Since the mid-1500s, we have had the written chronicles of European excursions and adventures through the activities of colonial exploration and expansion, trade, and religious conversion, along with access to the rich oral traditions and histories of our Native peoples. However, even the best of such accounts do not fully describe what day-to-day life was like for the average person even in relatively recent times, let alone over the many millenia during which the Province was occupied before the first Europeans set foot on Ontario's shores and in its forests. In order to better understand the lives and times of those peoples of long ago, we must turn to the actual physical traces of their past activities which remain in the ground bearing silent witness to their presence. This means we must turn our attention to see what can be discovered from the archaeological record.

Ontarians are very fortunate to have a rich and diverse archaeological record. Our early peoples may not have left monuments on a scale as large as in some other countries, but what they did leave for us to discover, our archaeological patrimony, is just as old and just as interesting. In Ontario, archaeological sites include aboriginal hunting and fishing camps, village sites, traces of routes of travel, battlefields, trading posts, and include the remains of the very earliest period of human occupation, when Ontario was an arctic tundra and people survived largely by hunting caribou, giant bison, and even mastodons.

Archaeology is the study of past human culture and civilisation through the scientific investigation of items and materials left on or below the surface of the earth or under water. Archaeology is a technically-disciplined approach to the collection, analysis and interpretation of cultural information using materials and methods derived from virtually every other field of scientific enquiry. Its value lies in the fact that it provides an intellectual framework within which the results of scientific investigation can be applied to the understanding of human beings and their cultures in relation to each other and to their physical environment. Archaeological techniques can be applied to any data from land or marine subsurface deposits found anywhere in the world, but their use tends to be focussed on sites of previous human settlement.
Archaeological investigations now concentrate on collecting information and understanding its meaning, rather than on just collecting artifacts. In fact, archaeologists prefer to leave artifacts in-situ whenever possible so that they can be preserved in context for study by future generations, who will have better tools and techniques.

Archaeological investigations in Ontario are carried out by a variety of dedicated people, who range from academic researchers and professional consultants, to avocational archaeologists who go out on weekends to study sites. Regardless of the person involved, archaeological investigations in Ontario are undertaken by people who are licensed by the Province and who report their findings to the Province so that the information resulting from their endeavours will not be lost. Ontario now has a thriving community of professional archaeologists who assist in addressing the impact of development on archaeological resources.

The staff of the Archaeology and Heritage Planning Unit provide technical support, training, conservation, public education, and resource management for our fragile and non-renewable archaeological heritage resources. In order to best serve the needs of the public and of the resource, the unit maintains regional archaeological offices in Kenora, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Ottawa, and London. For more information on programs and services, please call the office closest to your area of interest.

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