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The Big Dig: Ancient knife is a highlight of Parliament Hill archeological study


With shovels and sieves, archeologist Steve Jarrett and his team have been carefully digging into history

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As the architects and designers of Canada’s under-renovation Centre Block look to the future, Steve Jarrett has been looking into the past.

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With trowels and tape measures, shovels and sieves, Jarrett and his team of archeologists have been carefully digging into the history of Parliament Hill, layer by painstaking layer.

“It’s a slow process. Indiana Jones running out of the temple? That’s not the way we do it. It’s slow, methodical work,” says Jarrett, lead archeologist for CENTRUS, the joint venture company overseeing the dig. His goal? To find and catalogue as many artifacts as possible as part of the decade-long restoration of the Centre Block.

The team uncovered a trove of buried treasures, everything from the remains of the massive ceremonial fountain that briefly graced the entrance to Centre Block, to tens of thousands of tinier items, the daily detritus of military life when the area was a British garrison known as Barracks Hill.

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Perhaps the most intriguing find of all was an ancient, palm-sized Indigenous knife blade hewn from rock quarried in present day New York State. The knife was found in an area of disturbed soil above the site of an old military cook house, meaning archeologists can say little about how it got there. They estimate it to be perhaps 4,000 years old.

“It was certainly placed there during the construction of the first Centre Block,” Jarrett said. “The most likely place it came from was out of the excavation for the foot of the original building. It could have been a military souvenir, or a souvenir of one of the construction workers. Or it could have been natural to the site.

“It had to have been quarried out of the ground in New York State, then brought it here, either as raw material, or a finished product, or a half-made a “blank” that was partially carved and could then be made into something. It was very well used. It had quite a bit of grinding where it had been reshaped and reused,” he said.

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“Other than that, there’s not much more we can say about it, unfortunately.”

The government is currently negotiating with officials from Kitigan Zibi and the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, on whose territory it was found to return the artifact to their stewardship.

Other items recovered tell the history of later occupants, namely the regiments of British and Canadian soldiers who occupied Parliament Hill during the construction of the Rideau Canal and for decades afterward. They include a myriad of uniform buttons, cap badges, chin straps, bottles of boot blacking and musket balls. There were shards of crockery, lost cutlery and other kitchenware near the site of the cookhouse, along with animal bones, the leftovers of nearly 200-year-old meals.

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The most alarming find? A shard of ceramic depicting a scene from the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 anti-slavery book by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The scene shows a Black slave being hunted down by dogs.

“It was one of those shocking moments when you first see it,” Jarrett said. “It says, ‘Field Sports Down South’ on it. It’s an important reminder of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the racial struggle that’s gone on, but at first glance at it is you think,  ‘What is going on here!’”

The excavations were meticulous. Jarrett and his crew, which normally numbered about 12 to 15, would work in trenches a metre or two wide and 10 to 15 metres long, scraping away layers of earth, each pass taking them further back in time — at least in areas that hadn’t been disturbed by past construction.

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“Soil is the most important thing to us. Lots of people think it’s like Indiana Jones and the Golden Idol. But the artifacts are only a small part of the story.”

The work revealed the extensive renovations of the various buildings the British Army built on Barracks Hill during the construction of the Rideau Canal.

“We’re not seeing big fortifications. But on a smaller scale, we are seeing a lot of changes to these structures. And when they happened is very interesting because they’re happening at the very end of the military occupation on the site. It’s a bit unusual to see, as the site was winding down and there were fewer and fewer soldiers there and the were mostly old pensioners. These are changes that were unexpected and not necessarily well recorded at the time.”

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The grand fountain, excavated at the foot of the Peace Tower, was part of the landscaping done after the original Centre Block was built and was done in consultation with landscape architect Calvert Vaux, one of the designers of New York’s Central Park. It didn’t last long. The large circular fountain conflicted with Dominion Architect Thomas Fuller’s vision of an unobstructed promenade from Wellington Street straight through to the Library of Parliament and he it demolished and backfilled in 1875. The original Centre Block itself would be destroyed by fire in 1916.

Jarrett was on the site for all but two days of the dig, which was mostly done in 2019-20. The work was rewarding, but tough, he said.

“From a human perspective, it’s fun to find things, but you’re also working through all the seasons. From cold in the spring to it being boiling hot in the summer. You’re doing it day in, day out. It wears on you. But it’s a great sense of camaraderie on the team.”

The artifacts recovered — more than 200,000 of them, Jarrett said — are still being catalogued. Just how and when they will be displayed for the public has yet to be decided.

A cap badge and chin strap were among the artifacts found on Parliament Hill. Photo: PWGSC
A cap badge and chin strap were among the artifacts found on Parliament Hill. Photo: PWGSC Photo by PWGSC /jpg
Another interesting find on the Hill was the discovery of an old fountain found under the central path during investigation work in 2019. The fountain was originally built in 1875 and sat in front of the central staircase to the Centre Block. Photo: PWGSC
Another interesting find on the Hill was the discovery of an old fountain found under the central path during investigation work in 2019. The fountain was originally built in 1875 and sat in front of the central staircase to the Centre Block. Photo: PWGSC Photo by PWGSC /jpg
Archeologists search soil excavated during their investigation of Parliament Hill. Photo: PWGSC
Archeologists search soil excavated during their investigation of Parliament Hill. Photo: PWGSC Photo by PWGSC /jpg

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