Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Digging in Your Backyard

When I was young, like ten or eleven, my father was replacing the fence in our backyard. We were living in The Beaches in Toronto. Some people call it The Beach and apparently there was a vote. I don’t care really, but I have always called it The Beaches, so I’m going stick with that.

Anyways, before Toronto spread its massive wings and engulfed every neighbourhood into one big city, The Beaches was its own neighbourhood; mostly a location for summer homes for actual Toronto residents. This was early in the time-line of Toronto- i.e. not the megacity– somewhere around the early part of the 20th century.  It’s interesting to think about how cities grow. Here, look at this.

Anyways, while digging holes for the new fence posts we found chicken bones, broken ceramics, and (if I remember correctly) some very rusty metal. A story was also told to me by one of my neighbours about a farmhouse sitting where their house now sits, and a barn where our house is. This shaped my young mind’s interpretation of the garbage we found. It was obviously the refuse pile from the old farmhouse, located behind the adjacent barn.

Looking back, I’m not sure if this was right, but it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. I think the barn and house might have been a little too close for that to first interpretation to be totally accurate. Regardless, it was my first real experience with finding stuff in the ground and puzzling out how it came to be. We didn’t have a permit by the way, so I guess it was more like looting than archaeology. But we didn’t sell any of the artifacts, so it was not that illegal. I wish we still had those pieces of broken plates, then I could try and date them. Oh well.

Interestingly, this didn’t make me want to grow up to be Indiana Jones, and I didn’t actually go to school intending to be an archaeologist. But this was my first experience with something that would take me 12 years to return to- archaeology in my own backyard.

But lets return to my personal narrative. I was much more interested in biology, specifically evolution, as a young student. Jurassic Park (the book, not the movie) turned me on to the writing of Stephen J Gould and I loved it! But I didn’t stray too far from an interest in the human past. In high-school I picked up some history courses, taught by one of my favourite teachers. His name was Mr.Chmielowiec, and he had the unfortunate task of teaching his first ever class to a bunch of semi-intelligent, disrespectful kids. Basically we knew enough to make fun of what were learning and we were far from the best behaved group. I believe Mr. C. named his first grey hairs after myself and two of my class mates. Apparently undaunted by our behaviour, Mr. C. (or Crazy Homie C. as we later came to call him) decided to lead a school trip to Athens. Which, thanks to my loving and supporting parents, I got to go on.

It was awesome. My first real taste of the travel and experiences that come with studying the past.

So young, so not jaded

That’s me in the front. Thanks to Ronnie, who I stole this picture from without even asking. And to Mr. C. for putting up with me so well during that entire trip. Mr. C., if you’re reading this, you were awesome. And inspirational- even if we did give you grey hairs.

I still remember Mr. C.’s class about the Hero’s Path. Though how could I forget it: the dude used Star Wars to teach it. Somewhere on the Net is a video of him dressed as frikken Darth Vader to teach it. I wish I had a link.

My first real archaeological experience was in University, where I was studying with the intention of becoming a paleoanthropologist, thanks again to Dr. Gould. I took some archaeological classes as well, since they were in the same program, and decided that I would attend a field-school. I figured learning to dig was learning to dig and it didn’t matter what you were digging. I have since corrected that notion. It’s a little true- learning to dig in one place seriously reduces the learning curve when digging in another, but it’s not totally transportable.

Being the sensation seeker I am, I settled on a field-school run by my alma mater, Trent University, in Belize. The project is centred at the ancient Maya site of Minanha. There is still a field-school running at this site, and I can resist giving it a plug. I had the time of my life here. My friends have a running joke about my stories all starting with the words “This one time, in Belize”. There are, if I’m honest, a great deal of said stories. During the seasons I worked down there I had so many awesome and ridiculous experiences. I learned to dive. I rode horses. Explored amazing caves. Lived in thatched roof tree-houses. Truly amazing. But, to me, the archaeology was never that interesting.

Also, who can dig when there are Monkeys around!

Don’t get me wrong, the research goals of the project are interesting. The work was intense and I learned a lot, but I never really cared about the end product. To me, the differences in architectural styles, ceramics, and lithics never really struck a cord. The human remains we found got me excited, and were the topic of my honours thesis, but none of the research I did down there excited me in the way my next project did. I want to be clear here- the archaeology that was done (and is still being done) at Minanha is interesting, and important. It just wasn’t to me personally.

My next project, which was in a farmers field in a small suburb of Toronto called Stouffville, was probably the most interesting archaeology I have ever done.

Now, it’s not the most interesting place I have ever worked. Belize was amazing. I rode horses through the jungle.

With this guy!

But that old farmers field, stuck between two sprawling suburbs, had some of the most interesting archaeology I have ever had the privilege to be part of. The site had more than 80 longhouses– some of them 160 feet long. It was amazing to dig. Almost every day new and incredibly interesting artifacts came out of the ground. You can see some of them here. Seriously, follow that link, because you can also look at the site plan.

The site was so confusing, especially when you realize that the lines on the map are not dotted. Those are actually individual post-holes. All of those dots, the ones that form the stippled lines, were all found by scraping away the top-soil, exposing a layer of soil called sub-soil. Each one appears on the surface of that sub-soil, looking like a dark circular stain. We mapped each one. Every single one. There had to be over 10,000. I’m probably way off on that number, but it still took us years. Seriously. I didn’t even start- or finish- the excavation of  that site and I still worked there for two years. It is an amazing site.

Now I have worked in some pretty amazing places. I could tell you about them, and I probably will. But I think I could better illustrate my point here by, well… illustrating it.

This is the Mantle site:


Nice enough.


Not much in the way of majestic landscapes. Or monkeys.

In contrast here are pictures of other places where my work has taken me.




More Mountains!

More Ocean!

Jeeps... on mountains!

Rivers and mountains!

Rivers and Deserts!

Deserts and Mountains!


Okay, so that last one is a bit less of a mountain and more of a cliff, but I had a theme going. I think you get my point. While I have had more fun travelling around for the projects I worked before and after the Mantle project, I have never had as much fun doing the actual archaeology.

I’m talking about the day-to-day act of finding something and trying to figure out what you’re looking at. Then trying to figure out how that thing fits with the other stuff you found, and what that means about the people who lived there. In my own experience, the most challenging and fun time I have ever had doing this didn’t require me to do anything but show up in a field, 5 days a week, and stick a trowel in the ground. No monkeys, no horses, no kayaks or boats. Just a 1.5 hour commute through the suburbs. But in the end, the work that the team did in that field was amazing. The results of those excavations have helped archaeologists understand a very interesting time in Ontario’s history. Research is still being done on the stuff we found.

My point is this: Archaeology is a great way to go places. To travel and have new experiences.  But you don’t have to do that to get great archaeology. There is interesting stuff in your own backyard.

When we think about archaeology, we think of pyramids and lost cities. In Egypt. Or Peru. In some distant far away and mystical land. We don’t think about St. Louis Missouri. Why would you?

But right across the river from St. Louis is an amazing archaeological site. In this site is a giant mound. Which is basically a pyramid made of mud. The thing is almost a hundred feet tall and a thousand feet long. It’s called Monk’s Mound and it is the centre piece of a site called Cahokia. The site itself covers almost six square miles and had over 120 different mounds- although only 80 remain. It is monumental in the most literal sense of the word. And it’s in the Mid-west. Not Peru. Not Belize. But right down the street from a Walmart.


I'm not joking. The A is a Walmart Superstore


I’m all for going to interesting and exotic places and learning about amazing ancient civilizations. Just don’t forget there is amazing stuff not to far from where you are sitting right now.

One final note, to bring this whole post back around to my earliest experiences. Through the magic of Facebook, I know that my old Classics teacher (Mr. C.) has occasionally taken his high-school classes on excavations at the Museum of Archaeology in London, Ontario. The museum has an archaeological site on the grounds and it is still being excavated. Students from grades 3 and up can actually dig there for a day. And Mr. C. sometimes takes his students there. As an undergrad, I worked on that site, teaching people how to dig. I just thought there was something poetic about how one of the teachers responsible for me becoming interested in the past is now doing the same for a whole new generation, setting them on the same path I am on- quite literally.

Was that too sappy? Probably. But I’m in a mood.


If you’re in Ontario and interested in seeing what’s around you, you can start here. If you’re in Toronto, try and get your hands on a copy of Toronto: A Short Illustrated History of Its First 12,000 Years. It’s edited by my old boss.

If you’re in BC, here is a good place to start. Also if you can get the  Sto:lo-Coast Salish Historical Atlas you should. It is amazing!

I’m not going to go through info for other places, that’s what google is for. But if you’re in North America, David Hurst Thomas has a great volume on the history and archaeology of the continent, complete with tourism info. It’s called Exploring Ancient Native America: An Archaeological Guide and it’s a great guide book to have handy.