Historicist: Unearthing the Alexandra Site’s Pre-Contact Past
Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
Photograph of the remains of a longhouse at the Alexandra Site.
Toronto has been a centre of human habitation for more than ten thousand years. In addition to a resource-rich environment, the region’s rivers and overland trails made the area a natural crossroads. Yet little is known of this period before European contact because the Aboriginals who dwelt here left no written record. Our knowledge of their lives is based upon their own oral histories and traditions and on the archaeological traces they left behind. Archaeological sites therefore represent a vital but all-too-easily lost cultural resource. Archaeological Services Inc. estimates that around eight thousand sites were destroyed between 1951 and 1991 in the name of development and urban growth. Since then, the situation has improved, with the city’s planning policies taking a progressive stance towards archaeological conservation, including the development of A Master Plan of Archaeological Resources for the City of Toronto, which, in addition to providing reliable guidance on whether history potentially lurks beneath a planned development, provides a thorough overview of the city’s pre-contact cultural heritage [PDF]. Nowadays, sites of archaeological importance are uncovered regularly.
The Alexandra Site, located in north Scarborough near the present-day site of Mary Ward Catholic Secondary School, is one such location that offers a glimpse into the region’s Aboriginal heritage. Here a six hundred-year-old Huron-Wendat village was found almost intact beneath a farmer’s field being redeveloped into a residential subdivision. The previously unknown site—a full 2.5 hectares in size—was thoroughly excavated and documented over the course of eight months in 2000-2001. The dig, undertaken by Archaeological Services Inc., unearthed evidence of longhouses, sweat lodges, and garbage pits. Among the nearly twenty thousand artifacts uncovered were bone awls, bone beads, ground stone axes, and ceramic pottery fragments that dated the village to about 1350 A.D., which falls into the Middle Iroquoian period. As a typical village of that period, the Alexandra Site and its artifacts reveal much about the culture and history of the Huron-Wendat people.
A miniature pipe, found in a sweat lodge and shown in situ, that was likely used to promote health.
Although the village’s name is lost to even the descendants of the Huron-Wendat—now located in Wendake, near Quebec City—the Alexandra Site was once a booming community of eight hundred to one thousand people, one of the twenty-five or so villages scattered north of Lake Ontario that comprised the Huron-Wendat nation. Early versions of Iroquoian settlements existed in the Toronto region from about one thousand one hundred years ago, but their nature and orientation evolved as the group’s cultural practices changed. Hunting, fishing, and gathering were always important—as evidenced by the remains of deer, lake trout, and wild berries found at the Alexandra Site—but, by the fourteenth century, a growing reliance on horticulture meant that settlements became larger and more permanent.
The Alexandra Site village, as was common, was located on a small ridge overlooking a waterway—the now-diverted Highland Creek—that provided transportation and fishing and was surrounded by cultivated fields. Unlike some other villages, there were no palisades, suggesting that it probably wasn’t threatened with extensive conflict. The various Iroquoian and other Aboriginal communities demonstrated a high level of interaction and appear to have shared ideas and similar cultural practices.
Beginning in the Early and Middle Woodland periods (1,000 B.C. to A.D. 600), the Huron-Wendat’s advantageous geographic position allowed them to become increasingly involved in extensive trading from the Great Lakes to Hudson Bay, the Saguenay, and beyond. At the Alexandra Site, beads made of sea shells from the eastern seaboard illustrate just how far the Huron-Wendat trading network stretched. Much later, in the early 1600s, these established trade networks incorporated white newcomers, and the Huron-Wendat became indispensable middlemen in the French fur trade.
Artist’s depiction of an Iroquoian village. The Alexandra Site, however, did not have palisades.
Sixteen longhouses were unearthed at the Alexandra Site. The centre of these windowless structures, which housed extended families, was used for cooking and living, while walls were lined with raised bunks for sleeping. As the photograph illustrates, archaeologists could mark the exact outlines of longhouses because the poles that were bent to create the structure’s frame—and were then covered in saplings and bark—left residual organic stains in the soil. At the Alexandra Site, the longhouses ranged in size from only 5 metres long to more than 70 metres long. Longhouses were expanded or contracted or reconstructed numerous times, and additional longhouses were constructed to meet the evolving needs of the community.
One of the unusual features of the Alexandra Site, according to Archaeological Services Inc., is its large number of sweat lodges. Entered by a ramp leading into a large pit dug into the earth, a sweat lodge would be covered in an above-ground sapling and bark structure. Located throughout the village, these sweat lodges were warmed with steam from pouring water over heated rocks. They were used as social venues or for ritual purposes, likely for communicating with the spirit world. At the Alexandra Site, some of the sweat lodges had multiple entrances—indicating that they were shared by two households—and one even still had a woven mat on the floor.
The Alexandra Site also illustrates the importance of agriculture in the lives of the Huron-Wendat. Over the course of the Transitional Woodland Period (A.D. 600 to A.D. 900), the introduction of corn, beans, and squash to Ontario from the south instigated a massive cultural shift. Rather than depending upon naturally occurring resources for subsistence, the Huron-Wendat came to rely on food production. Becoming a fully developed horticultural society meant sacrificing group mobility, and it resulted in larger and more permanent settlements, such as the Alexandra Site village. Crops of corn, beans, squash, sunflower, and tobacco ensured prosperity for the Huron-Wendat and reinforced their role as traders.
The Huron-Wendat would have customarily worked the surrounding fields until the nutrients of the land were exhausted. Then, the community could reuse the village’s construction materials for firewood and move to a new site. The surrounding forest would reclaim the abandoned village, and nutrients would be naturally restored to the meadowlands. Typically, a village lasted for ten to twenty years. The Alexandra Site, on the other hand, was either used for a number of decades or occupied during several separate periods over the course of forty years.
Projectile Point Plate.
Eventually, during the Late Iroquoian period (A.D. 1400 to A.D. 1650), the Huron-Wendat who inhabited the Alexandra Site and others immediately surrounding Toronto relocated further north towards Georgian Bay. Although uncertainty surrounding the exact reasons for the move has long fuelled debate among historians and archaeologists, it was likely a combination of environmental and political factors. On one hand, the arable soil and opportunities for fish and game near Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe would’ve been attractive. On the other, an evolving social structure resulted in these regional populations becoming politically allied in the Huron Confederacy, in part to defend themselves against the incursion of the Five Nations Confederacy.
War and devastating epidemics drove the Huron-Wendat to disperse—some to Quebec, others to the American Midwest—in about 1650. Their departure to far flung locations makes their place in the Toronto region’s history easy to overlook. Yet, remarkable continuity existed between how the original Aboriginal inhabitants and the European settlers who followed used the land. “It’s not two different cities,” Ron Williamson, the president of Archaeological Services Inc., told Toronto Life for an October 2008 profile. Yonge Street, he continued, is just a “colonial incarnation of an ancient trail.” In this way, the earliest Aboriginal inhabitants have influenced the way the modern city has taken shape.
All images and photos courtesy of Archaeological Services Inc.