Surprised isn’t exactly the word archaeologist Paul Racher would use in describing the significant find at the site of Brantford’s future YMCA.
“More like shocked,” he said. “It was probably one of the largest and most complex projects that I’ve done in 30 years. It was definitely something you don’t encounter very often and it was quite unexpected because it’s in an urban setting.”
Racher – principal with Archaeological Research Associates Ltd. - served as the lead archaeologist on the excavation site where the YMCA is currently under construction.
The archaeological dig along the south side of Colborne Street resulted in the finding of 400,000 artifacts, some of which date back as far as 500 BC.
“What we didn’t realize was that because that old streetscape from the 1850s had been built prior to mechanical equipment, that essentially they just built on top of remains that were already there,” Racher said.
“They shoveled out footings to build those old buildings, but they did only minimal damage to the archaeological remains that were underneath.”
Many different artifacts were unearthed from multiple periods, the oldest being 500 to 1,000 BC.
“The evidence from that period is quite ephemeral,” Racher said. “It looked like there may have been a little campsite or something like that there and we just got the barest trace of it.
“But if you sort of fast-forward ahead 1,500 years to around 1,000 AD, 1,100 or so, we have a very extensive indigenous remains from what was definitely a village located nearby.”
A significant amount of material from Brantford’s earliest history was also unearthed during the archaeological dig.
“From 1800 to 1850 there was just a tremendous amount of material, when you add it all up it comes to about 400,000 artifacts off the site,” Racher said.
Although many rumours swirled around the dig about human remains, none were unearthed, Racher added.
“It’s not something that somebody could cover up, not without risk of going to jail,” Racher said. “There is no client or no business that is ever worth something like that.”
ARA will curate the artifacts until a designated institution steps forward and agrees to keep them
“Certainly the hope is that they will go into a local heritage facility,” Racher said. “A good deal of decision-making for what is going to shake out will rest with the YMCA and Wilfrid Laurier. We’re still working our way through the artifacts anyway so it will be a while before those types of decisions will have to be made.”
The artifacts must be sorted, cleaned, stabilized if they are fragile, catalogued and analyzed to determine what they are and how old they are. Then they have to be prepared for storage.
“There were a couple of shoemaker shops on the street there so we have thousands of pieces of leather and shoes and things like that which are 150 years old,” Racher said. “Those sorts of things have to be preserved so that they don’t fall apart now that they’ve been exposed to the air.”
It will likely take about two years before the extensive collection is prepared by ARA. Racher said the find “has a lot to say about the overall history of the area.”
“Brantford is archaeology central for Southern Ontario anyway,” Racher said. “There’s been so many communities that lived there and the Grand River was extremely important before Europeans arrived and certainly after. It was the main highway in Central Ontario.
“There’s all kinds of artifacts to give really tantalizing hints about what life was like during the nineteenth century and what sort of goods were being brought into this part of Ontario, even though it was really a pioneer town at the time.”
Indigenous material that was unearthed suggests, “some really interesting stuff was going on,” along the north side of Colborne Street, likely a village.
Material found on the slope suggests it was used as a garbage dump used by the village that would have extended through a great deal of downtown Brantford.
Racher commended Laurier Brantford and the YMCA for how the dig was conducted.
“I’d really like to congratulate the YMCA and Wilfrid Laurier for how the project went,” he said. “One of the things that people don’t realize is the YMCA and WLU invited Six Nations, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Mississaugas of the New Credit, to participate in the project.
“The entire project took place with their personnel on hand to be involved in the decision-making, to offer opinions on how we should proceed, and to just enjoy the fact that it’s the kind of archaeological excavation that only comes along once in a decade or so.”
With much talk revolving around resetting relationships with First Nations, Racher said YMCA and WLU went above and beyond by reaching out to First Nations communities and ensuring they were included.
People can learn more about the discoveries unearthed and the research that went into identifying the artifacts when The Brant Historical Society hosts a free speaker event with Racher on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 7:30 P.M.
It will be held at the Research and Academic Building of Brantford Laurier, Room RAE-004.
Racher promised to bring artifacts for viewing.
“I love putting artifacts in people’s hands,” he said.
Brant Historical Society education officer Sarah Thomas said the event will help satisfy local resident’s curiosity about the dig.
“We’re going to get the truth, we wanted to set the story straight,” she said. “We thought this topic was very relevant to the area, it’s applicable to everyone.”