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Context in Archaeology

Context in Archaeology or where did it come from? is one of the most important questions archaeologists ask.  One of the primary philosophies in archaeology is reconstructing daily life of human history and prehistory through material remains. Although one artifact can outline the potential age of a site and its trade relations between communities, it cannot tell you the bigger picture of how the object is understood and what it means to the daily life of the people unless you look at its association with the environment and material remains that surround it.

So how do we look at context in archaeology? The stratigraphy (the layering of soils and remains) of a site and the objects within each layer are examined in order to understand the meaning of the object and its association to the site. Soils layer over time therefore objects found in one layer are considered to be related and date to a similar time of use while objects found in another layer, either above or below, are deposited at an alternate time and indicate a different period of use.


Archaeologists can even identify when pits were dug on site just by looking at the layers of soil. Artifacts that are found in the same layer of soil are examined as a whole to identify what daily life was like during the time the objects were deposited there.

For example, archaeologists at the Lawson site beside MOA excavated thousands of pottery fragments that can be studied by their physical attributes in order to understand ecology, social organization etc. For example, one would consider a pottery fragment excavated in a hearth surrounded by carbonized corn remains to mean something different than a pottery fragment excavated across the site near the remains of a deer. While the use of the objects may have different meaning individually, if they are found in the same stratigraphic layer, chances are they were used at the same time.   In our example, this tells us that the Attawandaron people of Lawson had a diet containing both deer and corn at the same time.

Context is a very broad subject in archaeology, but it is one of the most useful tools for archaeologists to understand daily life and its evolution over thousands of years in Ontario. Understanding context helps identify subsistence patterns, time periods, social organization, and environment and relate it all together into one big picture.

Further Learning:


  • Bahn,Paul, and Colin Renfrew. 2008. Archaeology Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5th ed. Thames and Hudson Pg. 121-123
  • Johnsen, Harald, and Bjornar Olsen. 1992. Hermeneutics and Archaeology: On the Philosophy of Contextual Archaeology. American Antiquity. Vol 57, no. 3: 424-425


  • Bahn,Paul, and Colin Renfrew. 2008. Archaeology Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5th ed. Thames and Hudson Pg. 123

Meerschaum Pipes

Meerschaum Pipes

The Origin of Meerschaum

Meerschaum, also known by its technical name sepiolite, is a hydrous magnesium silicate formed from the shells and bones of prehistoric sea creatures. Meerschaum originates from Turkey and can vary in colour from white to light grey or even yellow. It is very porous and light, ranked as a 2 in hardness on the Mohs scale.  Meerschaum is mainly found in veins mined as deep as 400 feet below the surface but it can also naturally occur as lumps that look similar to sea foam floating atop the surface of the Black Sea.

Mainly used to create pipes, the first pipe recorded using meerschaum was created in 1723 by a shoemaker in Budapest. He discovered meerschaum is highly absorbent and he repeatedly dosed it in water to make it more pliable while carving. The experiment proved successful and the first meerschaum pipe was created. Currently, it housed at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

Teddy Pipe (2)

The Rise of Popularity and its Presence in America

Although meerschaum has been used since the 1700’s, its big break came around the 1840’s when upper class smokers throughout Europe began to collect the white pipes. Europeans were enamoured by the way meerschaum darkened in colour with use which created a booming industry of many European workshops working with high quality meerschaum supplied from Turkey or lesser quality meerschaum from Tanzania, Greece, Spain, and the United States.

In the United States, President James Garfield, an avid devotee of meerschaum pipes, commissioned the William Demuth Company situated in Manhattan to create two pipes for the 1881 inauguration, one to the likeness of the future president and one of his wife. These pipes were received with such high enthusiasm by both the president and upper class society smokers that Demuth decided to commission a series of high relief meerschaum pipes of all 29 presidents.

We know that the presidential pipe in our collection is not one commissioned by the Demuth Company since it does not have the WDC mark. Other manufacturing companies in the United States found their own carvers to create Presidential pipes which produced multiple sculptural styles of each president.

MOA’s pipe is carved in high relief and likely commissioned by an American manufacturing company at the time. Teddy Roosevelt is known to have over 10 variations of his image featured on meerschaum pipes.

Meerschaum Pipe

Did you know: You can symbolically Adopt this Artifact!? Your support will help support the care and conservation of our collection for years to come. You will receive a certificate of Adoption including a photograph of the artifact, and an opportunity to be photographed with the artifact. Including a “Behind-the-Scenes” tour of the Museum and many more benefits.

Briar pipe Lord

The Decline of Meerschaum

Meerschaum declined in the early 1900’s with the rise of briar pipes.

Although Meerschaum didn’t fall out of use completely since it was used to line briar wood pipes, meerschaum declined in production which lead to most European workshops closing and the quality of Meerschaum reducing with knock offs created using glue and meerschaum powder.

Fun Fact: A major plot device in the movie National Treasure was a meerschaum pipe?

-Nicole Aszalos, Curator



Hellier, Chris “Pipe Production in Eskisehir.” The Middle East. Jan 1993:50

Mindat.Org. Sepiolite. 2015.

Pfeiffer, Michael, Richard T. Gartley and J. Byron Sudbury. President Pipes: Origin and Distribution, 2007.

Rappaport, Ben. Pipes of Our Presidents, Antiques and Collecting. 1994.

The First Meerschaum Pipe, Michigan Farmer.  Jan 8th 1884;15,2 American Periodicals pg. 6

Caring for Family Heirlooms

Like the family heirlooms you have at home, museums are responsible for protecting a community’s cultural heritage for future generations. Caring for these unique and meaningful objects until they can be shared with children and grandchildren is not difficult, and we’d like to share some simple things you can do to ensure your heirlooms are protected.

Museums care for and preserve many different types of artifacts.  One area critical to long term preservation is how they are stored. Proper artifact storage is not as hard as it seems and is one of the easiest ways to prevent physical and environmental damage.

Here are a few simple guidelines we use that will help you keep your family heirlooms safe and sound.

1.  If you are storing clothing or any type of textiles (quilts, table cloths, etc.), use acid free white tissue to wrap and pack them. It’s important to use white since the colour of some tissue can actually rub off on the textiles.

2.  When packing textiles in a box or drawer, it is better to roll them loosely rather than fold them. Folding creates creases which will eventually cause the fibers in the fabric to fray and break resulting in holes. Also, stuffing small rolls (aka ‘sausages’) of tissue into areas being folded create a gentle roll instead of a hard crease.

packing fabric

3.  Limit the amount of direct exposure to light. Objects such as papers, photographs, textiles, and drawings can fade or yellow over time from constant exposure to light. Light can also accelerate an existing problem (i.e. if mould is present) since high levels of light can cause fluctuations in temperature.

4.  Don’t store metal objects in PVC type plastics. PVC plastics can cause a chemical imbalance with metal that creates an acidic reaction. Left untreated, this can create irreversible damage. Mylar envelopes are one of the many proper ways to store your metals such as coins in.

5.  Avoid attics and basements! They may seem like a good place to store family heirlooms because of the space available, but can actually be the worst places to store artifacts. Attics and basements are prone to temperature fluctuations (high and low) and when combined with high humidity, it accelerates deterioration and increases the potential for problems with mould. If possible, try storing objects in an area of your home where the temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much. Also, keeping heirlooms away from exterior windows and doors can do wonders for preservation

If you are interested in learning more about how to care from your family heirlooms, check out the Canadian Conservation Institute’s CCI Notes to learn more about the care, handling, and storage of a variety of cultural objects.

Tin Type Photographs

Although not exactly like pictures we encounter today, tintype photographs set the stage for photography in our era. Tintypes began in 1856 when an Ohio chemistry professor Hamilton Smith patented the tintype image. While not a new concept, the tintype was a combination of earlier experiments in imaging and existing commercial processes. Even though these photographs are known as a ‘tintype’, they are not actually made from tin. During their production in the 1800’s these pictures were were called ferrotype, in reference to the material they were created on; ferrous (AKA iron).

Jury Collection Tintype
Jury Collection Tintype


Before tintypes existed, the two main types of photographic images, the daguerreotype and the ambrotype, were created by treating glass with light sensitive collodin. The process to create these images was expensive and difficult.  When tintypes became available commercially, photographers were easily swayed by the durability, inexpensiveness, and easier emulsion process of the tintype which led to the downfall of images on glass. Unlike glass images, tintypes were also the first type of photography that didn’t need to be mounted in a case in order to produce an image.

Tintype Photograph
Tintype Photograph from the Jury Collection

Tintype images are taken on iron plates which are treated with an enamel to prevent rusting. Earlier tintypes are noted to be treated with a black enamel while later ones were treated with a brown enamel. When taking the image, no flash or click of a button was involved. The cap of the camera was removed and the person sat still in front of the camera while the treated iron plate captured a very underexposed (dark) image. The image would then be blacked by the enameling and coated with a collodion emulsion. The result, an image that appeared as the person waited.

Tintype’s enjoyed the longest success of all metal or glass based photos, lasting until the early 1900’s. Once their popularity began to decline, after the introduction of paper based photographs in the 1860’s, tintype’s continued as souvenirs from carnivals until their eventual demise. In our collection we have 10 tintype images, one of which is featured here.

Several of the tintype photographs in our collection  are from the Jury Family Photo collection. One of which, you can symbolically adopt through our Adopt an Artifact program!

If you want to see how a tintype photograph is made, check out this short video posted by George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Film and watch the image transform before your eyes!


Work Study Profile: Summer 2015 Curatorial Interns

An interview with our Summer 2015 Curatorial Interns, Erin Fawcett & Mary Simonds.

Mary and Erin 2015
Mary and Erin working on reboxing artifacts

We’ve worked at MOA since May 2015 as curatorial interns. Both our duties involve collections, curatorial work, and research. We have been doing an inventory of the ethnographic collections and helping set up incoming exhibits. We’re working on reboxing and rehousing artifacts and re-configuring the storage room in order to better preserve the numerous items held here. (Erin:) I am currently working on the inventory of the ethnographic collection and I am starting the plans for re-configuring the storage room collections.  (Mary): I am concentrating on finding the best way to catalogue and digitize the archaeological artifacts and all of the associated material.

Erin, what educational experiences led you to this intern position at MOA?

I am currently completing my post-graduate degree from Georgian College in Museum and Gallery Studies, this internship is part the program. Before coming to MOA I worked two seasons as a Museum Assistant (summer student position) at the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead in St. George, Ontario. I also had a high school coop placement in 2010 at the Bell Homestead in Brantford, Ontario. I have had a long standing interest and passion for museums ever since.

What about you, Mary?

I just finished the first year of my Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto; this internship is actually part of my course work. I did my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Classical Studies at Western. I have always been interested in archaeology/artifacts and I had hoped to somehow turn my interest into a career. MOA is exactly the type of institution I hope to work in once I graduate and I know the experience I gain over the summer will be a big asset when I apply to jobs in the future.

How did you hear about this position at MOA?

Erin: I heard about this position through the curator Nicole Aszalos. Nicole was in the same program as me at Georgian College last year and completed her internship at MOA as I am doing now. The position listed for curatorial/collections duties sounded perfect as I knew at that point that anything involving collections is where I wanted to be.

Mary: I have to complete an internship as part of my program at U of T. I am originally from London so MOA came to mind straight away. The focus on archaeology and the associated archaeological site (Lawson Site) were big attractions for me. Most of my background has been in Classical archaeology so it is nice that I will be broadening my experience by working here.

Do you have a favourite moment or story you would like to share?

Erin: One day I was doing inventory in storage and pulled out a box which I expected to hold some of the very large collection of the Monaghan baskets. Instead I found an African lion’s skull. I remember staring at it for quite a while before I started actually recording the information. It was definitely a cool surprise! Part of my job is to make sure we know what’s in the boxes before handling them through the use of inventory lists so that surprises like this don’t happen.

Mary:  My most memorable experience so far has been working on the small long house out on the Lawson site. Lawson site is definitely one of my favourite things about MOA! I find it really cool that a lot of the artifacts on display in the museum came from the archaeological site right next to it. I think it helps visitors connect more with the artifacts being able to see exactly where they came from.

If there was one thing you could tell the world about MOA, what would it be?

Ontario’s archeological heritage is very interesting. It is amazing what things have been discovered in our own backyard! MOA is full of wonderfully  interesting artifacts that tell the amazing story about the first peoples who lived in this area.


Adopt an Artifact

Artifacts for Adoption

Are you, or someone you know, passionate about archaeology… cultural heritage… history? Are you looking for a way to connect with Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage? Trying to find a unique gift for the person who “has everything”?

How you can Adopt an Artifact

MOA ‘s Adopt an Artifact program is a symbolic way to show your appreciation of Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage, connect with your favorite object, and support the museum.

The Adopt an Artifact program includes different types of artifacts as well as different levels of adoption.   Whether you are interested in stone tools, ceramics, or cultural artifacts – there are a variety of different artifacts available.  There are also a selection of artifacts specifically for school groups and classes to adopt. When you adopt an artifact, you get the opportunity to share why you chose the artifact along with a Certificate of Adoption, a photograph of your artifact, a charitable tax receipt, and other benefits depending on the adoption level.

Some of the artifacts available for adoption include beaded moccasins, a woven cup and saucer, and Wilfrid Jury’s Carving Set.

Adopt these artifacts

All proceeds from adoptions go to the care and maintenance of MOA’s collection. Donations will help provide equipment such as proper archival boxes for our artifacts, updated environmental controls and monitors, restoration of damaged ethnographic and archival objects, and continuation of our online collection.

Most importantly, donations will help sustain the knowledge, cultural appreciation, and significance of our collection for generations to come.


Consider adopting an artifact today.

Check out all the artifacts currently available here!


Traditional Games workshop

The Traditional Games workshop offers an interactive way for visiting school groups to learn about Canada’s First Nation traditional games. Weather permitting, we play Inuit games, lacrosse, and double ball outside with small groups. It’s an active and hands-on opportunity to teach students about traditional games.



Lacrosse has a long history in Canada, and many variations of this game have been played around the continent.  Lacrosse as we understand it today first developed in this region of Canada, by the Iroquois people, known in their language as dehonchigwiis.  It is a game that was played among the Six Nations Confederacy and is an important part of Iroquois culture.  It was typically played by men, though both men and women participated in the celebrations and rituals surrounding it.  Different forms of lacrosse are believed to have emerged as early as the 12th century, long before the arrival of Europeans to North America.   It is typically played with racquets made out of wood, connected to pouches (traditionally made out of hide), which players use to toss a ball (traditionally made with deerskin, now with rubber) back and forth in order to score on the opposing team’s goal.  Lacrosse games could involve mass amounts of people, with hundreds of players on a field that could be a mile long.  Lacrosse occupies an important place in Iroquois culture, as it is a gift from the Creator, and is used to give thanks to the gods and to provide the Creator with entertainment.  While it is a game that requires physical fitness and aggression, it is ultimately a celebration of the Creator’s gifts, and is also used to encourage healing and medicine.  Lacrosse was taught to European settlers when they arrived, and it was given the name lacrosse by French settlers, in reference to the sticks looking like Bishop croziers.  The matches became much smaller over time, and it eventually became Canada’s official sport, receiving some popularity internationally.  Lacrosse tournaments continue today, run by the Canadian Lacrosse Association, as well by the Iroquois Nationals, a First Nations lead organization founded in 1983 that carries out lacrosse tournaments in the spirit of playing for enjoyment, healing, and thankfulness.


Double Ball

We Pitisowewepahikan, or double ball, is another prominent sport played among First Nations peoples in North America, specifically in the prairies and in what is now the Eastern United States.  It is a physically demanding game that was traditionally only played by women, though over time it was played by both genders.   Similar in some ways to lacrosse, this game is played with long sticks and two balls tied together.  The goal of the game was to loop the balls onto the stick and pass them between the players until it is sent through the opposing team’s goal post.  This game could be played with as many as six to one hundred players, with variations of the game among different groups.  The Plains Cree tended to use a stick and double ball made from deerskin around buffalo hair held together with a leather thong, while the Chippewa used lather bags filled with sand.  This is considered to be a game of skill, and like many others is was played in large gatherings during times of celebration.

Inuit Games

There are a number of games played by the Inuit, which were used to encourage and build up agility, strength and endurance to survive in the harsh landscape.  They also served  the purpose of being entertaining and to keep spirits up during long periods of cold and darkness in the winter, especially if a family was experiencing a food shortage.  For example, games such as the owl hop, in which a person hops on one leg for as long as they can, were fun and built up strength and patience for hunting.

Further information:

Work Study Profile: Illinca


Name: Ilinca Olariu

How long have you worked at MOA? I’ve worked at MOA since October 2014.

What is your job title and what do you do? I am an education assistant. I am responsible for giving tours – usually to primary school groups, but occasionally to afterschool programs such as scouts, brownies or non-school tours.

How did you begin working at MOA; what led you to this position? I am working for MOA through the University of Western Ontario’s Work Study program. I am currently in my second year of my undergraduate program at Western, doing an honours specialization in History, (with a minor in French Language and Translation and a minor in Spanish Language and Linguistics.) I wanted to find a work position in affiliation with the university that would reflect my academic interests – what better way to do this than working at a museum!

What drew you to this position?
Actually, by word of mouth – I was lucky enough to be in contact with the right people at the right time! Kylie Kelly, an assistant curator at the time, had told me about her experiences working at the museum. In September 2014, I happened to run into her on the bus on my way home from Masonville mall, where I had just summited resumes to any and every store I could think of, as I was searching for part-time employment. Kylie told me about the opportunity of working at the museum through Western’s Work Study program and helped me apply online. Read more

Work Study Profile: Dane

Dane Ferry

Hello, I’m Dane Ferry. I have been with the museum since February of 2015. I came to here of this position through Western University’s Work-Study program and thought it would be an enriching and educational employment experience. My previous employment in the service industry combined with over six years of volunteering with local non-profit organizations has prepared me well for my duties at the museum. The work environment here is unlike any other in which I have experienced, it is fun, lively and enthralling.

My favourite aspect of my job here is working with children to help enrich their educational experience.  I am currently working on expanding and updating some of the current educational program activities as well as presenting them. Working here has changed my outlook on education and North American culture. As an International Relations major I’m always looking for ways to incorporate history into my daily life and working at the museum has helped me greatly in doing so.

While working, I really enjoy learning about Indigenous culture as well as other aspects of Canadian history which I have always been interested in but never really had access to. I look forward what will hopefully be a long relationship with this organization as it provides an invaluable service to the London community.

Work Study Profile: Arienne

Hello, I’m Arienne!


I have been an Education Assistant with the museum since January 2015. I am in charge of making your days of learning and exploring at MOA as great as possible. So far I am loving my role, I have learned so much about Ontario’s history – who knew so much went on right where we stand!

A bit about myself: I am a fourth year student at Western University, currently finishing up my studies in English and French Language and Literature. Next year I plan to study Education, so I love being able to learn alongside all of the visitors to MOA.  I am a huge dog person and I love walking my golden retriever Kendall through all the paths of Hamilton, my hometown. In my third year of my undergraduate studies, I had the privilege of studying in Nice, France. My favourite place that I have traveled to would have to be Amsterdam. My Opa (grandpa in Dutch) grew up there and worked in his father’s barbershop before immigrating to Canada. Being able to explore the city of his childhood, and eating all of the Dutch food of my childhood, led to an amazing trip I’ll never forget. Not to mention the beauty of the tall, crooked architecture, the canals and houseboats, and the insane bike lane laws. Since then, I’ve been bitten by the travel bug, and hope to explore more of Europe – specifically the East – and hope to find myself in Southeast Asia for my next adventure.

If you ever spot me at MOA, come over and say hi!