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A Rich History of the Maple Harvest

Archaeologists can encounter a lot of problems when looking at the archeology of maple sugar. Since archaeologists study material remains from human activity, logically there needs to be material remaining to study. Unfortunately, the seasonal and temporary nature of sugaring activities leaves often leaves little for archaeologists to analyze.


That is why archaeologists can find themselves categorizing a site based on what isn’t there instead of what is. For example let’s look at a site that was excavated in the 1960’s in Glencarry County which was dubbed a pre-historic Iroquoian sugar bush site. This wasn’t done because there was a wealth of information pointing towards the camp being used as such, but because of the lack of post-European contact trade materials, or really any materials for that matter. The absence of artifacts led the archaeologists to think that it was used seasonally instead of continuously. Also, large deposits of ash were thought to indicate the extensive use of hearths in the area.


Both Indigenous traditional knowledge and historical accounts attest to the existence of maple sap harvesting in the past. As there is no certainty about when and where it started, it can be said to have been done since time immemorial. The sap would have been collected in birch bark containers and then been processed into syrup or sugar by constant heating to evaporate the water in sap. Kettles and other technologies were adopted once they became more accessible through trade with European settlers.


This cultural exchange allowed for new innovations in processing to be developed, and these can be more easily identified in the archaeological record. In Michigan and Wisconsin, archaeologists have excavated the remains of ‘boiling arches’ at some indigenous sites from the early 20th century. These are ‘u’ shaped structures of stones packed with earth, with one open end to allow a fire tender entry into the fire box. These “arches” were an efficient replacement for kettles, as they permitted a more even distribution of a greater amount of heat (that was also better controlled), and for more steam to be allowed to escape during the boiling process. Instead of using a series of small kettles, people processed maple in a large rectangular metal pan held over the arch. This technology left behind a lot of archaeological evidence. This includes the unnatural arrangement of soil and stone, called the “borrow pit,” where the builders took the dirt they used to reinforce the arch, charcoal and ash deposits found near the opening of the arch from intermittent cleaning of the fire box, and various other materials, such as smoke stacks and support rods for the boiling box.


The history of the maple harvest is almost as rich as the delicious snacks we get from it. While we know that Indigenous people have always been central to this story, it can be difficult for archaeologists to identify cultural activities surrounding harvesting maple. To learn more about what archaeologist can say about prehistoric sugaring activities, visit the Museum of Ontario Archaeology’s temporary exhibit, “A Sweet Excavation”.

To read more about it:
Henshaw, H. W. “Indian Origin of Maple Sugar.” American Anthropologist, vol. 3, no. 4, 1890, pp. 341–352. 

Kuhnlein, Harriet V, and Nancy J Turner. Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use. Gordon and Breach, 1991.

Matthew M. Thomas (2005) Historic American Indian Maple Sugar and Syrup Production: Boiling Arches in Michigan and Wisconsin, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 30:2, 299-326, DOI: 10.1179/mca.2005.010

Pendergast, J.F. “The Sugarbush Site: A Possible Iroquoian Maplesugar Camp” Ontario Archaeology, OA23, 1974, pp. 31-61.

On #LoveYourPetDay, MOA is celebrating the animals that have brought joy, comfort, and company to so many of us for so long

“Cleveland” was the affectionate name by which researchers at McMaster University came to refer to a dog in their archaeological collections. (Bathurst and Barta, 2004). Originally discovered on the Cleveland archaeological site near Brantford, Ontario, the dog was an unusual find – a complete burial recovered within what remained of a large ceramic pot. From the robust markings on the skull and a distinctive bone called a baculum, or “penis bone”, found among the remains, there was no doubt that Cleveland had been a male. Minimal dental wear and almost no deterioration in the joints indicated that he was likely no older than three or four years old at the time of his death. Measurements of his limbs determined that he had likely once stood about knee-height to an adult human.

A micro-CT scan of Cleveland’s skull

Dogs are humanity’s oldest domestic companions, and recent research confirms that they were present in North America over 10,000 years ago. (Perri et al, 2018) Archaeological evidence of dog remains suggest that the agricultural communities living in the Brantford area 450 years ago had complex relationships with their dogs. While some were carefully buried whole and undisturbed, as Cleveland was, other remains have been found burnt, broken, sometimes polished around the edges from bouncing around in a boiling pot, scarred by cuts or gnaw-marks, and scattered among the garbage heaps – or middens – within the same communities. Some dogs, it seems, were invited to dinner, whereas others were dinner.

There are things we can presume about ancient dogs that we cannot see or confirm from archaeological evidence. We know from our relationships with them today, as well as from historic accounts and traditional knowledge, that dogs would have served many purposes in a community, from labourers to companions. They would have been helpful on a hunt, and loyal guardians within a village. They would have eaten scraps and garbage, controlling waste, and driven away predators around a village or pests within the fields of crops. They may even have helped as pack animals, prior to the arrival of the horse, bearing burdens from one community to the next. Dogs feature in many traditional narratives as loyal and helpful companions to humans in both life – and in death.

Cleveland’s remains show that he suffered from a condition called hypertrophic osteopathy, or HPO, a painful and obvious bone condition that may have been caused by a reaction to lung-related infections such as pneumonia, cancer, or tuberculosis. Thanks to modern veterinary medicine, HPO is condition that is not seen often today and can be readily cured when it is. The archaeologists were particularly interested in knowing whether Cleveland’s condition was caused by tuberculosis, because TB is a zoonotic disease – that is, an infection that can be shared between animals and humans. Therefore, they tested Cleveland’s bones for evidence of tuberculosis DNA – and they found it. This told them two interesting things about the relationship between humans and dogs in this ancient community.

Cleveland’s left calcaneus and metatarsals displaying proliferative perio- steal reaction, characteristic of hypertrophic osteopathy.

First, Cleveland was cared for. With HPO and tuberculosis, he would have looked and acted very sick, with symptoms of TB such as weight loss, cough, and vomiting. The HPO would have swollen his paws and lower limbs, making them thick and painful and difficult to move. He likely would have required assistance eating and drinking and would not have been able to defend himself. The advanced state of the condition suggested that he’d lived with the condition for some time. His remains showed no evidence of cut marks, gnawing, nor any other indication of violence or abuse. This suggested to the archaeologists that Cleveland was able to rely on his human companions for food, protection, and care as his illness progressed. People in this ancient village cared for this dog in much the same way we do with our pets today.

Second, Cleveland’s condition potentially posed a great and unexpected danger to those who were caring for him. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that the World Health Organization still considers one of the top 10 causes of death, worldwide. (World Health Organization, 2018) Just as it can be passed from person to person, it can also be passed between humans and animals. Tragically, those who had cared so tenderly for this dog, may have become infected themselves, and in turn may have passed this deadly condition along to others in the community – human and canine, alike.

Despite his short and difficult life, Cleveland appears to have been tenderly cared for by his human companions. Almost 500 years later, his discovery has sparked over 20 years of research – from his archaeological recovery to historic, pathological, etiological, DNA, microscopic, and microCT research that has served to teach us all more about the conditions he and his human companions once lived in and the relationship that they once shared. 

Dr. Rhonda Bathurst is the lead author on the research paper that this story is drawn from (you can read this article in full at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440303001985). Dr. Bathurst wrote it during her PhD at McMaster University after her (re)discovery of the Cleveland dog remains in a locked cabinet in a basement archaeology lab. She collaborated with a fellow PhD candidate at the time, Jodi Barta, who was working in the newly built McMaster Ancient DNA Centre. Barta helped her to confirm the hunch she had about the dog’s primary condition – tuberculosis. Today Dr. Bathurst is the Executive Director of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, and is delighted to share this story about her favourite dog.

To read more about Cleveland, other research involving this dog includes:

James A. Burns. “The Dog Who Couldn’t Be.” Arch Notes, 73 (1973): 3–5. Print.

Barta, Jodi Lynn. “Man’s Best Friend: Implications of Tuberculosis in a 16th Century Neutral Iroquois Dog from Canada.” Multiplying and Dividing: Tuberculosis in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Judith Littleton et al., Research in Anthropology and Linguistics, 2008, pp. 22–30, www.researchgate.net/publication/270904768_Man’s_best_friend_Implications_of_tuberculosis_in_a_16th_century_Neutral_Iroquois_dog_from_Canada.

Hunnius, T. Von. “Using Microscopy to Improve a Diagnosis: an Isolated Case of Tuberculosis-Induced Hypertrophic Osteopathy in Archaeological Dog Remains.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, vol. 19, no. 3, 2009, pp. 397–405., onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/oa.989.

Works Cited

Bathurst, Rhonda R., and Jodi Lynn Barta. “Molecular Evidence of Tuberculosis Induced Hypertrophic Osteopathy in a 16th-Century Iroquoian Dog.” Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 31, no. 7, 2004, pp. 917–925., https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305440303001985.

Perri, Angela, et al. “New Evidence of the Earliest Domestic Dogs in the Americas .” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 26 Dec. 2018, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-antiquity/article/new-evidence-of-the-earliest-domestic-dogs-in-the-americas/0DBDDAAD435BBFD7A929F0C2FC7CD365.

“Tuberculosis (TB).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 18 Sept. 2018, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tuberculosis.

The Story of Ste. Marie II- A Virtual Exhibit

Located along the southern shore of Christian Island, Ste. Marie II was the last Jesuit Mission to the Huron-Wendat Nation in what is now southern Ontario and was a central place in one of the most significant stories in early Canadian history. It is one of struggle, sacrifice and change, all of which left both the Wendat and Jesuits with unexpected consequences.

A google map image showing the site of Ste Marie II. Copyright 2018.

We begin in the early seventeenth century when the French and Wendat thrived alongside one another. By far the most comprehensive records of Wendat life are the annual accounts of the Jesuit priests who lived among the Wendat from 1634 until 1650. These regular reports by those Jesuits who lived among the Wendat are filled with descriptions of Wendat life and society. Jesuit missions in North America began early in the seventeenth century. Christian proselytization was an important component of the Christian church at this time around the world. All of these sources must be employed with caution, however, as they were written by outsiders with their own agendas. Read more

The Making of a Model Dig

Anna Johnstone

This week, we are featuring a story from a local Grade 11 student Anna Johnstone who is taking her passion in archaeology and sharing it with the community.

Hello, my name is Anna and I am a grade 11 student. For my Ancient Civilizations class I had to make what my teacher calls a ‘Passion Project’, which means that each student got to make any kind of project that they wanted as long as the subject related to the curriculum and we could, to quote my teacher, “get it out to the world”. I love to make models and dioramas so as soon as we started brainstorming our projects my mind jumped to a model of a dig site and artifacts that could be found at it. Since it was an Ancient Civilizations class, I decided that a site in Rome would be cool but the model looks as if it could be anywhere, even here in Ontario. Read more

Conservation vs. Preservation: What’s the Difference?

One of the most important roles museums have is to care and maintain artworks and artifacts in their collections. Museums all over the world abide by this to extend the objects life for future education and for general public enjoyment for generations to come. Although museums strive to protect every single object, environmental conditions, storage control, and individual handling all influence the longevity of the artworks and artifacts.

Conservation and preservation are two methods which are used to maintain the state of the object. Conservation is the hands-on act of working directly with the object to preserve its current condition. Such method can be invasive, for example, conservators use restoration treatments to enhance the object to its original state or appearance by removing accumulated layers of dirt and/or adding necessary components that have gone missing.

MOA Conservation Intern Josh cleaning a basket from the ethnographic collection.

Preservation is the non-invasive act of minimizing deterioration and preventing future damage of the object. Some examples are outlined below: Read more

What is Thin Sectioning?

Thin-sectioning (also known as, thin-section analysis) is an important technique used in Archaeology for the examination of the composition of various materials. Typically, such materials include ceramics or stone.

Thin-sectioning is the removal of a very thin piece (roughly 0.03 mm) of material from the object in order to be observed under a microscope. The sample needs to be so thin that the details of the material (small internal structures, and crystals) are readily displayed in the microscope in order to undergo proper analysis. This method is crucial in determining the raw material used for the specific object, or in the case of faunal remains, determining how the animal was killed. While we are able to obtain crucial information from thin-sectioning, it has some limitations. For instance, thin-sectioning is an abrasive method which doesn’t align with the archaeological view of limiting destructive analysis techniques on artifacts.

 

Thin sectioning is only done on samples with no accompanying context. Here samples are first coated with epoxy to create pucks that are later cut to a thickness of 30 microns.

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A Look Back: An Unusual Holcombe Point in the Vogt Collection

Originally from the Palisade Post, 1987 Vol 9 no.1

The museum received a donation of artifacts from the Vogt family, obtained from Lambton County. One of the artifacts in this collection is an unusual “Holcombe” point.

Drawing made for the museum by artist Catherine Comrie.

The Holcombe point type was first defined on the basis of specimens recovered on Holcombe Beach in Macomb County Michigan. Often made from Onondaga or Bayport Chert, this lanceolate point with a concave base and fine parallel flaking is confined to the later part of the Paleo Period ca.8000 BCE. Read more

A Look Back to the Lawson Site Pot

Reconstructed pottery front face.
Front face of the reconstructed Lawson Site pot.

During the 1982 excavations on the Lawson Site, museum archaeologists discovered on of the more interesting deposits of pottery fragments yet encountered on the site. The pot sherds were interesting not only because we have been able to reconstruct them into a very large pot but especially because of the location of the fragments and what they were found with.

The pottery fragments were in the bottom of a large pit found inside the largest house yet uncovered on the site. This pit was located under the south bench row near the east end of the house. In shape, the pit was a flat-bottomed cylinder. During excavation, it was first though that this feature was a deep basin-shaped pit, but it was discovered to have a false bottom like a previous feature uncovered. Read more

Four Gift Ideas for an Archaeology Friend

Gift #1: Customized Trowel

Every archaeologist knows that when you have a trowel you must hang on to it, because you never know when it will get mixed up with someone else’s onsite. We often mark our trowels with a symbol or name to break the cycle of confusion, but alas, trowels still go missing. Developed as a hobby by an archaeologist for other archaeologists, Hermit Woodworking designs custom trowels that you can buy online or custom order with specific colours or inlays (Harry Potter theme anyone?!)

Image of trowels arranged in a crescent shape with multiple coloured handles made of wood
From Hermit Woodworking Facebook Page

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