Southdale Site Longhouse
Long before the creation of this blog, and before the digital Palisade E-Post, the museum sent out paper newsletters. First published in February 1979, each Palisade Post issue is a snapshot of what was happening in Ontario archaeology during this time, and is the basis of our Look Back series.
The Southdale Site Longhouse
(1988 Volume 10, Number 1)
An intriguing page of the London area’s early history was unearthed in south London during July with the Museum’s salvage excavation of the Southdale site on Southdale Road. Of particular interest to Museum archaeologists was the discovery of a 14th or 15th century Neutral longhouse that measured an incredible 53 metres (174 feet) in length. While larger longhouses have been found in other parts of the province, the Southdale house becomes the largest prehistoric structure ever documented in the London area. This unusual find has revealed a hitherto unknown aspect of prehistoric Neutral settlement patterns, yet as often happens in archaeology, we have come away with more questions than answers.
The Southdale site was discovered by the writer in 1982 during the Museum’s City of London Archaeological Survey. It was visited and surface collected on two occasions that summer, resulting in the collection of one projectile point, four small pieces of pottery, four utilized flakes, a hammer-stone, and 25 chert flakes. A small amount of historic debris, indicative of a 19th century occupation of the property, was also collected at this time. The site was registered with the Ministry of Culture and Communications, Heritage Branch, and was closely monitored by Museum staff since it was located on prime development land.
In early 1988, staff of the Ministry of Culture and Communications reviewed a plan for the development of the Southdale site property as a residential subdivision and requested a reassessment of the site prior to development. The Museum was then contracted by PlanCan Associates Inc. of London to carry out a Stage II assessment of the site. This work resulted in a detailed mapping of the artifacts on the surface of the site and led to the recommendation that both the prehistoric and historic components of the site be salvaged.
On July 4, 1988 we began a three week excavation on the site, expecting to find the remains of a mid-19th century farmstead and perhaps a small Neutral cabin similar to those that the Museum has excavated in the vicinity of the Lawson site.
Initial topsoil stripping revealed the presence of a series of historic structures as expected. These structures tell a tale of early pioneer life in Westminster Township; however, their story must be seen as a sequel to the prehistoric puzzle that was beginning to unfold.
On July 14 we uncovered the first remnants of the longhouse wall, barely visible as a faint line of staggered post moulds in the sun-baked clay. Two days later London’s first rain in 17 days greatly improved conditions on the site as the house posts became more evident in the moist soil. We continued to expose more post moulds and the house continued to grow. On July 19, after uncovering over 50 meters of house wall, we finally found the house end wall and the entire structure was exposed. It then became a race to record and excavate the posts and features, a task that was completed on the last day of the project.
The resulting floor plan of the Southdale house (Figure 1) shows a double line of posts along both side walls and only a single line of posts along the ends. Along the double wall the inner posts are much deeper than the outer posts. Similar wall patterns have been observed on other Neutral longhouses, indicating that this is a result of a particular construction technique rather than a product of rebuilding. Within the house large support posts occur at regular intervals about two metres inside the walls. Many of the posts were filled with charcoal, suggesting that the house may have burned down. However, the house interior was extremely clean, containing few artifacts and features. This is not what one would expect if it had been quickly abandoned; however, it may have burned during a season when it was not in use. Only five centrally aligned hearths and a single ash-filled pit were found. The remains of a small refuse midden were evident at the north end of the structure. Surprisingly few artifacts were found in either the midden or the features, indicating that the site may have been used fr a relatively short period.
The Southdale site adds a new twist to our present understanding of prehistoric Neutral settlement patterns. In short, it simply does not fit with the documented pattern. The Museum has excavated eight small Neutral cabin sites in the London area in recent years. These sites are all associated with nearby villages and they all consist of a single small longhouse. Like the Southdale house, these cabins contain few interior features and they usually have an associated refuse midden at one end. However, the cabins have an average length of only 13.09 metres and an average width of 6.75 metres. The Southdale house is four times this size. Even at the Lawson village, the average house length is only 23.1 metres and the longest house exposed to date is only 36 metres in length. The cabin sites have been interpreted as agricultural hamlets occupied by small groups of villagers during the summer months for the purpose of tending crops. It is estimated that less than 20 people would have occupied such sites at any one time. In contrast, the Southdale house was built to accommodate between 70 and 100 individuals, based on the estimated number of hearths present and the size of the living area. These comparisons indicate that the Southdale house may have been built to serve a different purpose than the cabins we have documented.
It should be noted that most of the cabin sites are found in the northern part of the city in association with the Lawson village. The Southdale site is probably associated with a village on the south side of the Thames River, and we know very little about the settlement patterns of this community since no village sites have been extensively excavated. Southdale provides tantalizing evidence suggesting that the villages on the south side of the city may be quite different from Lawson and may involve some very large structures.
A definitive interpretation of the Southdale site must await the collection of additional archaeological data from the south London area. For now, the Southdale site provides archaeologists with another useful cautionary tale by demonstrating how a seemingly simple site (on the surface) can lead to a series of unanswered archaeological questions.
The Southdale excavation was generously funded by Drewlo Holdings Inc. of London. The Museum would also like to thank the Heritage Branch of the Ministry of Culture and Communications (London office) for the loan of their summer filed crew for the final two weeks of the project.