Mush Hole archaeology revealing much

BRANTFORD – Work has begun after a community group of Residential School Survivors and their families successfully lobbied and received funding and approval for a five acre, quiet and culturally sensitive memorial park on the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute grounds.

Although mandatory archaeological surveys are required in Ontario before a new area is opened for development, federally owned land does not require such a provision. And since federal Canada assumes ownership of reserve lands, a survey was not legally required before the preparations for the park were to begin.

Artifacts uncovered at the former Mohawk Institute represent hundreds if not thousands of years of continuous occupation by successive Native peoples. But most are from the early 1800s and into the 1940s and ‘50s. Submitted Photo
Artifacts uncovered at the former Mohawk Institute represent hundreds if not thousands of years of continuous occupation by successive Native peoples. But most are from the early 1800s and into the 1940s and ‘50s. Submitted Photo

But Paula Whitlow, curator of the Woodland Cultural Museum, which is overseeing the work, insisted that it be done. She called President of the Ontario Archaeological Society Paul Racher to talk to him about doing the survey. Racher’s archaeological firm also did the survey on the downtown YMCA project.

“His company was kind enough to choose us as a community project,” says Whitlow.  “He put a call out for volunteers to work on weekends and had no trouble finding a crew.

The work began about four weeks ago.

According to Whitlow, if the same intensity of an archaeological survey were done across the street, an Archaeological Survey would have to be done before any plans were made for any area of development. It would also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I requested that a survey be done, because I think it’s important that the archaeological record be made,” says Whitlow.

“This will be the first former residential school to ever undergo an archaeological survey,” she says. “In the end, we hope to have surveyed the full 10-acres of the institute land with an archaeological master plan.  We are going to be able to identify out buildings and anything else we might uncover that is relevant to the site, which can help us in any possible future development. We will know where the sensitive parts are and aren’t.”

Archaeological evidence of former times is popping up everywhere. Of the 500 test holes dug about 10 meters apart on the front lawn of the institute, more than 437 of these holes have offered up some kind of artifact dated back as far as 1832, from the location of the old Mechanics School, the precursor to the Mohawk Institute. Brant’s Mohawk Village was there for before that and there has also been evidence of much older occupations that go back hundreds if not thousands of years.

One thing the extensive surveying of the apple orchard grounds will reveal, one way or the other, will be the longstanding rumours and legends of infant burials. It as been said that school staff would bury the remains of the aborted baby’s of impregnated girls taken from older students in the third floor infirmary and buried at night under the apple trees.

The removal of the tree stumps to make way for the Survivors Memorial Park is being done with great care with archaeologists and a Six Nations monitor present.

To date there has been no human remains found, however, there is a lot more excavating that needs to be done which may or may not reveal anything.

There is a standard four-phase process in doing an archaeological survey. The first phase is one of simply walking the grounds looking for surface artifacts churned up by frost and thawing every year or by farming.

A phase two is where test probes are put down to see if any artifacts are found.

A phase three is the larger square pits carefully excavated with trowels and brushes every so often apart.

“That is where we are today,” says Whitlow. “Should evidence of something significant, like a longhouse, for instance, were discovered, or an abundance of relative artifacts, a phase four would be needed which would be a full excavation of the entire five acres set aside for the park.”

A progress report was made to the stakeholders recently, which included representation from the Mohawk Survivors Memorial Park, the Ontario Archaeological society, Six Nations Elected Council and others. HDI has been made abreast as well.

“Thankfully we are all on the same page that we want to preserve all the evidence below ground as well as above ground,” says Whitlow.

Whitlow recalls that when they did a partial survey, when Kanata Village was being built in the late 1980s, that archaeologists took some of their excavations fairly deep.

“Joseph Brant’s house has not been located yet,” she says. “But earlier surveys have mapped the location of several cabins and other buildings.”

As for the “Save the Evidence” project at the Mush Hole (Mohawk Institute) building itself, phase two of the interior restorations of the former school is about to begin and Whitlow is expecting more finds when the walls are opened up for rewiring and plumbing.

Past renovations have revealed little treasures squirrelled away by successive years of lonely and afraid children separated from their families, their language and their beliefs. Names written in pencil and messages to one another written in their “secret places” are likely to be discovered as restorations continue.

Work on both projects continues. Archaeological Monitors from Six Nations Elected Council, HDI, and Mississaugas of the New Credit Council are overseeing the work.


0080: Each little red flag indicates where an artifact was unearthed at the Mohawk Institute front lawn in the Phase 2 test holes. Of 500 test holes dug, there have been 437 finds. Photo by Jim Windle


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