Dig reveals thousands of stone items at portage on South Nation River

An Ottawa archeologist has discovered a rare site of human activity in Eastern Ontario from between 3,500 and 9,000 years ago. Paul Thibaudeau, an adjunct professor at Carleton University, has been leading a team of archeologists, students, and volunteers collecting artifacts from a dig near Casselman, east of Ottawa. It is only one of a half-dozen sites in Eastern Ontario that are considered reliable evidence of human presence during the period.

Thousands of stone items have been found at what Thibaudeau said was a portage around a waterfall and rapids on the South Nation River. The spot is believed to have been a temporary hunting and animal-skinning camp. Small stone tools used in skinning, remnants of tools, and waste from the toolmaking process have been found. "They were coming, staying briefly, and moving on, that's what we can tell right now," he said.

He knew he was onto something when one of his crew, Kelly Berckmans, of Ottawa and a Carleton student, found what appeared to be a piece of glass but turned out to be a crystal quartz "end scraper."

"When I saw that -that got me excited. When I started seeing a lot of quartz flakes, a lot of chipped stone in the other test pits I said something is going on here."

Work last summer and in recent weeks has unearthed more than 7,000 items. Many are made of stone from southern Ontario, western New York State, Pennsylvania and Northern Quebec, confirming earlier discoveries that people hunting and fishing here participated in a vast trading network.

Thibaudeau said the site likely remained undisturbed because a rise in the land made it unsuitable for farming.

The river is thought to have remained unchanged since the disappearance of the ancient Champlain Sea some 10,000 years ago and has always been a human transportation route.

The dig consists of two separate locations more than a hundred metres apart. One closer to the river has revealed mostly quartz stone tools, while another on a crest of land overlooking a floodplain has delivered mostly chert, a stone that breaks into sharp edges.

The stones were used as scrapers, arrowheads and in woodworking, Thibaudeau said. He said there is nothing to indicate the people belonged to any First Nation group that is recognizable today.

Dr. Jean Luc Pilon, curator of Ontario archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, said the Casselman find is important because there are only about a half-dozen "relatively well-dated sites . spread over 9,000 years" of Eastern Ontario history.

"If you have that few sites that cover such a long period, every one of them is so important," Pilon said.

Other notable archeological finds in Eastern Ontario are lanceolate points found on islands in the St. Lawrence River near Cornwall which are thought to be at least 8,000 years old. Copper artifacts, including harpoon heads, originating from the area around Western Lake Superior and thought to be 6,000 years old, were found on islands near Pembroke in the Ottawa River during the 1960s.

Work done in 2004 near Pendleton, northeast of Casselman, unearthed about two-dozen fire pits thought to be 4,000 years old.

The pits were used in the processing of butternuts by hunters who did not remain in the area.

Thibaudeau's site has yet to turn up any organic material that could be carbon dated to precisely date the site.

Once Thibaudeau is finished, the area will be turned over to a Gatineau home builder who will cover the site with new homes.

Under Ontario's Heritage Act, the builder was obliged to hire an archeologist to conduct a search of the site for artifacts before proceeding with construction.