CMHR releases important archaeology findings: new light cast on historic role of The Forks

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CMHR releases important archaeology findings: new light cast on historic role of The Forks
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) today released the official reports of archaeological excavations conducted on its building site, revealing important new evidence about the role of The Forks among early inhabitants.

"These new findings may lead archaeologists to rethink current theories about how The Forks has been used over thousands of years," CMHR president and CEO Stuart Murray said at a news conference attended by archaeologists, Aboriginal Elders and other site partners. "Evidence that this site has long been a place for peaceful meeting also supports Aboriginal oral history passed down through generations."

More than 400,000 artifacts dating as far back as 1100 A.D. were recovered from the CMHR digs, conducted in two stages between 2008 and 2012 by Quaternary Consultants, led by senior archaeologist Sid Kroker, and by Stantec Consulting, led by senior archaeologist David McLeod. The first stage was the largest block archaeological excavation ever conducted in Manitoba. 

This spring, the CMHR presented the archaeological results to the annual conference of the Canadian Archaeological Association and to Aboriginal Elders at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg. Among the significant findings were:

  • A large number of hearths (191) in the relatively small excavation area, possibly the highest concentration of any site in Canada. This suggests long‐term seasonal habitation, raising questions about interpretation of the role of The Forks as simply a stopping and trading place.
  • At least five completely new and previously unseen types of ceramic pottery, which seem to represent a period of rapid cultural change that took place over 200 to 300 years, between 1100 and 1400 A.D. This suggests different groups from a wide geographic area met here to interact, trade, form alliances and marry – resulting in the evolution of a "homegrown" localized pottery type distinct from those of Saskatchewan or North Dakota. The pottery findings may also refute the theory that Anishinaabe (Ojibway) people did not move into The Forks until the fur‐trade era, and instead suggest they had been using the site for hundreds of years previously, along with many other groups.
  • The presence of maize and bean residues on ceramics, scapula hoe fragments and squash knives, supporting theories that farming took place along the Red River, particularly since evidence was also found at a dig at Lockport.
  • An intact ceremonial pipe adorned with a beaver effigy (the bowl being the nose), similar to those made by Aboriginal peoples far to the south, evidence that sophisticated long‐distance trade networks existed.
  • A high concentration of sacred materials such as ceremonial pipe fragments, possible sucking tubes and a significant presence of red ochre support theories that the site was a place of peaceful meeting, alliance‐building and celebration.
  • There was no evidence that the CMHR site has ever been a burial ground.

Elder Clarence Nepinak, who offered a traditional blessing before an Aboriginal water ceremony at today's news event, said Anishinaabe oral traditions speak of a very large peace meeting about 500 to 700 years ago at The Forks among seven to 11 different Aboriginal groups. Archaeologists agree that such a meeting would match the timeline of the site, and could explain some of its artifacts and assemblages.

More information can be found on the CMHR Web site and blog. The full reports, totaling over 1,600 pages, are posted on the Bibliography page of The Forks Heritage Research Web site alongside reports from other archaeological work at The Forks.

The total cost of the CMHR archaeological excavations was approximately $1 million. Artifacts from the 2008 Quaternary dig now reside with the Historic Resources Branch, Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism (HRB). Discussions are currently underway with HRB regarding future custody of the artifacts from the Stantec mitigation as well.

Partners in the project included Aboriginal elders who provided advice and conducted ceremonies on site and with some of the recovered artifacts; Parks Canada, which provided advice and consultation, helped fund residue analysis and radiocarbon dating, supported a public information project called "Footprints Through Time", and offered a public interpretive program at the dig site in 2008; Historic Resources Branch of the Province of Manitoba, which issued a heritage permit for the 2008 excavation and established terms of reference in consultation with Parks Canada for both projects; the University of Winnipeg's Department of Anthropology, which provided data‐base management; Friends of the CMHR; and PCL Constructors Canada Inc.

Currently under construction in Winnipeg, the CMHR is the first museum solely dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights. It is the first national museum to be established in Canada since 1967 and the first outside the National Capital Region. It opens in 2014.

More information about the CMHR archaeology project

  • Recovered artifacts include over 13,000 ceramic pottery shards, with 121 vessels identified (between five and 10 of these have never been found anywhere before); 191 hearths; over 200 stone tools such as projectile points, scrapers, flakes, an adze, rare pallettes, hammerstones and groundstones; over 50 bone tools such as awls, spatulas, a double‐pointed needle, harpoon, possible hoe fragments and squash knives; a rare shell tool; shell beads; pipe fragments (including one intact pipe); and evidence of a major bison kill.
  • Two human footprints were found, including one very clear impression from a person who lived about 800 years ago, apparently wearing moccasins. This sparked a CMHR public event called "Amazing Feet" in 2009, where people were invited to leave behind their own foot and handprints.
  • A complete female horse skeleton and fetus bones were found, believed to be from the Hudson's Bay Company Experimental Farm of the mid‐1800s. This is significant as much of the archaeological history from more recent times (fur‐trade era) was destroyed during subsequent use of the site as a rail yard.
  • A total of 379,941 artifacts were recovered by Quaternary in 2008 in a block excavation and another 33,000 artifacts recovered by Stantec during monitoring of construction and drainage work, primarily during 2009 when construction first began.
  • Eight cultural levels were uncovered to a depth of three metres during the Quaternary block excavation, with radio‐carbon dating tracing artifacts to 600 to 900 years ago, corresponding to what is known as the Late Woodland Period.
  • The block excavation occurred over a 150‐square‐metre area beneath the Museum's freight elevator footing and classroom spaces, contained in Root A. Because the building has no basement but was built on piles at grade, sub‐surface impact was mainly confined to the elevator footing and drill holes for piles and caissons. In each drill hole, a traditional Aboriginal medicine bundle was deposited under supervision of an Elder.
  • Excavators used a dry‐screening technique and tools like trowels, sharpened teaspoons, grapefruit knives and dental picks. Water‐screening was also done to recover tiny artifacts, botanical and faunal remains.
  • Radiocarbon dating was conducted by Brock University in Ontario, the University of Laval in Quebec, the University of California and Beta Analytic in Florida. Residue analysis was conducted by the Paleo Research Institute in Colorado.
  • The CMHR plans to integrate some of the archaeological findings into its public and educational programs, in close collaboration with Indigenous community representatives. Aspects of the project may also become part of Museum exhibits, but no decisions have yet been finalized.

Media contacts

Maureen Fitzhenry