Archeologists have unearthed more than 400,000 artifacts from the site of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, with some of the ancient items suggesting that farming was an important activity there many years ago.

Officials with the human rights museum, located at The Forks — a historic site at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in what is now downtown Winnipeg — have shown off some of the artifacts, which date back hundreds of years.

Archeological teams uncovered the artifacts between 2008 and 2012, while the museum was under construction, in what officials have called the largest block excavation in the province.

"It shows you the rich cultural heritage that took place here," Stuart Murray, the museum's president and CEO, told reporters on Wednesday.


Members of an archeological crew work on the museum excavation site in November 2008. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

Mireille Lamontagne, an archeologist and the museum's education programming manager, said the most significant find was the discovery of 191 hearths or campfire pits.

"[It] speaks to the extent of the use of the site, furthering this idea we've always had about The Forks that it's been a stopping, trading and meeting place," she said.

"It takes it to another level as to being a living space and working space."

Lamontagne said of the 400,000 artifacts found overall, a number of them were specifically related to agriculture.

"Another really significant find is the discovery of some fragments of scapula hoe, some squash knives, some residue of maize and beans and tobacco," she said.

"All of this points to early forms of agriculture here at The Forks, which would be the first time that farming evidence has been found at The Forks."

Earlier digs at The Forks have failed to turn up similar evidence.

Ceramic shards, vessels found

Lamontagne said another important discovery are the 13,000 ceramic shards found, including 121 vessels.

"The styles on these ceramic vessels show a lot of diversity and essentially convergence of cultural traditions," she said.

Some of the other artifacts are sacred items, including a ceremonial pipe.


Ceramics found at The Forks on the site where the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is going up are the first of their kind ever found, said a museum official Wednesday. (Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

"How very important it was that the pipe was presented to us so we can hold it, feel the life in it," said Fred Kelly, an aboriginal elder who attended the museum's news conference on Wednesday.

Lamontagne said the artifacts fill in the other half of the historical picture.

"What was most fascinating for me … was in speaking with elders back in June … they explained that 32 generations ago, or 500 to 700 years ago, a major peace meeting or treaty occurred between seven to 11 different First Nations at that site. And it's right there in the oral history," she said.

"So here we have this wonderful example of how oral history can come in and completely support what we're seeing in the archeological evidence."

She added that the discovery provides a much clearer picture of the rich history of The Forks.

"The combination of all of the parts is that in the last 500 to 1,000 [years]

, out of the 6,000-plus year history of The Forks, there was a more extensive use of The Forks, a more intensive use of The Forks in that last 500 years prior to the arrival of Europeans," she said.

Archeological group critical of dig

The Canadian Archaeological Association has been critical of the dig at the museum site, arguing that the process was rushed and may have uncovered only a fraction of what could have been found.

"The ironic part is it's a museum of human rights, and they have built it on top of probably the most important archeological site in the province of Manitoba," said William Ross, the association's president.

Ross said members complained about the museum excavation to the Manitoba government, but they were told the museum was doing what was legally required.

"It was the first national museum that was going to be outside of national capital area, and so we feel there was a lot of political pressure to make sure that this started on time and it was successful and all that," he said.

Ross added that it's not known how much the excavation may have destroyed of the archeological site.

Museum officials said experts monitored the construction site as the building went up.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is currently scheduled to open next year, two years behind schedule.