Archeologists dig up more than 350 years of history near Quebec City

More than 50,000 artifacts have been discovered on the grounds of a former Catholic church in L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., just west of Quebec City, with some dating back more than three centuries.

50,000 artifacts discovered on the grounds of former church, some date back more than three centuries

The eight-week excavation is taking place in an area once inhabited by members of the Huron-Wendat First Nation, as well as French colonists and the British army. (Nicole Germain/Radio-Canada)

Archeologists have unearthed more than 50,000 artifacts dating back more than three centuries on the quiet grounds of a former Catholic church, just west of Quebec City.

The site in L'Ancienne-Lorette, Que., has revealed itself to be a real treasure trove of discoveries, said lead archeologist Stéphane Noël.

"We really have close to 350 years of history on the site," said Noël, who is working as part of an archeologist workers' cooperative, GAIA, on the eight-week excavation.

A new community centre is expected to be built on the land, which has also since been used as a parking lot.

Members of the Huron-Wendat First Nation lived in the area with Jesuit priests in 1673, Noël explained, before the Bishop of Quebec City pressured them to leave the site two decades later to make way for French inhabitants.

They, too, eventually had to leave during the winter of 1759 and 1760 — to make room for the British army.

The objects each group of former inhabitants left behind have been exceptionally well-preserved within the soil, Noël said. 

The items being excavated are exceptionally well preserved, said lead archeologist Stéphane Noël. (Radio-Canada)

"What's exceptional is the integrity, the incredible preservation of the archeological layers, and the quantity of artifacts that we've been able to gather," he said.

In 2013, Noël excavated a nearby area that once housed a chapel, so he said he knew the area was rich with potential.

This time, he recommended bringing in a complete excavation team, getting 30 archeologists and other specialists to take part in the excavation.

As many as 70,000 artifacts could be discovered in the 400 square-metre area by the time the team's work wraps up this week, he said.

"The presbytery grounds in L'Ancienne-Lorette is one of the region's most important archeological sites in recent years."

Important site for local First Nation community

The grounds provide a look at a unique period in Huron-Wendat history, as the First Nation's longhouses were built around French colonists' buildings there for 23 years.

"It's a unique site in Canada," said Louis Lesage, director of the Nionwentsïo Office, which protects the ancestral territory of the Huron-Wendat in the area.

"A lot of French sites have been excavated in Quebec and Canada. A lot of English sites have been excavated in Quebec and Canada, but this is the only site where we have a fusion between a First Nation and the French epoch." 

Wendaki Grand Chief Konrad Sioui said the discoveries will more than double the Huron-Wendat Nation's collection of traditional artifacts. (Radio-Canada)

Lesage is able to trace his own family tree back 13 generations, starting at the L'Ancienne-Lorette site.

"All our genealogical trees start in L'Ancienne-Lorette," he said.

The current work has revealed stories the Jesuit priests who lived with the Huron-Wendat did not bother to write down, including how the First Nation people's lives were changing.

For example, archeologists — including two from the Huron-Wendat community — have dug up one of the largest collections of stone pipes in the province, demonstrating that they were still carving their own despite access to European goods.

They were also repurposing European gun flints as scrapers and drills.

Artifacts will be returned to the Huron-Wendat

One of the most prized finds to date is a pendant carved into the shape of a beaver and made out of red argillite stone that likely came from Minnesota.

Shaped like a beaver, a red argillite stone pendant (bottom left) is one of the most prized discoveries to come out of the dig. (Émilie Deschênes)

Researchers have also uncovered shell pendants and beads from an Atlantic whelk species — evidence of how extensive the Huron-Wendat's trade network was.

All the artifacts related to the Huron-Wendat will be given back to the community after the excavation is completed. - a first in Quebec, said Konrad Sioui, the Grand Chief of Wendake, a local Huron-Wendat territory.

Like many First Nations, the Huron-Wendat have struggled to repatriate their traditional artifacts, scattered across the globe, and these finds will more than double their collection, Sioui said.

"Sometimes [the Huron-Wendat objects have] been stolen; sometimes [they've] been sold by our own. There are all kinds of situations, but today we celebrate," he said.

British army cannon ball discovered

Archeologists are also uncovering more than 300 years of history attached to the French settlement in the area, including a nearly intact ice house that inhabitants once packed with snow to preserve their food during warmer months of the year.

The British also occupied the church area for a winter during their conquest of New France, leaving behind the site's most surprising artifact — a cannon ball.

Thirty archeologists have spent eight weeks excavating the grounds. (Radio-Canada)

The team had not expected to find much of a trace of the British presence since the army was only there for a season, but Noël said there's no other explanation for where the projectile came from.

"The priests did not have cannons," he said.

The archeologists' work is also bolstered by the wealth of high-quality, historic documents that accompany the site.

Meanwhile, the cannon ball, as well as any other objects tied to the area's former French and British inhabitants, will be passed on to the city of L'Ancienne-Lorette, which intends to eventually put them on display.

With files from Aakruti Patel, Alexandre Duval, Tifa Bourjouane and Radio-Canada