Tag Archives: Iroquois

Taber Hill Ossuary

Saturday, April 15, 2017

On August 17, 1956, the farmland of Scarborough was being transformed into subdivisions and the 401 was being widened to accommodate the increased traffic that the expanding city was faced with.  A large mound stood in the middle of a field near Lawrence Avenue and Bellamy Road and the 60-foot tall hill was scheduled to be loaded into trucks and delivered to the site of a 401 overpass that was under construction.  After removing nearly 100 feet of the side of the hill a scoop of earth came away full of human bones.

The park isn’t very large but it is unique and worth exploring briefly.  There is free parking on Indian Mound Crescent which is an aptly named street as it wraps around the mound.  Ongwe-Oweh is the native word for Iroquois and a sign welcomes you to the park.

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Work on removing the mound was stopped immediately while an examination of the find was conducted.  Initially, there wasn’t any pottery or arrow heads uncovered and the early suspicion was that the mound contained victims of a cholera epidemic from 1870.   The purple flag in the tree in this picture has the same native symbols on it that are found below the peace pipe on the park sign in the previous photograph.

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Walter Kenyon was brought in from the Royal Ontario Museum who discovered that there was a second burial pit.  The site is an ossuary which is a place where the bones of people are placed after they have been removed from their initial burial plot and collected into a community of the dead.  The ossuary at Taber Hill was about 15 metres long, 2 metres wide and 0.3 metres deep.  The number of skeletons uncovered in the two pits was revised from 472 to 523.  A new burial chamber was dug five feet deep and the bones were reinterred. The 35-acre park is managed by the City of Toronto and is thought to be the only First Nations Ossuary to be protected as a cemetery in Canada.  In 1961 a stone memorial was placed on the top of the mound.  It can be seen clearly in the cover photo.

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Burials at this site were conducted around 1250 AD and it is thought the ossuary may be related to two longhouse sites in the area.  The Alexandra site near Passmore Forest may have contained up to 1000 residents.  When the archaeological dig was completed the bones were buried again in a ceremony known as the Feast of the Dead.  Natives held this ceremony at the mound every year until 1966.  A group of First Nations peoples were holding a memorial ceremony on the top of the mound today and so out of respect I did not climb to the top to see the two historical markers installed there.  On one side is a Scarborough historical marker describing Taber Hill. The other side of the marker has a plaque containing an Iroquois prayer.

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This post is presented with the greatest of respect for those whose remains lay buried under this mound.

Google Maps Link: Taber Hill Park

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The Longhouse People of Crawford Lake

Saturday Nov. 21, 2015

Crawford Lake is one of a handful of meromictic lakes in Ontario and this fact led to the discovery of a pre-contact native village.  It was snowing off and on as we parked in the Crawford Lake conservation area where having correct change would have saved me including a small donation in the envelope.

In the late 1960’s a University of Toronto professor became convinced that Lake Crawford had the characteristics to be a meromictic lake.  Most lakes have the water turn over at least once per year.  As the water cools it becomes denser causing it to sink.  The water at the top mixes with the water at the bottom providing a more even temperature and oxygenation.  In meromictic lakes the surface area is less than the depth and the water doesn’t mix.  In Lake Crawford there are three sections of lake and only the top 15 metres mixes annually.  The middle depth of the lake acts as a buffer while the bottom 9 metres or more never gets disturbed.  This part of the lake is always cold and has no oxygen.  Life doesn’t exist down here and the layers of sediments tell the history of things falling in the lake. Samples taken from the lake bottom revealed 1,000 years of history.  Sediment layers representing the period between 1300 and 1600  have high levels of corn pollen trapped in them in varying concentrations.  This led to the conclusion that an agricultural society had existed near the lake, closer to the shore when the concentrations were higher.  When settlers arrived, cut down the trees and created fields ragweed spread and the upper layers of sediment reflect this.  Lake Crawford is calm in the picture below.

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Local land owners confirmed that they had found artifacts on their properties and when Thomas Howard sold to the conservation authority in 1971 he donated an ungrooved ax or celt he had found here.  It is part of a 10,000 artifact collection that has been uncovered between 1973 and 1989.  The post holes for the frames of 11 longhouses have been discovered and three of these have been reconstructed. Two others have been partially formed including the frame outline seen below.  The positions of the fire pits have been exposed.

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Completed longhouses would have looked like the ones at Crawford Lake except that experts agree there were no ‘panic bars’ on the doors and no little electrical outlets on the outsides.

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It is unknown exactly which peoples lived here.  It may have been the Wendat (Huron) or Attawandaron (Neutral) but either way they were part of the Iroquoian speaking nations and are referred here as Iroquoian for simplicity.  Inside each of the longhouses an individual clan lived. Smaller longhouses may have had 30 people while larger ones up to 100 .  Individual families lived across from each other and shared a common fire.  The lower levels were used to sleep on because they were close to the fire and below the constant smoke.  Upper levels were used for storage with food being hung in the rafters where smoke kept both insect and rodent away.  It is common to find the carbonized remains of food around the fire pits or in the dump sites and these frequently include corn, beans and squash.  For some reason there was no squash found at the Crawford Lake village.

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The art of making stone tools is known as knapping.  It took a great deal of skill to master it but then a piece of chert could be turned into a razor sharp projectile in just 15 minutes.  Along with arrowheads, spear tips, knives and drills were knapped.  Among the findings at the site was a tip known as a turkey-tail arrowhead.  It is out of place by up to 3,000 years suggesting that the idea of collecting antiques may have extended to this culture as well.  The turkey-tail point is displayed along with other arrowheads and is on the tallest shaft in the middle of the picture below.

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Pottery was made by the women and the vessels could be as large as 15 litres.  Each family decorated their pottery in a unique manner that was passed on from mother to daughter. Specific markings on pottery have been used to trace the movements of families and clans over time.  The pottery fragments recovered in the village have been carefully put back together including the 47 pieces of this jug.

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This tract of land was eventually sold to the British Crown to be granted to European settlers and the natives who had lived here for centuries would never return.

Along the Crawford Lake Trail is a series of wood carvings known as the Hide and Seek Trail. Ontario has almost 200 species that are considered to be at risk, seven of which are represented with larger than life wood carvings.  The Eastern Wolf in the carving below is pictured howling, as they commonly do, to communicate within their packs and alert other packs to stay away. They are found in Ontario and Quebec but are now predominantly in Algonquin Park.  They are unable to survive in the small patches of forest left in the more urban parts of the province.

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In 1883 George Crawford bought the lake and 100 acres of land which he transferred it to his son Murray a couple years later.  They operated a saw mill on the south end of the lake to take advantage of the ample timber on the surrounding lands.  In 1898 the name of the lake was changed from Little Lake to Crawford Lake when they opened the Crawford Lake Company. When times were tough during the depression the Crawford family ran a resort on the lake. They also built themselves a cottage and boathouse.  In 1969 the lake and property was sold to the conservation authority and the cottage has since been destroyed.  All that remains is the concrete from the front porch and a set of steps leading down to where the boathouse once stood.

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This cedar tree stands along the side of the trail and is unique in that all three stems are twisted from top to bottom.

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Crawford Lake was formed at the end of the last ice age and has been collecting it’s local history lesson ever since.  Steam was rising off of Crawford Lake even as the snow was falling onto it.

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Crawford Lake Trail and the interpretive reconstruction of the Iroquoian village has been made wheelchair accessible so no one has to miss out.

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We only investigated the village and Crawford Lake Trail but the conservation area contains 7 hiking trails including part of the Bruce Trail.  It looks like you can spend a whole day here and still miss things.

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