Digging into the past on the Ottawa River

Written by Youth Water Leader Rachel Balderson, this blog and accompanying interview explore the work of NCC archaeologist Ian Badgley along the shores of the Ottawa River.

Ten centimeters of digging represents hundreds of years of history. According to Ian Badgley, archaeologist with the National Capital Commission (NCC), over 1000 years of history has already eroded from the banks of the Ottawa River. This history, of course, is not that of European descendants, but instead the enduring history of the Indigenous people that travelled the Kitchissippi (the Algonquin word for the Ottawa River), long before the arrival of Champlain in 1613.

Lac Leamy Park in Quebec, overlooking Parliament and the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge

Over the summer, three Youth Water Leaders with Ottawa Riverkeeper joined many others at the NCC’s annual public dig at Lac Leamy Park. With trowels in hand, we carefully scrape away at dense clay sediment. Every so often, an audible scrape reveals something worth a closer look. There are fragile, black charcoal pieces, copper coloured pottery fragments, and smooth gray rocks carved into simple tools. While most of the Algonquin material culture has long disappeared, these are the precious remnants. 

Ottawa Riverkeeper Youth Water Leaders Franny and Mike standing in the study site, which is divided into quadrants carefully dug out, layer by layer

The NCC initiated this excavation, following the 2017 spring floods along the Ottawa River, to assess the damage along the newly eroded shorelines. The Quebec side of the river was chosen as a starting point due to the richness of materials present, as artifacts can be found consistently from the mouth of the Gatineau River to the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. Here at the confluence of three river systems (Ottawa River, Gatineau River, and Rideau River), is where materials and ideas were exchanged by groups who camped along these shores as early as 6000 years ago. 

According to Ian Badgley, the loss of these archaeological resources represents a “Catastrophe for First Nations,” who need to prove long term and repeated occupation of certain areas to receive Aboriginal Title. As oral tradition is not considered sufficient proof under Canadian law, First Nations are increasingly taking an active role in the stewardship of their archaeological legacy. The NCC is now working with Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation. 

Archaeologist Ian Badgley examines the study site to hypothesise possible patterns. The concentration of large rocks in one area suggests the location of a hearth (fire pit) 

The NCC has scoped 10 additional sites on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River and will begin to excavate these sites in the new year. For those looking to learn more about the NCC’s archaeological research, public workshops will be held in January 2020 offering participants the opportunity to view and handle artifacts found in past digs. By holding these tool remnants in our hands, we are able to communicate and connect with those who traveled our waterways millennia ago.

Interview with Ian Badgley: