The longhouse and short of it

Next time you are on the 401 heading east out of the city, take the Kennedy exit and head north until you're just past L'Amoreaux Park. Take a left onto Purcell Boulevard, then another onto winding Shepton Way. Drive for a few hundred feet past the lovely new homes, then park and turn off the engine.

Now imagine it's the year 1360. Here, at Purcell and Kennedy, where the local gas station currently stands, there are corn fields. Instead of the smell of lawnmowers and cut grass, you smell wood fires and roasting fish. The silence of the suburb at midday is replaced with the buzz of women and children and men in conversation, and the pounding of maize into flour. Your car is in the heart of a thriving aboriginal village of about 800 to 1,000 people, on a small bluff overlooking a creek.

Skip ahead to 2000, and this was a farmer's field. Monarch Corporation purchased the land and was about to sprout this subdivision.

Then someone noticed the bits fragments of pottery. Thanks to the Ontario Heritage Act, Monarch had to hire Archaeological Services to investigate. An archeological firm was hired to investigate. A simple walk of the field uncovered about 250 First Nations artifacts. Monarch winced. Over the next year, at the developer's expense, archaeologists systematically peeled back the farmer's field to reveal, just below the depth of the plow, the nearly undisturbed remains of a complete ancestral Huron/Wendat village.

Standing on the suburban street curving about the site today, it takes more than a little imagination to understand what they found. The layouts of 16 bark-covered longhouses — so named for their cigar-live long and narrow shape — were clearly indicated by the marks their poles had left in the ground. Formed by sinking the ends of two rows of cut saplings in the dirt about seven meters apart, then bending them to form a rounded arch, the walls of the longest home were a stunning 72 metres in length. Marks left in the interior by support posts indicated the place where sleeping bunks ran along the walls. Burnt soil and fire-cracked rocks indicated hearths for cooking and heating. Inside this house, on the revealed layer of soil, whole extended families walked and sat and worked and lived.

Outside of the houses, middens (essentially garbage pits) were the archaeologists' gold mines. Painstakingly dug out, their contents sifted and catalogued down to the smallest bone, the garbage piles revealed the stuff of the village's daily life — including discarded bits of broken pots useful for dating the site. Bits of deer and lake trout and perch, of beaver and black bear and berries, of sunflower seeds and some overcooked maize, had all been gathered and placed in the village's "green bins." From them, and from a few rare places inside the homes themselves, came other finds — a small number of nearly intact arrow and axe heads, some marked by blows indicating their use as wedges to split wood. With them were broken pieces of clay pipes, smoked by lips in the midst of careful conversation in the site's many uncovered sweat lodges.

In these details, the Alexandra site (as it came to be called) was not unlike a cluster of other known aboriginal villages along the Rouge, most dating to the same period. The people of the village were integrated into extensive trading networks capable of bringing them the beads of marine shells from the east coast of the United States that were found on the site. The lack of a palisade around the village indicates that its inhabitants were also free of the extensive warfare of later centuries. Archaeologists postulate that in the late 14th century, the period of the village, aboriginal peoples of southern Ontario were developing into larger political units, highly developed versions of which would greet the first Europeans some 200 years later. At Alexandra, several longhouses had clearly been extended to accommodate more people, while the site also showed signs of a probable expansion to the north. Sweat lodges, known to have been used as sites of spiritual insight and human negotiation, were slightly more prolific around the later, northern longhouses, than around the earlier, southern ones. The newcomers, it seems, hosted the old-timers. The village was a dynamic, changing place.

Most enchanting, however, are the rare, tangible clues that the site left of the individual men and women and children who lived and died here. In the midst of the over 19,000 artifacts recovered from the site, one ceramic fragment showed two distinct attempts at decoration, one perhaps by the patient master, the other by a copying apprentice. Another was found with a child's partial fingerprint embedded in the clay — frail lifelines fired into stone.

Today, little is left of the landscape the people of this village knew. North of the site, a subdivision had already been constructed in the early 1980s. Around the same time, a pathetically reduced Highland Creek had been channeled into several new drainage ditches, and L'Amoreaux Park had dramatically reshaped the landscape to the south.

After the archaeologists left had documented, catalogued, and collected its artifacts, the site succumbed to the planned subdivision. Now, 600 years after the native villagers of this site picked up and moved on from their tired fields, a whole new set of very different people has settled in this part of Toronto.