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Discovery of 13th century Iroquois village beneath Montreal streets offers glimpse of pre-colonial life

Encouraged by the discovery of a 13th century Iroquois village beneath busy downtown streets, archaeologists plan to continue their search for evidence of the elusive Hochelaga settlement on the island of Montreal.

Discovery of 13th century Iroquois village beneath Montreal streets offers glimpse of pre-colonial life
Watercolour by Lawrence R. Batchelor represents Jacques Cartier visiting the village of Hochelaga in 1535
[Credit: Library and Archives Canada]
In 2016, when construction work was set to begin on Sherbrooke St. near McGill University, private archaeological firm Ethnoscop was called in to search the ground beneath the site.

They found the remains of a pre-colonial Iroquois settlement that showed some signs of being the remains of Hochelaga village: the thriving, fortified farming hub encountered by Jacques Cartier when he first sailed down the St. Lawrence in 1535. Among the artifacts uncovered at the site were thousands of pieces of pottery, ceramic pipes, stone tools, and a beluga tooth. The discovery was only recently made public.

But the village, while large, isn’t Hochelaga. The artifacts are too old according to Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the Université de Montréal: they date back to the 13th century or earlier, at least 100 years before Cartier’s voyage.

Gates St-Pierre is excited about the discovery nonetheless. He said it’s significant because it provides a rare glimpse into the history of the people who lived in the St. Lawrence Valley before it was colonized.

“We don’t have that many pre-colonial sites in Montreal, let alone sites associated with the Iroquois,” he said. “It gives us insight into their technology, their way of life, their diet.”

Gates St-Pierre said the beluga tooth was especially significant because it provided information on the relationship between the Iroquois and other First Nations peoples.

“It shows that these people were in contact with groups from farther up the estuary because normally belugas wouldn’t make their way to Montreal,” he said.

The exact size of the Sherbrooke site is not known because the archaeologists weren’t able to search a large area due to surrounding buildings. However, more excavations are set to begin around Peel St. as early as next week.

“If it corresponds to a village, it’s likely very large. An Iroquois village is usually composed of several structures,” Gates St-Pierre said. “It’s likely that the site continues underneath other properties.”

While not directly involved with the discovery of the Sherbrooke site, Gates St-Pierre is still trying to find traces of the elusive Hochelaga settlement.

He’s the lead researcher of a team that has been looking for traces of the village across the island of Montreal.

According to Cartier’s description, Hochelaga was composed of about 50 longhouses inhabited by 1,000 to 2,000 people. It was protected by an 18-foot-high triple palisade. Outside, the Iroquoians farmed corn, squash and beans, as well as sunflowers.

When Cartier returned on his second voyage to the region in 1541, the settlement had disappeared. Locating the site has been the cause of archaeological debate for years, but Gates St-Pierre hasn’t given up hope of finding it.

“It’s going to be a difficult endeavour and we’ll have to get lucky,” he said. “But it’s not impossible,” he said.

Author: Matthew Lapierre | Source: The Province [July 22, 2018]


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