A Public Archaeology Day at Basin Depot, Algonquin Park

On Saturday 2009 October 03, The Friends of Bonnechere Parks and the Ottawa chapter of the Ontario Archaeology Society hosted a Public Archaeology Day at Basin Depot in Algonquin Park. This was part of a week-long investigation of the site under the direction of licensed archaeologist Ken Swayze, extending the work done in previous excavations during the 1990s. Some photos from the day are presented here.

2009 October 03

For more than a hundred years, Basin Depot was an important staging center for timber operations in what is now eastern Algonquin Park. In 1847, James McNaughton, surveying the (Little) Bonnechere River, noted four shanties already established at Basin Depot. The exact location of these shanties has not yet been determined. As early as 1852, several roads radiated from here to logging camps on the Madawaska River, the Petawawa River and the Barron River. By 1892 Basin Depot comprised a post office, boarding house, blacksmith shop, and outbuildings, with ten acres cleared and partially under crops (mostly potatoes). A small office that was constructed in 1892 is the building that still stands today. Basin Depot continued to be used for lumber operations as late as the 1950s.

To learn more of the history of Basin Depot and the Little Bonnechere River, see Spirits of the Little Bonnechere by Roderick MacKay, published by the Friends of Bonnechere Parks.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  original log building

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This log building was originally constructed in 1892 and is the oldest extant building in Algonquin Park. It has served as an office, harness shop, and school house, and as a temporary hospital during the diphtheria outbreak in 1892. (The red flagging tape and posters are temporary additions for Archaeology Day.)

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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Knowledgeable volunteers conducted tours of the site for groups of visitors. Here Jim Fraser (second from right, back to camera) explains the historical background of the Basin Depot site and describes some of the archaeological work being done, before setting off on the first tour of the day.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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Aerial photographs sometimes provide clues to the location of previous structures on the site.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  grave site

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There are at least three sets of graves at Basin Depot (one set is unmarked). It is not known who is buried in these graves, or whether they died from logging accidents, drownings, diphtheria, or other causes. The letters INRI stand for the Latin "Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judaeorum" which translates as "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  Basin Creek

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The grave site shown above is scenically located on the shore of Basin Creek.

grave site at Basin Depot Algonquin Park

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The marked grave sites have recently been refurbished. This is how the site by Basin Creek looked in 2006 October. While one would like to think that the cross is the original, it is unrealistic to expect a wooden item exposed to the weather to last a hundred years.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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The tour group heads off to the next point of interest.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  grader shed

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This grader shed is a relatively recent structure, dating from the 1950s. The neat log construction and beautifully dovetailed corners show that expertise in building with logs was still common in the area in the mid-20th century.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  test hole

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In order to determine where to carry out more intensive searches, a series of test holes are dug on a 5-metre grid. The holes are square, one shovel width per side. Each soil layer is sieved, with the depth of each soil layer and any artifacts found being recorded.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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This area has been carefully surveyed into a grid and is being systematically excavated under the supervision of a licensed archaeologist. Not all grid square are excavated; some are left for future generations who may possess better techniques and technology for such searches.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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What have we here?

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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Excavation of part of the blacksmith shop.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  black smith shop

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The tip of the trowel points towards a piece of charred stick beside a rock. The larger rocks to the right may be part of the forge.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  black smith shop

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A different view of the same square about one hour later. (Note that the black and white marker has been moved to the adjacent square.) A piece of metal (tentatively thought to be part of a stove) has been exposed.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  black smith shop

A close-up of the possible stove part.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  artifacts

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These artifacts, including horseshoes, nails, and a foot from a wood stove, were found on the surface near the blacksmith shop. This means they have little archaeological context and thus provide less information than artifacts found in relation to each other as determined through a properly conducted excavation.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  Rory MacKay

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Rory MacKay, author of "Spirits of the Little Bonnechere" addresses one of the tour groups.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03  grave marker

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This cross is from the other marked grave site (the one closer to the Bonnechere River). Note that the metal plaque, inscribed with "ihs" -- a monogram for the name of Jesus Christ -- is mounted upside down.

A photo from the public archaeology day at Basin Depot Algonquin Park  2009 October 03

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The event was well attended by many interested people.

The tour we went on was supposed to last forty-five minutes, but ended up taking two hours due to the many questions asked and enthusiastic discussions about every aspect of the site and the archeological investigation. There certainly was never a dull moment. Once the tour was finished, we lingered to take photos, look at the displays, and talk with some of the people at the various exhibits. All in all, a very interesting and worthwhile day.

Please Don't Loot

Artifacts out of their original context provide little historical information.

Note that any archaeology or collection of artifacts anywhere in Ontario requires a license from the Ministry of Culture. This archaeological activity at Basin Depot also required the permission of Ontario Parks. Artifacts found during this excavation stay in the care of the park, in trust for the people of Ontario. If you should find an artifact, in Algonquin Park or any other park, you should leave it where you found it and make a sketch map of its exact location. You should then report the find to Park authorities. Note also that the operation of metal locators within Ontario parks is prohibited.

Sources

The Friends of Bonnechere Parks

Ottawa Chapter of The Ontario Archaeological Society

Land of the Spirits at the Virtual Museum

Chrismar (2001), Bonnechere River Provincial Park, A Chrismar Adventure Map.

Susan Code, Visiting the Spirits, Exploring the Hidden Heritage of the Little Bonnechere River (an interactive CD), The Friends of Bonnechere Parks.

Roderick Mackay (2002), A Chronology of Algonquin Park History, Algonquin Park Technical Bulletin No. 8, The Friends of Algonquin Park.

Roderick Mackay (1996), Spirits of the Little Bonnechere, The Friends of Bonnechere Parks.

Mark Stabb and Roderick Mackay (2002), Walks of the Little Bonnechere River, The Friends of Bonnechere Parks.

(The Friends of Bonnechere Parks publications are available from their on-line bookstore)