The Discovery and Exploration of the Ancient Sheguiadah Site, Manitoulin Island – Fall 1954

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Thomas E. Lee

In the month of June, 1951, while conducting an archaeological survey of Ontario for the National Museum of Canada, the writer and Mr. Douglas Bell stopped on the highway just outside the village of Sheguiandah, Manitoulin Island. Binoculars swept over the surface of a small garden plot and came to rest on a tiny flake of quartzite. Had it been struck from some primitive stone tool by an equally primitive hammerstone wielded by an Indian in ancient times – or had it been hurled there in recent years during highway construction? The latter explanation seemed more probable, since at this point the road had cut deeply into the base of a hill which rises to the east and blasting might have occurred. Yet the flake demanded investigation. Minutes later, Bell drew from the loose garden soil nearby a large and complete quartzite blade, almost certainly an Indian tool thousands of years old! Eagerly the search went on. Blade after blade, usually broken, came to light! It was at once realized that a significant discovery had been made. Up to this time, almost every known specimen of this early cultural manifestation had been obtained by the University of Michigan party under Dr. E. F. Greenman, digging for many years at Killarney, Ontario, some twenty miles to the northeast. Their site, known as George Lake I, was said to be 17,000 years old. The Sheguiandah find, much closer to the present lake level, could not be anywhere near that old, but it must still rank among the earliest Indian sites discovered in Ontario!

Quartzite Outcrop – Sheguiandah

The search was soon widened and traces led up the hillside. There, at the very top, many specimens were found; working around the pastured hillside, numerous fine blades were gathered up. Why had they not been noticed by others? Over that busy highway had poured thousands of tourists, including archaeological survey parties from the University of Michigan, passing right through the site. How many people must have climbed that hill since the village of Sheguiandah was first settled? The blades were not hard to see. Indeed, some of them were as much as ten inches long and five inches wide. To the discoverers it was an almost unbelievable situation – a rare stroke of luck that professional archaeologists had reached a site of such age, extent and richness ahead of collectors and souvenir hunters, in a populated area! It was with a strong feeling of unreality that the search went on.

The top of the hill was wooded; eventually it also was examined. Only then was the enormity of the site made apparent. Throughout the woods, lying in clusters of quartzite chips, just where they had been made and dropped, were Indian tools – unfinished, broken, or lost – along with the hammerstones used in their making. So lightly were they covered by leaves that to us it seemed as though the Indians had seen us coming and had fled before us, leaving their work unfinished. And still our wonder grew. Through the trees was observed a gleaming white quartzite outcrop, running across the hilltop. On examination it was seen to be an ancient quarry, fully 40 rods long. The marks of blows by stone hammers remained on the outcrop, where the last quarrying was done. All around the base of the outcrop were littered masses of discarded fragments, broken hammers and unfinished tools.

Another ridge was noticed, a bit higher in the woods. The story was everywhere the same. Then, suddenly, we were aware of a great white mass of rubble rising above us to the highest point on the hill. To our astonished gaze was revealed the largest quarry-workshop of all, fully one-third acre in extent. A quartzite outcrop formed the crest of the hill – and a vast amount of discarded material spread out from it, forming a great bulge on the slope below. Hundreds of specimens were gathered up, photographs were taken, and we quietly departed to consider what should be done to protect the most important pre-ceramic site ever discovered in Canada.

Through the winter, studies of the material continued and plans were made for a large field party to investigate and excavate the site. Twenty­ five men and women – most of them volunteers and members of the Ontario Archaeological Society – established a camp at the foot of the hill and worked through July and August. Surface collecting was continued and from careful noting of locations a significant fact was learned. Specimens were consistently found over the hill and down the sides as far as a prominent geological feature, called by geologists a wave-cut notch – but no trace of such material could be found below the notch. This indicates that lake waters stood at the level of the notch, 70 feet above the present Lake Huron, when the Indians last occupied the hill. Here were excellent possibilities of dating the site!

In the absence of any topographic maps of the area, a base line was run across the hill and suitable stations were established. At one point in the woods a level area was noted – the only likely spot for an Indian camp. Other features were observed: drainage was good; orientations of various rock ridges were such that almost complete shelter from all winds was provided; a trapped body of water nearby could have provided drinking water. With these facts in mind, a number of trenches ten feet square were laid out there and excavated. We began with the thought that only one Indian culture would be found but that variations in tool styles might occur as greater depths were reached. The soil contained masses of quartzite flakes struck off in the course of making tools or blades. Work necessarily proceeded slowly, sometimes with trowels, but usually with grapefruit knives and paint brushes only. All stones and flakes were left in place until graphs were plotted and photographs were taken. Many large blades were found in the first five inches, but very few small tools were obtained. Yet the Indians must have used something besides the large blades. Perhaps tiny and sharp flakes were used for knives and scraping tools. But what would they look like? How could they be distinguished among countless thousands of chips? A few were selected for experimentation in cutting into hard maple. Very soon certain characteristics of used flakes were made apparent – and henceforth quite a number of small tools were found.

At six inches depth some projectile points appeared – and excitement ran high when it was realized that they were similar to some of those employed by early hunters across America. Here might be another means of dating the site! One of them resembled the well-known Scottsbluff points; another bore some resemblance to Plainview. But could this hill, only 156 feet high, possibly have been the camping grounds of such early cultures ? Would it not have been under the waters of Lake Algonquin until long after the passing of the paleo-Indian? And what of the big blades? Obviously they were like those at Killarney – but could they be as old as the 17,000 year estimate for that culture – or even the 6,000 years later accepted by Dr. E. F. Greenman for his finds? It did not seem likely, although some geologists visiting the site were inclined to think that eight or ten thousand years were not unreasonable guesses.

Proceeding downward in the trenches another set of big blades were found. They were easily distinguishable from those nearer the surface. Instead of the ten-inch maximum size, these were no more than six; instead of the thick blades with coarse primary flaking and wavy edges, these were thin, had secondary chipping and pressure flaking, with straight edges; instead of the blunt ends, one end of these was pointed; finally, the great variations in form were reduced in these to a very few basic shapes. Without doubt, another and older cultural manifestation had been uncovered.

Meanwhile, careful records of the depths of all finds showed that a fourth and most recent component was thinly represented on the surface, among the big blades. Although little material was found, it seemed to be Point Peninsula, a ceramic culture believed to be ancestral to the historic Iroquois. No pottery was found and it is probable that this group merely came there to obtain a little quartzite for use as knives and scrapers.

Excavating still deeper, a marked change was observed in soil conditions. Boulders increased in size and number from the surface down. Between nine and twenty-seven Inches depth, some stones attained diameters up to two feet. These were set in a matrix of sand, clay and pebbles. Surprisingly, flakes of quartzite were also noted, bearing bulbs of percussion and apparently struck off by hammer blows. Bits of charcoal strengthened this supposition. But could It be true? The deposits had every appearance of being typical glacial till, as was stated by Dr. John Sanford of Wayne University, after detailed examination. The situation became more puzzling. Was a fifth and oldest component represented – the remains of hunting camps present before the last glaciation?

Elsewhere, another problem was being investigated. On the slopes above the supposed habitation area was a hillside dump – simply a low pile of quarry debris. It seemed a good place to begin. Presumably it was no more than eighteen inches deep. Suitable excavation techniques could be quickly learned here. Some large squares were laid out and the rubble was removed, piece by piece – each examined before being discarded. Little or no soil was found. Broken or unfinished tools occurred at intervals. Surprisingly, the rubble mass went down five feet – and there was revealed an ancient quarry, fourteen feet long, ten feet wide, cut straight down into that extremely tough rock at a point where bedding planes were almost absent! Huge stone hammers were found, as much as twelve inches in diameter. Most important – red clay had spilled into the quarry when it was abandoned. The clay contained a number of the finely chipped big blades. Over the clay lay the heavy rubble deposits of later Indians, containing the big coarse blades. Here was actual stratigraphy to support the evidence obtained in the habitation area.

Trenches were closed for the season and plans were made for a second expedition. In late June of 1953, a party of fifteen men and women again set up the National Museum camp and for two months the excavations were continued. The habitation area was further explored. The conclusions of the previous year were found to be substantially correct and we were fortunate this time in obtaining definite artifacts from the deposits which are still regarded as glacial till. More projectile points were found, giving a much better understanding of the time range involved. Regrettably, insufficient charcoal was found in any one reliable situation for dating by means of Carbon 14 analysis.

Another problem was briefly investigated and will receive emphasis in the 1954 field season. The small body of trapped water on the hilltop has become a swamp; this offered possibilities of finding skeletal material, preserved by peat which might have formed. Further, it seemed likely that stone tools might have been tossed into the water from time to time. A small trench was cut into the swamp deposits; although no ancient bones were found, a number of Indian tools were uncovered in gray clay, under nearly two feet of banded peat and root masses. It was easily demonstrated that the peat began forming after the tools were dropped.

Therefore, if any means of dating the peat can be found, important information will be gained. At present a pollen analysis is being made, which may provide useful information about the succession of forests and plants.

Archaeologists are concerned not alone with finding materials and determining their relationships, but also with re-constructing the story of the Indian – the subsistence pattern, the social – political – religious structures, as these developed through time. Unfortunately, the evidence is usually much too fragmentary to go very far in that direction. It is necessary to guess – and we must hope that our guesses are both reasonable and somewhere near the mark.

Spear Point discovered at Sheguiandah

The Sheguiandah story, as re-constructed here, is based on evidence by no means equally distributed through the five cultural levels. A number of important suppositions have yet to be proven. However, it may serve as a useful guide in the search for further evidence.

Thousands of years ago, possibly during the retreat of the last great glacier, small bands of Indian hunters camped along or near the ice front. They may have killed such animals as the bear, the elk and musk ox, as well as some of the smaller animals. It is not unlikely that the great mastodon was hunted. Fish were doubtless plentiful, as well as bird life. Food supplies would be supplemented with edible roots, seeds and berries when available. In spite of this, supplies were not dependable and the Indians remained few in number. Their tools and weapons were probably few -some stone knives, scrapers, and perhaps spear or dart points, some of which may now be found. There must have been other items of equipment, perishable things, such as bone, teeth, wood and skin. Without traces of these we are forced to guess.

For some reason – perhaps a slightly colder climate, -the glacier may have re-advanced locally, destroying the camp sites and tumbling the lost tools along with gravel, clay, and boulders, into the deposits where we now find them.

Time passed – and a new and larger group of Indians came to the hilltop (then a small island) to obtain quartzite from which they could chip out useful tools. The rock was tough and a great many years must have passed before the extensive quarrying operations were completed. The hilltop was suitable for habitation and permanent quarters were probably established. No doubt considerable fishing was carried on and it is likely that fish were abundant. When game was sought, it was an easy matter to cross a narrow channel to the next island and thence to the main plateaus. Presently the hilltop was deserted. We do not know where the Indians went or why. A period of game shortage is a possible explanation. Their cultural connections are hard to establish, since they left only some finely chipped and large blades, along with a few scraping and cutting tools.

Once more hunting bands came to the area. They camped on the island hilltop and may have done a little quarrying. More likely, they simply used fragments left lying about by the earlier group. They occasionally broke or lost their projectile points – and it is these which tell us that the hunters were there. Some of the points are made from types of quartz and quartzite not native to the hilltop. It is not possible to say at present whether one cultural complex is represented or many. Most archaeologists find it hard to believe that any one group of Indians made all of the different projectile points which have been found. Two of the points seem to be paleo-Indian. The remainder could very well fall within Early and Late Archaic. Two or three might even be a little later – perhaps no more than four or five thousand years old.

Again the hilltop was deserted for a time. Then an entirely different group of Indians arrived. They may have come from the Killarney area, since their stone tools appear to be identical. However, their numbers were much greater here than at Killarney; possibly suitable living conditions permitted a sharp rise in population. At any rate, this group proceeded to quarry the outcrops of quartzite to such an extent that twenty­ six acres are littered with debris and products from the quarries. Whole sections of ridges appear to have been quarried away. The rubble is known to be five feet deep in places and is thought to be much deeper in the largest quarry area. It is inconceivable that a small band could have accomplished so much, even in a period of one or two thousands of years. Perhaps other Indians came from time to time to obtain quartzite for tools and weapons. If so, where are the products now? True, quartzite artifacts are not rare in collections – but very few specimens examined by the writer in hundreds of collections and at hundreds of sites could possibly have come from Sheguiandah, where a distinctive type of quartzite occurs. The implication is that a larger group of Indians lived on the little island for a very long time.

The waters of Lake Nipissing, seventy-one feet higher at this point than the present Lake Huron, lapped against the hill for centuries, cutting a deep notch into its slopes. A great gravel bar formed across a narrow channel, joining it to the next island. Then – probably around 3,500 years ago – the waters began to recede, as a new lake outlet was cut. The Indians began to follow the slightly receding shore – then abandoned the hilltop and moved to a favorable spot to the west. There is evidence that they remained in the new place for only a short time and that they were still in considerable numbers. Again they moved, with some portion of them crossing via a chain of islands to the Bruce Peninsula, where important adjustments had to be made. By this time new groups of Indians, carrying new ideas, must have been passing southward and eastward, causing significant changes in culture.

At a much later time – perhaps around 300 A.D. – the hilltop, no longer an island, once more saw quarrying activities by Indians. This time, as indicated by our evidence, the Indians lived at the base of the hill, quite near the present water level, and went on the hill only to obtain material for making tools. That they did not take much is indicated by the small amounts of quartzite found at their camp site now – and by the absence of this quartzite on the numerous related sites called Point Peninsula, across Ontario. Hundreds of years later, to this camping ground at the foot of the hill came bands of western Indians, probably from the Dakotas or from Manitoba, but as yet no trace of these has been found on the hilltop. Finally, in historic times, the Ojibwa camped in the same spot. He must have climbed the hill, but no evidence has been found.

What is the significance of Sheguiandah? To the archaeologist it is important in that it provides a cultural sequence of five components, making possible the establishment of relative chronology, within a relatively unknown period of prehistory. It offers material in amazing quantities, sufficient for statistical problems for investigation. If properly preserved, it can serve as a most valuable training ground for students of the preceramic period from Canadian institutions, through many decades.

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About the Author: Mr. Lee is Archeologist of the National Museum of Canada.

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