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Tale remains untold

Archaeological dig fails to produce anything conclusive

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Aug 29/03) - The telltale object that archaeologist Jean-Luc Pilon was hoping to discover never materialized.

NNSL Photo

Archaeology student Naomi Smethurst displays the piece of marmalade jar that she discovered in a trench at Heritage Park. Despite unearthing many artifacts, the purpose and age of a buried wooden structure on the site is still a mystery. - Derek Neary/NNSL photo

Following more than two weeks of digging trenches and sifting through countless buckets of soil at Heritage Park, nothing definitive was uncovered as the dig wound down into its final days.

"It's frustrating. There's not much down there," Pilon said of the trenches, dug to a maximum depth of 1.35 metres.

Just like last year, there were the usual items in the upper layers of soil: musket balls, lead shot, cans, bottles, clay pipe and animal bones.

Little of consequence came from the deeper ground, however. A blue willow pattern plate was unearthed but such plates have been around for hundreds of years and the pattern hasn't changed, Pilon said. He added that without the maker's mark on it, there's no way to accurately date it.

In a jam

A fragment of a ceramic marmalade jar with 1862 printed on it, discovered on Aug. 16, wasn't so ambiguous. Yet it wasn't as precise as it seemed either, Pilon said. The date and little bit of insignia that appear on the fragment -- a wreath of oak leaves with acorns -- gave the archaeological team enough information to turn to an Internet search engine. The query revealed that it was a bottle of James Keiller marmalade, made in Dundee, Scotland.

"It took about 10 minutes and we had that solved," Pilon said, smiling.

The catch is that 1862 wasn't the year the marmalade was produced; that was the year it won an award. Keiller's brand won another award in 1873. That date is printed on later jars made by the company as well. So all Pilon can deduce is that the unearthed marmalade fragment was made prior to 1873.

Ground-penetrating radar was used to identify targets for this year's dig, but it seems that the high-tech equipment was better at picking out anomalies in soil chemistry rather than objects, Pilon said.

He added that scouring Hudson's Bay Company archives in Winnipeg may be the most logical way to determine what sort of structure the deeper layers of wood and bark represent. One Fort Simpson resident suggested it could have been an ice house or it may have been a root cellar.

Stephen Rowan, of the Fort Simpson Historical Society, said he isn't disappointed in the outcome, even if the location of Fort of the Forks -- the North West Company's fur trading post established in 1803 -- remains a mystery.

"My personal feeling is that it's always fun to know something new," Rowan said. "Maybe at some point we'll get to know more (about) where Fort of the Forks was."