The archeology of a province

Reviewed by Karl Hele

Before Ontario: the archeology of a province is an interesting and up-to-date account of archaeological knowledge intended for non-specialists – students or the general public. Overall, the work is an effort to address past archaeological failures while showcasing current understanding of the past that is influenced by Indigenous knowledge and better use of written documentation. The collection contains 15 items divided into three sections. All but one of the chapters are written by non-Aboriginal archaeological experts who seem to be trying, some more successfully than others, to understand Aboriginal people. The work is unified around the argument that the pre-contact past of what became Ontario is filled with humans who lived in complex societies that archeology can only help us understand part of.

“Part 1: A Land Before Ontario” offers a basic overview of the different archaeological eras, from the earliest settlers at the retreat of the icefields, known as the Paleoindians, to the peoples of the Archaic and Woodland eras through five chapters. Each chapter explores the main features and artifacts of the time as well as the interactions between lifestyles and changing environments. Simply, this section follows the movement of Paleo-Indians in Ontario, how the changing environment led to the lifestyles of Archaic peoples, and eventually how the adoption of agriculture further altered landscapes and societies. This section contains the only chapter on people who lived in what is called Northern Ontario.

The nine chapters of “Part 2: Telling Archaeological Stories” are fun reading that explores archaeological interpretations. Each chapter explores a different aspect of archaeological study. For example, Neal Ferris’ chapter on Dwellings explains how archaeologists interpret settlement remains to indicate “how families and communities organized themselves and defined space and place and how these sensibilities changed over time. time” (Ferris, 111). Another chapter, perhaps the most speculative in the collection, “Social and Political Lives” by Susan M. Jamieson, offers archaeological insight into the evolution of social complexity, community practices, commerce, and symbolism over time. Simply, “Part 2” shows the dynamic nature of Indigenous societies while illustrating how our ancestors continually built on their understanding of the past as it was experienced through the evolution of living landscapes. This is the best and most interesting section of the collection.

“Part 3: The Last (But Not Final) Word” consists of a single chapter. Kris Nahrgang, the only Indigenous scholar and contributor to the volume, writes a wonderfully human article that talks about past and current issues with archaeologists as well as future promise through change. Nahrgang acknowledges the irony shown by the only Indigenous inclusion of the collection at the end of the white experts’ volume. Either way, Nahrgang sees the value of archeology as a decolonized and indigenized way to learn more about our ancestors.

The collection is well illustrated and reflects the state of archaeological knowledge and interpretation of the pre-European past. Unfortunately, this volume is really about the peoples who lived in what became southern Ontario. It is also full of anachronisms, and perhaps colonizations or claims of ownership, when, for example, it refers to Indigenous peoples as “Ontarians” long before Ontario even existed. The constant reference to ancient peoples as a generic cover for anyone or any society before 1650 was quite annoying. Despite the anachronisms, the lack of native archaeologists, and the general avoidance of people living north of the upper lakes, the volume offers an interesting collective account of the dynamic nature of native studies in what becomes southern Ontario. I would recommend people read this collection to understand how archaeologists come to understand the Indigenous past, represent that past, and finally present our ancestors living in dynamic societies that seek to meet individual, family, and collective needs.

Marit K. Munson and Susan M. Jamieson, eds. Before Ontario: the archeology of a province. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Joan J. Holland