October 2017

Remarkable items unearthed at Quebec’s most significant archaeological dig site

Pointe-à-Callière presents the results of its archaeological digs on the site of the Parliament in Montréal and of a visitor survey.

Montréal, October 17, 2017 – The summer 2017 dig campaign carried out by Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Archaeology and History Complex, on the site of the Parliament of the United Province of Canada (or the United Canada) (1844–1849) in Old Montréal led to some major discoveries. The archaeological excavations under a former municipal parking lot in Place D’Youville Ouest, conducted with financial assistance from the City of Montréal, turned up the remains of a site of tremendous importance in the history of Montréal and Canada as a whole. The goals of the campaign by Pointe-à-Callière and Ethnoscop archaeologists were to continue investigating the site, identify the necessary work to protect the remains, and consider how to preserve them and make them accessible to the public.

“Montréal is proud of its historic and archaeological heritage, and few places in the city show the results of research into such a memorable period in our past. Given the important findings from these digs, we have an obligation to preserve this heritage of national importance, with all the know-how and creativity that is Montréal’s signature,” said Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre.

Highlights: large numbers of charred books
Over 300,000 artifacts and ecofacts were unearthed, a remarkable harvest in terms of its quantity, variety, quality and historic importance. The digs covered almost the entire site. Some thirty charred fragments of books were found in the vicinity of the Legislative Council library, which housed about 6,000 volumes in 1849. We know that on the evening of the fire the two parliamentary libraries went up in flames and approximately 22,000 public documents from Upper and Lower Canada, some of them dating back to the days of New France, were reduced to ashes. So it is nothing less than exceptional to find so many remains, after more than 168 years underground! The Museum in fact revealed a page restored by the Canadian Conservation Institute from a charred book found on the archaeological site in 2013, this time from the Legislative Assembly library. The Institute’s work made it possible to identify the book as the Procès-verbaux des séances de la chambre des députés. Session de 1830, published in Paris.

“The results of the 2017 archaeological digs exceeded our expectations, in terms of the number of items found and their nature and historic importance. These discoveries add to our historical knowledge about this site and the building’s layout, and it is essential that it be preserved for future generations. That is what we intend to do. Indeed, Montrealers and other visitors have shown great interest in making it accessible, as shown by the results of an electronic survey conducted on the site since mid-July. Over 87% of the nearly 1,000 people who responded to the survey affirmed the desire to see the site showcased through the construction of a pavilion that would protect the heritage site” added Francine Lelièvre, Executive Director of Pointe-à-Callière.

Unique handstamps
One of the major finds during the 2017 campaign was the discovery of two copper alloy handstamps bearing the official seals of Parliament. The first, found in the vicinity of the clerk’s office, near the rue McGill entrance, is inscribed “LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY CANADA” in relief, and the second, from the presumed site of the Legislative Council library, reads “LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL LIBRARY”. The Museum has searched through other Canadian collections and concluded that these items are unique. It also acquired an official document dispatched from Montréal to London on April 17, 1849 (just a few days before the fire, on April 25, 1849!) that is in fact marked with the first seal, in blue ink.

The other collector’s items discovered include a ceramic bowl commemorating the birth in 1840 of Princess Victoria Adelaide Mary, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s first child; various items related to office work, i.e. pencils, inkwells and metal pen nibs; in the central part of the building where the Parliament restaurant was located, fine tableware with different patterns, tea sets and baking dishes, glassware and wine bottles; also in the central part of the building, toiletry items such as a shaving kit, soap dishes and toothbrushes, water jugs and basins and shoe polish bottles. In addition, several coins, clay pipes and even a cigar holder were recovered from the ruins. Finally, various pieces of architectural hardware and ornamental stones from the building demolished shortly after the fire were also found.

The artifacts found on the site are hugely important, when one considers that they were used in the Parliament by people who were there on a daily basis, up until the night of the fire. They include, of course, the Prime Minister at the time, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and his right-hand man Robert Baldwin, and four politicians who would go down in history about twenty years later as Fathers of Confederation: John Alexander Macdonald, Étienne-Paschal Taché, Alexander Tilloch Galt, and Montrealer George-Étienne Cartier.

**A rare eyewitness account **
One of the Museum’s partners, the Grey Nuns of Montréal, took the opportunity during the summer 2017 digs to conduct their own research into the event. Their archivists turned up a previously unknown document dating from 1849, one of the rare eyewitness accounts of the burning of the Parliament building. The nuns at the original Hôpital général de Montréal, next door to the Parliament, had no choice but to watch the fire that broke out on the evening of April 25, 1849. The account describes in detail the arrival of the rioters, the events as they unfolded, the tragic fire and the losses suffered by the Hôpital général itself, which nearly went up in flames. The description adds new details to what is known about the nature of the fire.

A new perspective on Montréal’s past
All these discoveries contribute to our knowledge of Montréal’s past, especially since two other occupation levels were also unearthed in addition to the Parliamentary period. The archaeologists learned more about the initial role of St. Ann's Market (1832–1843), the building that was converted to house the Parliament. The two levels of occupancy of St. Ann’s Market – before and after the Parliament – also yielded many discoveries. Numerous apothecary items (vials, flasks and square inkwells) found in the level of the second St. Ann's Market (1851–1901) show that there was an apothecary’s stand or stall alongside the butchers’ stalls. Other finds suggest that the Market was one of Montréal’s first electrified buildings in the late 19th century and that the merchants themselves were responsible for organizing the cellars assigned to them depending on their means and requirements, in view of the goods they sold.

Making the heritage site accessible to the public Some 25,000 visitors explored an outdoor exhibition entitled Montréal, Capital of the United Canada – A Parliament Beneath Your Feet, in the heart of the digs, between July and October 2017. More than 87% of the nearly 1,000 respondents to an electronic survey conducted there showed great interest in the idea of erecting a pavilion to showcase this heritage site and make it accessible to the public.

In 2012, the Government of Quebec recognized the importance of the site, designating it a heritage site; in 1949, the Government of Canada designated the sessions of Parliament as a national historic event. Making St. Ann's Market, which housed the Parliament of the United Canada, and the objects found there accessible to the public is one aspect of Pointe-à-Callière’s great ambition: creating the Montréal Archaeology and History Complex, comprising about ten authentic historic sites. This new phase in the planned expansion involves erecting a building saluting the Parliament of the United Canada, with its remains displayed on the lower level; creating a national and international exhibition hall; continuing to develop Montréal’s first collector sewer, an impressive stone feat of civil engineering, extending beneath the square and running all the way to Fort Ville-Marie and the remains of the foundations of the first Parliament of the United Canada; and, lastly, creating urban gardens all along Place D’Youville.

A mini-exhibition on Montréal, the capital
Visitors interested in this subject can learn more about it from the new mini-exhibition, Montréal: Metropolis… and Capital in the Museum’s main building. It presents some fifty archaeological finds from previous digs, in addition to explaining some of the issues in this crucial period in the history of Canadian democracy.

About Pointe-à-Callière
Rising above Montréal’s birthplace, Pointe-à-Callière is the city’s largest history museum. It is a complex comprising a series of historic and archaeological sites of national significance that retrace major periods in the history of Montréal from 1350 to the present day. The only large-scale archaeology museum in Quebec and all of Canada, Pointe-à-Callière opened in 1992 to mark Montréal’s 350th birthday. The Museum’s mission is to bring visitors to know and appreciate the history of Quebec’s metropolis and to forge bonds with regional, national and international networks in the areas of archaeology, history and urbanism. Its mandate involves preserving and increasing access to Montréal’s heritage, which led to its creation of the Montréal Archaeology and History Complex, a world-class cultural and tourism attraction that will showcase some ten historic and heritage sites in Old Montréal.

Pointe-à-Callière is subsidized by the City of Montréal.

See the film Montréal, a Capital, a Parliament (1844–1849): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzOi_zdMcuM


Media: Marylène Kirouac
Communications Co-ordinator
[email protected]
T. 514 872-2687