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Laurier archaeological dig at Fort Erie to commemorate 200th anniversary of War of 1812
Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing
Mar 8/12| For Immediate Release
John Triggs Associate Professor of Archaeology
Kevin Crowley, Director, Communications & Public Affairs
WATERLOO – As Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho once wrote, “Ah, summer grass / All that remains / Of the warrior’s dream.” Student archaeologists at Wilfrid Laurier University have a different take. For them, it’s what can be found beneath the summer grass that matters: precious clues about how such dreams played out two centuries ago.
From May 14 to June 22, a team of 20 Laurier students will be carrying out the first-ever archaeological dig at Fort Erie, located on the Canadian side of the Niagara River across from Buffalo, NY, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
“Fort Erie is a high-profile site and it figured very prominently in the War of 1812 period,” says John Triggs, associate professor of Archaeology, who is leading the dig. “This is an opportunity to learn more about Fort Erie than the historical documents alone can teach us, and to get people excited about the War of 1812 and how important it is to Canada’s history.”
The dig will focus primarily on the American defensive positions during the bloodiest battle ever fought on Canadian soil, a six-week siege in August and September 1814, during which the British tried to recapture the fort from the Americans. Upwards of 1,500 combatants, including soldiers, native allies and militia, died in the fighting.
The team will first divide the site into a grid made up of two-by-one-meter rectangles. Approximately six to seven students will work on each area, carefully scraping away the soil to find items such as bones from food, dishes, clay smoking pipes, uniform buttons bearing regimental numbers, musket balls and artillery shell fragments, dominos and dice for gambling, and a wide array of other items that help paint a picture of camp life during the war.
Triggs does not anticipate that any human remains will be found, since all bodies were likely removed from the battlefield and buried elsewhere. A Laurier professor who specializes in the archaeology of human remains, Bonnie Glencross, will be on hand to examine any possible cases.
“We could easily find 10,000 artifacts on a dig like this, of all shapes and sizes, from smaller than a thumbnail to as large as a cannonball,” says Triggs. “People think of history as something written in books or gleaned from documents, but archaeology is another way to look at history, and it can tell us things that we couldn’t find out in any other way.”
The Laurier dig could turn up new discoveries about the Native allies who fought alongside the British and about whom records are scarce. It could also uncover field hospitals or blockhouses not recorded in official documents. Gaps and omissions in documentation were a common consequence of the fog of war, and archaeology can correct or fill out the written record.
“The British commanding officer described the conditions in the siege camp as like living in a lake,” Triggs says. “It’s hard for us to imagine how chaotic it was.”
The dig at Fort Erie is being carried out as part of the Department of Archaeology’s field schools program, which gives students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in class to a hands on, real world archaeological dig, which in turn helps them to better understand their in-class courses. (The approach exemplifies the university’s “integrated and engaged” approach to education, which seeks to provide students with a mix of in-class and applied learning opportunities.)
It is expected that hundreds of visitors to Fort Erie will have the opportunity to view the excavation as it progresses. The student archaeologists will be briefed on how to interact with the public, explaining and interpreting their findings in real time. For visitors to the fort, it will be a unique chance to learn more about Canada’s origins.
“The War of 1812 was such a turning point in our history,” says Triggs. “The capture of Fort Erie was the last invasion of the war, and the last in Canadian history. It helped unite us as a country.”