Urban Archaeology & Material Culture

April 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

Recently, I’ve been thinking about urban archaeology and material culture.   Given my research interests, I suppose it’s only natural that I would also think about the actual physical landscape of the city and how it shifts and changes with time, populations, and construction.

Years ago, I visited Montréal’s Pointe-à-Callière Museum, in the Vieux-Port.  Point-à-Callière is the site of the first settlement of Ville-Marie, where Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve decided to plant his new settlement in 1642.  The museum itself is based around 3 archaeological digs (Pointe-à-Callière iteslf, as well as Place Royale and Place D’Youville), and artefacts from these archaeological digs are on display.  But it’s not just that.  In the underground of the museum, down where the digs took place, one can physically see the layers of city and settlement on Pointe-à-Callière, from the initial aboriginal inhabitants through the founding of Ville-Marie, to the governor’s mansion that was once located there, through urbanisation, industrialisation, and so on.  The physical remnants of the buildings, and artefacts are there for the viewer to see.

My favourite part is the William sewer, which canalised, and placed underground, the Rivière Petite Saint-Pierre, which itself had become a stinking cesspool as it flowed above ground through what was once the Nazareth Fief (and later Griffintown), into the St. Lawrence, hence creating Pointe-à-Callière.  Apparently (at least according to its entry on Wikipedia), the museum has plans to open up and expose the Petite Saint-Pierre, as well as the old location of St. Ann’s Market in Place D’Youville, as well as the remains of the Parliament House of the United Province of Canada, which was burned down in the Rebellion Losses Bill Riot in 1849 (just imagine a riot today in a democracy burning down the house of parliament!).

Anyway, this is where I first thought about urban archaeology, but I never really gave it much more thought in terms of my academic interests until a couple of summers ago, whilst walking along the Canal Lachine, where, at the St. Gabriel locks, Parks Canada has dug up the foundations and remnants of a factory on the northeastern side of the locks.

Andy Riga, over at The Gazette, has an interesting blog, “Metropolitan News;” his latest post is about the public toilets, disused and buried under Place D’Armes.   During the reign of Mayor Camillien Houde in the 1930s, partly as a public works project, Vespesiennes were built in Carré Saint-Louis, Square Cabot, amongst other places, and public washrooms were constructed in places including Place D’Armes.  The washrooms there were shuttered in 1980, victim of many things, including Montréal’s notoriously crumbling infrastructure.  Since then, there have been a few plans or attempts at plans to revive the public toilets, but they are in serious decay and would cost too much money to renovate them, due to years of neglect, water damage, and humidity.  So they remain buried under Place D’Armes which, like Dorchester Square downtown, is undergoing a massive renovation.

So notions of what’s underfoot have long interested me as I’ve wandered about the city, but especially in the sud-ouest, Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles, as well as Saint-Henri, where I’ve lived for most of the past decade. 

Also, too, there is the influence of Prof. Rhona Richman Kenneally of Concordia University, who encouraged me to give some thought to material culture in approaching my dissertation and my work on Griffintown.  Ultimately, as interesting and exciting as I found approaches to material culture in my studies, there was no way to fit it into the dissertation (the same can be said of proper mapping of the Griff).  But I remained intrigued by these ideas.

So, with all of this in mind, I finally got my hands on Stephen A. Brighton’s Historical Archaeology of the Irish Diaspora, based around digs in the Five Points of Manhattan and in Newark, New Jersey.  Using the archaeological evidence, Brighton constructs an argument centred on the material culture of 19th century Irish-American life in these two urban centres.   Using this methodology, Brighton is able to answer a lot of questions we cannot answer using more traditional historical methodologies.  Brighton has the remnants of the material culture of the Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans.  Finding glasswares with symbols of Irish nationalism on them suggests that the movement had some traction amongst the tenement dwellers of the Five Points.

My favourite part of his analysis, though, comes in relation to medicine.  The artefacts from the Five Points come from the 1850s and 60s, whereas those in the New Jersey digs are from the 1880s.   In other words, the Five Points Irish were more recent arrivals and lived in greater poverty than those in New Jersey.  Thus, their access to the nascent public health system was different than that of their compatriots in Jersey.  Brighton found that the Five Points Irish relied more on cure-alls and pseudo-medical tonics to cure what ailed them.  Throughout the dig site are bottles that once contained tonics and cures, whereas in New Jersey, the digs uncovered evidence of reputable medicines.  This, concludes Brighton, is symptomatic of that poverty but also, too, perhaps of the alienation of mid-19th century Irish immigrants from the mainstream of American culture and society (remember, the 1850s also saw the Know-Nothing movement in the USA and the Bowery B’hoys Riot of 1857). 

So what Brighton offers up here is a piece of evidence to support what historians already know from more traditional sources.  And this brings me to my problem with Brighton’s book: it doesn’t add much in the way of new information to our historical knowledge.  Rather than challenge historians’ traditional takes on the Irish in the Five Points (especially), Brighton confirms what we already knew with the archaeological evidence.

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