By Glen Prevost, Special to the News
Hamilton has a rich art scene, but few people realize it dates back to at least 1000 BC.
The ancestors of today’s Iroquoian people called Cootes Paradise home and were extremely skilled potters. They crafted cooking and storage pots with intricate designs, using local clays and sands. The remains of their camps, especially their garbage dumps, have been found in great abundance all around the shores of Cootes Paradise. The area began to be settled about the same time the beautiful Cootes Paradise marsh began to form.
“The marsh really seems to be an area that people have been going to for thousands of years,” said archaeologist Dr. David Smith, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in Ontario’s prehistoric pottery. “It is a biologically rich area and has been for an awfully long time.”
As it still is today, the richness of Cootes Paradise would have been an irresistible attraction for people thousands of years ago. Even after years of degradation, the marsh still teems with life. A large array of resources, especially wild rice, were tremendously important for the settlement of Cootes Paradise. Waterfowl, fish and turtles would have been ripe for the picking up until the late 1700s.
Archaeologists love pottery, and not just for the beautiful patterns. Pottery is a great tool for archaeologists to understand past cultures. Changes in pottery styles help track changes in culture over time, and it is pottery that defined the cultures around Cootes Paradise.
Only five whole pots from this time period exist, and they have had to be pieced back together from fragments, making them very rare and delicate. While Cootes Paradise has multiple archeological sites along its shores, only fragments of such pots have been found. The whole pots came from the shores of the Grand River, from the same peoples who lived at Princess Point.
Since the discovery of indigenous artifacts in 1961 by McMaster professor Bruce Batchelor, the area has been found to be a rich archeological site. One of the things Smith’s team has found is plenty garbage. Very old garbage.
“A garbage dump is a beautiful thing from an agricultural perspective” said Smith, “We have thousands of years of evidence.”
People would come to Cootes year after year and deposit new garbage in a dump hole, creating layers of garbage and a time-line of sorts, that can be traced back thousands of years, said Smith.
The dump hole at Cootes Paradise is about 50 centimetres deep. At the very bottom of the dump are artifacts from 5,500 thousand years ago and at the very top are some of the very earliest European goods, beads from the early 1600s. The sites around Cootes are some of the last in the Hamilton area that have not been destroyed by development.
Findings include pottery, flint, knifes, arrowheads, cobble net sinkers for fishing, maize, wild raspberries, and fish, turtle, and waterfowl bones.
Smith sees the proposed Dundas EcoPark as a way to preserve heritage and learn more about the first artists of Hamilton. At 3,325 acres, the Dundas EcoPark would form the western part of the Cootes to Escarpment Park System and protect the sites. It will include the north and south shores of Cootes Paradise, a provincially significant wetland, and part of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve.
The Hamilton Conservation Foundation is heading a $5-million fundraising campaign to help acquire significant natural lands within the Dundas EcoPark.
For Dr. Smith, the ideal scenario would be to have a heritage master plan completed for the park system that would document the area’s rich archeological treasures.
There has not been a lot of work in the area where the EcoPark is being proposed.
Lack of funds for archaeological research limits Smith’s work to two weeks each year.
“We haven’t even done Cootes Paradise right. Every time I go out there I find something new,” said Smith.