Artifacts unearthed during museum construction reveal Winnipeg site's importance

WINNIPEG – Tools, pieces of ceramic pots and other artifacts dating as far back as 900 years are shedding new light on the role an area of modern-day Winnipeg played in aboriginal lives.

Officials with the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, along with archaeologists, revealed Wednesday some of the 400,000 artifacts retrieved during construction of the building, which sits at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers — a place where aboriginals gathered for centuries.

Some fragments of ceramic pottery include a mixture of styles seen in First Nations pieces to the south and west. The discovery reinforces the idea that The Forks, as the site is known, was a meeting place of different cultures, said Mireille Lamontagne, the museum’s manager of education programs.

“So we start to ask questions as to how were people travelling, were they inter-marrying and then sharing those traditions?”

The dig also uncovered 191 hearths or fire pits, which may suggest The Forks was more than just a gathering place — it may have also seen seasonal habitation.

Archaeologists also found maize and bean residues on ceramics, as well as hoe fragments, which suggests farming took place there centuries ago. Officials cautioned, however, that the farming implements could have been brought in from elsewhere.

Another find — an intact ceremonial pipe — is similar to those made by aboriginals far to the south and further supports the notion that sophisticated trade networks existed, Lamontagne said.

The fact that artifacts from many different cultures were found in one place also backs oral histories among local aboriginals concerning a large peace gathering of more than a half-dozen First Nations about 500 years ago.

The Forks was a location prized by many, Lamontagne said.

“It’s clear … that the wealth of resources, both plant life and animal life, made it such an attractive place to stop. It was also a strategic location, specifically in terms of things like warfare or political interaction.”

The museum, which is slated to open next year, has been the subject of controversy.

Originally pushed a decade ago by the late media mogul Izzy Asper, the museum was projected to cost $260 million. But as time went by, construction costs escalated — first to $310 million, then to $351 million — and governments at all levels faced increasing requests for money.

In 2007, the federal government essentially took over the project and made a commitment to cover its projected operating costs of $21.7 million a year. It’s the first national museum outside the Ottawa-Gatineau region.

Construction also caused concern that a traditional aboriginal location was being disturbed, even though it had earlier been used as a rail yard.

Stu Murray, the museum’s president, defended the decision to build on the site.

“Had it not been decided that that was the site, who knows what would have gone there,” he said Wednesday.

“I think at the end of the day, what we’ve been able to do is create something that is educational, that is all about preserving, protecting and respecting what these artifacts indeed require.”