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Archaeological Site a 5000-Year-Old Fishing Camp

After 5000 years of human habitation, Pointe-du-Buisson, Quebec has a lot of tales to tell. After 42 years of archaeological research and the discovery of some 2 million artifacts, many of those stories have come to light.

Pointe-du-Buisson is a point of land beside a stretch of rapids in the St. Lawrence River, southwest of Montreal. For thousands of years, these rapids teemed with fish, and the point was an excellent spot for fishing, first for the native people, then for people of European ancestry. The point, with its easy landing spots, also served as a portage route where travellers could carry their canoes and supplies around the rapids.

Today, the rapids and the fish population are greatly diminished since most of the water in the St. Lawrence River was diverted to flow through the nearby Beauharnois power dam and another small dam controls the river just upstream. However, with paths running through a hickory and maple forest and water-worn rocks beside the shore, Pointe-du-Buisson retains much of its natural beauty, and it was recognized in 2006 as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Moreover, the site is as busy as ever. While archaeologists from the Université de Montréal continue to dig, the Pointe-du-Buisson Archaeological Park offers public educational programs to explain who lived here, what they did, and what traces of their activities they left behind.
shoreline at Pointe-du-Buisson
A good spot for fishing
Although it is not the oldest archaeological site in Quebec (that distinction goes to a 12,000 year-old site near Lac Megantic, in southeastern part of the province), “Pointe-du-Buisson’s significance is that it has been occupied continually,” says chief park archaeologist Amélie Sénécal. “There are traces from all periods so we can see changes in the way people lived, in the technology they used, and the way they decorated objects.” The earliest prehistoric cultures are unnamed; 500 years ago, when the first Europeans arrived, the people who occupied the area belonged to the Iroquoian culture.

The point is especially rich in artifacts related to fishing. Archaeologists have found harpoons and hooks made of bone, as well as fish bones – the remains of many a meal. Yellow sturgeon and eels were plentiful in this part of the St. Lawrence. Artifacts related to hunting, such as skin scrapers and arrowheads, have also turned up, as have pottery fragments, and there is evidence of post holes from a small longhouse that probably sheltered two families. Families lived on the point from about May through October while they fished.

Traces of the French regime include pieces of ceramic and musket balls. Fur traders and soldiers crossed the point en route to or from Lake Ontario, and many of them camped here overnight. From 1830 to 1850, the land belonged to an Englishman, Lord Edward Ellice. The archaeologists have discovered the foundations of a fishing cottage he built here.

Currently, the archaeologists are focusing on two sites. On one site, located near the rapids, they are turning up hundreds of pottery fragments. The other site, in the woods, has been occupied for about 3500 years. So far, says Sénécal, it has yielded fragments of early pottery, numerous stone objects and flakes of stone that fell on the ground when people carved arrowheads, for example. At this location, members of the public can act as archaeologists for three-hour sessions. Visitors are supplied with trowels, tweezers and screens to sift the dirt. They work on their knees but they don’t have to dig very deep: most of the artifacts found at Pointe-du-Buisson are within 30 cm of the surface.

There is a summer archaeology camp for teenagers and school group tours in the spring and fall. The permanent exhibit features some of the artifacts found here, while visitors can learn more about the methods archaeologists use in the laboratory, and they can walk though a reconstructed longhouse. There are also themed weekend activities for the public in the summer. Most activities are bilingual or in French. Last year some 13,000 people visited the park between May and October.

Pointe-du-Buisson is located in Mellocheville, about 35 km southwest of Montreal. From the city, take the Mercier Bridge across the St. Lawrence River and continue west on highway 132.

Copyright Janice Hamilton 2007