Recent Archaeology in Southern Quebec

Gates St-Pierre, Christian.  2009.  “A Critical Review of the Last Decade of Prehistoric Archaeology in Southern Quebec” in Painting the Past with a Broad Brush: Papers in Honour of James Valliere Wright, edited by David L. Keenlyside and Jean-Luc Pilon, pp. 103-141. Mercury Series Archaeology Paper 170. Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau.

In a festschrift for Canadian archaeologist J.V. Wright, Gates St-Pierre looks at the recent (c. 1995-2005) literature on the archaeology of southern Quebec. For some reason, he deliberately “tried to avoid research presented in the grey literature” (p. 105) – i.e., CRM reports. This makes no sense, and calls into question how comprehensive his survey is. It’s interesting that the most informative archaeological sites almost all were excavated decades ago. Gates St-Pierre highlights as a good thing (which it is) how valuable old curated collections can be when subjected to new analysis, but I wonder whether equally informative archaeological sites have been excavated more recently by cultural resource management firms.According to Gates St-Pierre, professional archaeological research in the southern Quebec region really only dates back to the 1960s or so, much more recent than in surrounding areas, and the progress of knowledge does seem to still be lagging: the first fluted points (Clovis) to be found in Quebec were discovered in 2003 at the Cliche-Rancourt site near Lake Mégantic.  Not too far across the border, the Paleo-Indian Reagen site in Vermont and Vail site in Maine were excavated years ago. Late Paleo-Indian sites are almost as rare. Some Plano type points were found on Thompson Island in the St. Lawrence River, and several sites in the Quebec City area have been attributed to the Late Paleo-Indian, but there are questions about the artifacts, chronology, or both.

Early Archaic and Middle Archaic period sites are equally rare. There are only two sites with diagnostic Early Archaic artifacts: Coteau-du-Lac and Gros Bouleau, each of which has a Kanawha type (bifurcated base) projectile point. Coteau-du-Lac also has a human bone with a radiocarbon date of 6,660 BP, placing it in the Middle Archaic, while other Middle Archaic artifacts have been found on Thompson Island and at the Plage-Duquette site. This apparent absence in southern Quebec is similar to the way the northeastern United States looked to archaeologists back in the 1960s, when many archaeologists mistakenly thought the lack of known sites reflected a real absence of people during this time period. Why the scarcity in Quebec? Lake and river levels were much lower than at present during these periods, so many sites may be submerged beneath water today. Gates St-Pierre also suspects that, as in the northeastern U.S., as more and more fieldwork is done, gradually more sites from these periods will be discovered.

The Late Archaic, divided into the Laurentian (6,000-4,000 BP) and the Post-Laurention (4,500-3,000 BP), is the first period in which sites are numerous, although frequently the Archaic component comprises only a small portion of a multi-component site. The two best known and most informative Laurentian Archaic sites are located in the Middle Ottawa Valley. Allumette Island is a Vergennes phase site and Morrison Island is attributed to the Brewerton phases, but the two sites are very similar. In addition to stone tools, both sites have human burials, large numbers of copper tools (well over one thousand at Allumette), bone tools (including worked beaver incisors), and faunal remains. Both sites also have non-local artifacts suggestive of a trade network and were probably occupied from the late summer to early fall.

Post-Laurentian sites, assigned to the Lamoka and Susquehanna phases by at least some, are also found in southern Quebec, but none are comparable in terms of richness to the Allumette Island and Morrison Island sites. Other intriguing sites, including a hornfels (siltstone) quarry on Mount Royal in Montreal and a rock art site at Rocher de l’Oiseau, do not have either radiometric or typological dates, but are sometimes attributed to the Late Archaic period as well.

Trade or exchange with more distant areas continued into the Early Woodland Period. The Lambert site, near Québec City, contained a cache of around 180 heat-broken blades made of Onondaga chert from New York State, interpreted as participation in the so-called Meadowood Interaction Sphere. Neutron activation analysis of Vinette I sherds (associated with the Meadowood phase) from at least five sites in Quebec indicates these ceramic vessels were not locally made and were likely obtained through trade.

Significant early Middle Woodland (2,400-1,500 BP) sites include those at Lake Leamy Park in Gatineau and the Hector-Trudel site at Pointe-du-Buisson. The site report on Hector-Trudel had not been published when this article came out, but analysis of the enormous faunal assemblage (130,000 specimens) by Evelyne Cossette has been completed and published. The assemblage is dominated by fish (channel catfish, lake sturgeon, and redhorse suckers are most common) but black bear, white-tailed deer, and beaver are also represented. The site appears to have been occupied from the middle of spring to mid-fall, and there is little or no change in subsistence activity over about 500 years. Other studies of fishing have been undertaken at the late Middle Woodland Station-4 site and at the multicomponent Station-3-avant site. At the latter site, Marie-Eve Brodeur “sees intensification in the exploitation of channel catfish through time [from Late Archaic to Late Woodland], …while the first fishermen predominantly targeted big, mature channel catfish, their successors also captured juveniles in gradually but steadily increasing numbers.” (p. 117)   Brodeur attributes this to new mass-capture techniques like fish traps, but it sounds like a case could potentially be made for overexploitation of the resource and a consequent widening of diet breadth.

Gates St-Pierre’s own work involved the study of ceramics from Hector-Trudel and many other Middle Woodland sites throughout southern Quebec, southern Ontario, and the northeastern United States, concluding in “the identification and definition of a regional stylistic production in the Montréal area, which was interpreted as the result of the increased regionalisation of cultural identities occurring in late Middle Woodland times in the Northeast…[and]the identification and description of a techno-stylistic stasis similar to the one observed by Cossette.” (p. 117) Interestingly, the Middle Woodland ceramics, like the Early Woodland ones before them, also appear to not have been made locally, or at least to have been made of non-local clay.

For the Late Woodland Period, the emphasis here is on ceramic studies, in particular the debate over whether there is a distinct break between Middle and Late Woodland ceramics, or, as advocated by Morin (based upon his attribute analysis, as opposed to typological analysis, of ceramics), gradual change. Ceramic variation is also used to argue for changes in interaction spheres or other cultural interaction in the Late Woodland. These studies also have implications for in situ versus migration hypotheses for the origins of the Iroquois.

  Gates St-Pierre concludes with a comment on the current state of academic research in Quebec:

“It must be noted that a very large proportion of the studies mentioned in this article were carried out by professors or students of the Département d’anthropologie at Université de Montréal.  Currently, this department is by far the most involved in the field of Quebec prehistory, and although it has been extremely dynamic and productive during the last three decades, this situation is clearly problematic. It is a problem because this department constitutes in itself the sole and only major pole or center of research in Quebec prehistory. Actually, archaeology is also being taught at McGill University, Université Laval, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC). However, in each case, none or only one of the faculty members is researching Quebec prehistory south of the Arctic. Moreover, nearly all the prehistorians working in Quebec who are not university-based are nevertheless former students of the same Université de Montréal (including myself). This must absolutely change. It must change because it is not healthy for research and science; not healthy for the intellectual life of a discipline such as archaeology. It is a situation where researchers at the Department of Anthropology of Université de Montréal are never being truly challenged. It is also a situation which might certainly explain, at least in part, the near absence of theoretical debates among Quebec archaeologists, as previously emphasized.” (p. 125-126)

He also deplores

“the near absence of collaboration between archaeologists of all the previously mentioned universities (the recent collaboration between Université Laval and UQAC being a fortunate exception). This is simply astonishing and deplorable, and surprisingly it is almost taboo merely to mention this problem in Quebec universities. However, it is clear that it must also change, for reasons so obvious that they don’t require explanation. Nearly the same observation also holds true regarding the relations between archaeologists of academia and CRM, museum or government-based archaeologists.” (p. 126)


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