Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Peter Ramsden Researching 16th Century Huron Interactions

Peter Ramsden recording
a Huron pottery rim fragment
Peter Ramsden's career as an archaeologist has spanned the North Atlantic, from Ireland to the Arctic and throughout Canada, including a 25 year stopover in Hamilton where he helped train a generation of Canadian archaeologists at McMaster University.  In 2012, he was recognized by the Canadian Archaeological Association with the Smith-Wintemberg Award as one of the discipline's professional elders.  Since his days as a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Peter has been plucking at the threads of an unexpectedly tangled and colourful Huron history in south-central Ontario.  He continues his work from his home in St. John's.

Plans and Profiles #2. Peter Ramsden, Huron Politics in 16th Century South-Central Ontario

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Recording pit features in the interior of a longhouse
My project, which embarrassingly is still on-going after 30+ years, is investigating the social, economic and political dynamics of Huron/Wendat populations in the upper Trent River valley of south-central Ontario during the late 16th century. French traders and explorers were active in the St. Lawrence valley, and European goods were being traded to the Huron/Wendat through intermediaries: Ottawa valley Algonkians and St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Hurons from other parts of southern Ontario were migrating into the upper Trent at this time, partly to escape Iroquois enemies to the south and partly to secure an advantageous trading position between the French and their Algonkian allies to the southeast and lucrative fur-trapping areas to the northwest. My research has involved archaeological survey in the area of Balsam Lake, and the extensive excavation of four Huron village sites and several smaller camp sites. I have been investigating the various ways in which different Huron groups, as well as immigrant St. Lawrence Iroquoians and Algonkians interacted after moving to the Balsam Lake area. I am also attempting to interpret the changes in economic orientation and political organization that resulted from this interaction, and from the acquisition of new wealth and prestige in the form of European metal and other goods.

Balsam Lake and the locations of sites investigated by our project. (Click to Enlarge)

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

A rim section of a typical Huron pot
This project was a direct outgrowth of my Ph.D. dissertation, which identified local and regional Huron groups in the pre-contact and early historic periods through a detailed analysis of ceramics and other evidence in museum collections from about 30 Huron sites across southern Ontario. In the process it became obvious to me that there had been at least two different Huron groups in the Balsam Lake area, overlapping in time, and that one of them had moved there very suddenly from a great distance away: probably the north shore of Lake Ontario. I decided to initiate a new project to investigate a) why did that group of people move to the Balsam Lake area? and b) how did they get along with the other Hurons who were already there? I suspected from the beginning that it had to do with the French fur trade and interaction with the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

A rim fragment of "corn ear" design - a typical style of St. Lawrence Iroquoian pottery, which becomes increasingly common on Balsam Lake Huron sites through the mid to late 16th century - the time when the St. Lawrence Iroquoians disappeared from the St. Lawrence valley, and from history.

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

An aerial view of our excavations at the Benson site. 
 Some longhouse outlines are visible.
Yes, definitely. I think it began to change almost as soon as we began excavating, at the Benson village site, in 1976. The biggest way it has changed is probably that the events and cultural dynamics of that time and place have turned out to be incredibly more complex than I ever imagined. It has led me down avenues of research that I didn’t anticipate – as an example, I didn’t think I would be confronting a major issue of trying to sort out the ethnicity of people living at these sites in the Balsam Lake area. But some of the smaller sites we have excavated have presented some rather unexpected details that lead me to believe that they were actually occupied primarily by Algonkians rather than Hurons – probably visitors from the Canadian Shield area just to the north – who were there to exchange fish and furs for corn and European metal goods. Even more surprising is the fact that one of the larger village sites, excavated long before my project, also looks as though it may be an Algonkian village rather than a Huron one, probably occupied only during the summer. Also, we have clear evidence of St. Lawrence Iroquoians, probably refugees from warfare on the St. Lawrence, moving next to these Huron communities and eventually being adopted into them. This caused considerable disruption in the social and political dynamics of the host villages, as revealed by evidence of house re-building, village expansion, and the removal of an entire section of at least one village to some other location. Suffice it to say that the simple questions that I began the project with no longer have much relevance in the light of the evidence we have recovered.

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site one question what would it be?

In some form or other, I think the question would be “Who are you, and who are those people over there?”

A human effigy clay pipe bowl from a Balsam Lake Huron site of ca. A.D. 1550.  The figure's face is painted with red ochre, and the figure may be wearing some sort of hooded garment, perhaps with buttons down the front.

5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

I think I would have to say that it has taught me that I’m not as good at figuring all this stuff out as I once thought I was.

A tiny fragment cut from a French copper kettle found on
a Balsam Lake Huron site dating to ca. 1550. Makes it one
of the earliest European trade materials in Ontario.
6)When I started this research, I never imagined...

a) that it would produce so much information, and b) that I would still be working on it in 2013.

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

In lots of different ways, but most often I suppose by doing other things on the computer - like editing and manipulating digital photographs, playing games, and emailing people about the possibility of going out for beer.

8) What is one thing that you can’t imagine doing fieldwork without?

I was going to say a camera, but it would be possible (although not advisable) to do field work without one. But I can’t imagine doing field work without a way of recording what I was doing, including making sketches, so I guess I have to say a large notebook. Oh, and a pen.

The crew from 1978 - the last big field season. A dissipated looking group of typical 70s students. I am in the back, at the right hand end. Of the students, 7 went on to pursue graduate work in archaeology, and 4 are still professional archaeologists. In that summer we did excavations at three village sites and a couple of smaller 'hamlet' sites, and conducted a survey.

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

Resources for Huron archaeology and history: 

Trigger, Bruce The Children of Aataentsic. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1987

Warrick, Gary A Population History of the Huron-Petun, A.D. 500-1650. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Ramsden, Peter “The Hurons, Archaeology and Culture History.” In: The Archaeology of Southern Ontario to A.D.1650, edited by Chris Ellis and Neal Ferris: 361-384. Occasional Publications of the London Chapter of the Ontario Archaeological Society, No. 5, 1990.

Resources for this project: 

Damkjar, Eric The Coulter Site and Late Iroquoian Coalescence in the Upper Trent Valley (2nd edition). Occasional Papers in Northeastern Archaeology No. 2. Copetown Press, 2009.

Nasmith, Carol The Kirche Site: A 16th Century Huron Village in the Upper Trent Valley (2nd edition). Occasional Papers in Northeastern Archaeology No. 1. Copetown Preess, 2008.

Ramsden, Peter “Politics in a Huron village”. In: Painting the Past with a Broad Brush: Papers in Honour of James Valiere Wright, edited by David Keenlyside and Jean-Luc Pilon: 299-318. Canadian Museum of Civilization Mercury Series No. 170, 2009.

Peter Ramsden, Archaeology Publications:

An iron awl in an antler handle, from a Balsam Lake area Huron site of about A.D. 1580.


If you, or someone you know, would like to be profiled on this blog in a future Plans and Profile post, please drop me a note at

Photo Credits:
1, 3-11: Peter Ramsden
2: Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

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