Archaeology in Oshawa – the MacLeod Site

The MacLeod archaeological site, located at the corners of Thornton and Rossland Roads in Oshawa, is a Lake Ontario Iroquois village dating from 1450 A.D.   It is one of the first known settlements in the Oshawa area.   It was first discovered in the fall of 1967 on the property of Howard MacLeod.  Several groups excavated in different areas of the site until 1972.

The MacLeod excavation, c. 1969, Rossland and Thornton Roads
The MacLeod excavation, c. 1969, Rossland and Thornton Roads

The village was located on 3-4  acres  and  consisted  of  five  longhouses  surrounded by a high protective  wall  or  palisade.   During the excavation, portions of two of the longhouses were uncovered.  The larger of the two, the Alpha house measured 58 metres in length and 8.2 metres in width.  The interior was arranged to allow several families to live together.  A row of hearths was located down the centre of the house and holes in the roof allowed smoke to escape.  Sleeping benches were located down either side of the longhouse.  A replica of one of the longhouses is on display at the Oshawa Community Museum in the Grandview Site Gallery.

Model longhouse, on display in Robinson House
Model longhouse, on display in Robinson House

The inhabitants of the MacLeod site were agriculturists and did not generally hunt large game.  They subsisted on diet of corn, beans, fish, small game and wild plant foods which were gathered.  Charred remnants of corn and beans were discovered at the site.  The women were responsible for planting, tending and harvesting the crops as well as gathering foodstuffs such as nuts and berries.

EX992.35.1 - Rim Shard found at the MacLeod Archaeological site
EX992.35.1 – Rim Shard found at the MacLeod Archaeological site

Over  18 000  artifacts  were  uncovered at  the  MacLeod  site  of  which  the vast majority were ceramics,  lithics  (stone)  and  worked faunal specimens (bone).  A large number of ceramic pipes were found at the MacLeod site.  Pipes were generally made of clay and shaped around a grass core which burned off once the pipe was baked leaving a hole in the middle.  An interesting specimen from the MacLeod site is the reptile effigy pipe bowl.  Lithics or stone tools were prominent amongst the artifact assemblage.  Projectile points were the major hunting tools of the Lake Ontario Iroquois and were roughed out from pieces of chert or flint by striking them with a large stone.  Most of the stone tools found at the MacLeod site were made of chert found on the north shore of Lake Erie or in the Trent Valley.  The natives used bone to make a number of tools and ornaments including beads, awls (used to pierce skins) and scrapers (used to scrape bits of fat from animal hides).

The MacLeod excavation, c. 1969
The MacLeod excavation, c. 1969

Archaeologists believe that MacLeod site was abandoned after a period of twenty years possibly due to the fact that the fields had lost much of their fertility.  In addition, game and trees from the surrounding forest had probably been depleted as well.  The majority of the artifacts from the MacLeod site are housed at the University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus while some remain a part of the educational collection of the Oshawa Community Museum.


The Oshawa Community Museum is proudly hosting Digging Up The Past: International Archaeology Day on October 18, 12-3PM.  Please Join Us!

What is History?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

In 1876 John J. Anderson, author of A Manual of General History, defined history as:

“the narration of the events which have happened among mankind, including an account of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of other great changes which have affected the political and social condition of the human race.”

While this definition is over 135 years old, it still stands true today.

Simply put the study of history can be divided into two parts: prehistory and history.  Prehistory refers to a time before the written word. In order to study prehistory, we rely on the information gathered through a systematic archaeological excavation.  These excavations can shed light on many different aspects of culture from what they ate, how they constructed their buildings and how long they lived in a particular area.  Artifacts that are found can help us to better understand the daily lives of these cultures.

The MacLeod Site, Rossland & Thornton Roads, 1968-1970 From the Oshawa Community Archives
The MacLeod Site, Rossland & Thornton Roads, 1968-1970
From the Oshawa Community Archives

It was through two different archaeological excavations that we have been able to learn more about at least one of the First Nations groups that called Oshawa home before it was Oshawa.  Items unearthed during excavations at the MacLeod Site and the Grandview Site indicates that the Lake Ontario Iroquois called this area home from between 1400 to 1500 AD.  Analysis of the artifacts found suggests that the group relied on farming and hunting of small game to survive.  They constructed villages with communal long houses and various outbuildings. The group also made beautiful pottery that was covered in a sort of glaze to make it even more durable.

Without these excavations, we would not know about this culture.

Henry House
Henry House

The study of history certainly makes use of the information gathered through archaeological excavations but is also works from the documents left behind.  When it comes to studying history in Canada, we rely on written documents such as land deeds, diaries, personal and official correspondence to better understand events of the past.  When researching the history of Henry House for the book published in 2012, we made use of land deeds and records from the land registry to document the history of the lot itself.  We then shifted to personal correspondence, census records and genealogical sources such as death notices to learn more about the family and the home.  We also made use of second hand accounts that were published closer to the time the Henry family resided in the home. A great example of this is the memoir written about Elder Thomas Henry by his daughter-in-law Polly Ann Henry.  The book was published in 1880, just one year after the death of Thomas. It seems reasonable to assume that Polly Ann worked with Thomas and the rest of the family to compile the information and to write the book.

The study of history is ongoing.  As new documents become available our understanding of certain people, places or events can change to fit this new information.  This is what we at the Oshawa Community Museum every day.

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