Solving an Archaeological Mystery: A Tale of Serendipity

During the field season of 2007, TRCA archaeologists were conducting excavations at the Lewis Site, a former 19th century homestead with a unique kiln complex, which indicated that industrial activities were an important part of past daily life at the site. We found a strange object that puzzled us from the start, the likes of which we had never encountered before.

mystery object
The mystery object

There was lots of conjecture among the field crew. Was it part of some sort of pipe? Did it have a medical purpose? Was it a tiny glass bathtub for a dollhouse? What was it?

We tried to quiz our peers and published this question in one of the monthly Ontario Archaeological Society newsletters. We also brought it along to various public displays in the hope that someone would be able to shed some light on what it was. Alas, to no avail: no one was able to identify the artifact.

Ontario Archaeological Society newsletter
A cry for help: “What’s That?” feature in OAS Profile 29(1), February 2012

In the end, all that could be done was to safely pack the object away and place it in storage, forever to remain unknown …

But wait!

As chance would have it, some members of the team were subscribed to an “Artifact of the Month” postcard published and distributed by archaeologists from the engineering firm URS Canada Inc. (now AECOM Canada). One fateful postcard arrived — only to be consigned to a pile of flyers and bills on a dining room table. And there it languished for several days.

Finally, though, the card found its way to the TRCA Archaeology office.

Sitting with a cup of coffee, I started casually reading the back of the card. It was only when I turned it over that the eureka moment came: There it was! Our mystery object, splashed on the front of the card, almost perfectly identical in colour, shape and size!

I rushed upstairs to show our Collections Manager. Floored by this out-of-the-blue discovery, she proceeded to rifle (carefully!) through our collection to unearth the artifact that had mystified us for seven years.

The revelation? Our mystery artifact was the trough of a 19th century birdcage fountain, designed to provide pet birds with fresh drinking water.

URS Canada postcard
The serendipitous postcard!

While keeping birds had been practiced for centuries (and continues, of course, to this day), Victorians were particularly passionate about this pastime, and created extravagant and fanciful cages to display birds in their homes.

Archaeologists encounter many strange and curious relics of the past. Most of the time, we’re pretty confident in our knowledge of what they are. And the unfamiliar typically reveal their histories with some extra research and investigation. Every once in a while, however, we come across an especially flummoxing artifact that can leave us stumped.

In this case, it took quite a bit more time — and a lot of luck! But we were able, finally, to gain closure, discover the purpose and relevance of our mysterious relic, and share its story today.

By Janet Batchelor and Alvina Tam

trough of a Victorian birdcage fountain
The truth at last! Bird Fountain bowl from Lewis Site, ca. Victorian Era – 1837-1901