MONTREAL – Archeologists digging up a Montreal parking lot that once was home to a pre-Confederation parliament have begun unearthing bits and pieces of its past.
Among the items is a tea set and a pair of glasses that someone left behind in the building the night it burned to the ground in 1849.
The items have been found since digging commenced Canada Day weekend at the site of a market that became the first permanent parliament of what was then the United Province of Canada.
Very few items were salvaged from the blaze that destroyed the building.
But archeologists spent nearly two decades surveying the site and had a hunch they’d find something hidden deep in the ground, even after 160 years.
Louise Pothier, director of exhibitions at Montreal’s Pointe-a-Calliere archeological and history museum, says that’s because every bit of debris was rarely carted away in that era.
“We knew because there was a fire, everything below the levels of the fire were going to be complete so it was a kind of time capsule,” Pothier said.
“Fires are interesting events from an archeological standpoint because it keeps intact a whole level that is very easily dateable.”
What is remarkable about the objects found from the parliament level is the damage sustained – clearly showing the intensity of the blaze on the fire-damaged tea set and the slightly singed glasses.
“They bore the marks of the fire that destroyed the building so we are sure that the fire was very intense and all the objects that were inside the building were completely destroyed,” Pothier said.
“When you see a whole tea set that’s been made black by the intensity of the fire, that’s something we were surprised to find.”
Despite the building’s pivotal place in Canadian history, many people didn’t even know Montreal was home to the parliament between 1844 and 1849.
Even less known was its specific location, which until last year was an Old Montreal parking lot without any distinguishing marks.
An earlier parliament sat in Kingston, Ont., and was subsequently moved to the original St. Anne’s Market in Montreal, a two-storey columned neo-classical building, imposing in its time, located between St-Pierre and McGill streets.
The first session was held in the converted public market on Nov. 28, 1844.
Key pieces of Canada’s early legislation were adopted in the building, including the act establishing “responsible government” in 1848 – a vital step in the emergence of a sovereign democratic state.
The Montreal building would continue to house the parliament and government offices until April 25, 1849, when it was burned to the ground during a violent protest by angry Anglos.
The turmoil revolved around the Rebellion Losses Bill, legislation that sought to compensate people who sustained property damage during the 1837-38 rebellions against the Crown.
The following day, parliament was relocated to another Montreal market before leaving Montreal for good.
Its sittings were split between Quebec City and Toronto before Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent capital in 1857.
But finding the objects offers a glimpse of life inside parliament. The tea set showed that meals were taken inside.
“There was a refreshment room inside the building, just like we have at Parliament today,” Pothier said.
“So it’s a surprise to find objects coming from this specific function of the building. It’s very eloquent and tells a story that we’ll be able to piece together.”
Pothier was particularly excited about the glasses – a very personal object that belonged to someone, perhaps a parliamentarian of the day.
“We know that it’s from April 25, 1849,” Pothier said.
“And the glasses are still intact so you can feel the drama behind this very small particular object.”
Archeological teams will continue digging into October and Francois Lamothe, the lead archeologist, said they are hoping to unearth more historical treasures.
Among the other objects that have been found include a wide array of items from the time when the building was a market: butchers’ hooks, a butchers’ knife, bones, marbles, coins, and weights used for a scale.
Pieces of tea pots, a chunk of a pitcher and intact bottles that were used for beer and shoe wax were also discovered.
“Now the question we have is are they related specifically to the market or specifically to the parliament activities – these are the questions we’re trying to answer,” said Lamothe.
But finding paper evidence from that era – including government documents or volumes from the 20,000-plus volume library that was on site, appears unlikely.
“The most surprising thing would be to find some ancient documents but the chances are quite low, because objects made of paper would probably have been destroyed by the huge fire,” Pothier said.
“But if we find something like that it would be an amazing thing – a huge discovery.”
Only a few existing items are confirmed to have been traced back to the 1849 blaze – among them a portrait of Queen Victoria and a few books from the library.
That portrait, depicting a young Queen Victoria from early in her reign, currently hangs outside the Senate chamber in Parliament’s Centre Block in Ottawa.
Once the digging is done, the Montreal site, located in historic Place D’Youville, will be converted into green space.
Searchers have also uncovered a 400-metre-long tunnel, used as a sewage collector in the 1800s, that links up to the museum.
Officials will transform it into a tunnel that will be accessible from the museum by 2017 – just in time for Montreal’s 375th birthday.
And many of the artifacts they find at the parliament site will be on display in the tunnel permanently.