Category Archives: Archaeology

Was this apothecary jar made at the Napanee Glassworks?

apjarThis glass jar of a type used in drugstores surfaced in Michigan.  It has lost its lid.  It is hand-blown, with two applied rings.  The rings are rather crude and of the type known as overlapped seam.    There us a  pontil mark (pontil scar)  on the base.  The jar is 8 inches tall, and the body is 5 inches in diameter.   In appearance, it is certainly similar to several other examples from Ontario, which have been tentatively attributed to the Napanee Glassworks, but without any confirming proof.

The dealer says that this apothecary jar shows a strong, yellow florescence under “black light”, which (he tells me) means that there is a high level of magnesium in the glass. 

The Napanee Glassworks was a venture of John Herring, 1818-1896.  Herring was a very successful foundryman who manufactured farm implements.   The 1870’s were economically challenging years for Napanee.  Herring conceived the idea that a glass factory would create jobs and help end the recession.  He thought that the city fathers would  joyfully get behind the endeavour, but unfortunately the idea failed to capture local imagination.  Herring found himself over-extended financially.  He also was unable to satisfy the master glass-blowers whom he had hired to teach local men the craft.  To add to Herring’s difficulties, the Bay of Quinte Railroad (ie., the Rathbuns) cut off the south entrance of the works, resulting in a law suit. 

So, the Napanee Glassworks was only in business for under three years, 1881-1883.  It is gone and nothing of it remains.

From historical research and from the shards found during an archaeological assessment, we know that the Herring works was making bottle glass and whimsies.  A glass cane at the Lennox and Addington County Museum has the strongest claim to be from the Napanee Glassworks due to provenance.  Local tradition says that Herring also sold mercury balls (so-called “witches’ balls”) which were popular ornaments at the time, but it is unclear whether he made them or imported them for resale.

After years of effort trying to associate specific glass products with the Napanee factory, we must conclude that all of Herring’s products were unmarked, so it would be a great thing if we could connect even a single item to the factory by chain of ownership or other evidence, such as an invoice.

There is nothing to say that this apothecary jar is not from the Napanee Glassworks, but if so, how did it get to Michigan?  Did Herring’s short-lived, struggling endeavour succeed in competing in American markets?

Incidently, I come from a long line of foundrymen myself.  My father told me that in the 18th and 19th century, the men would dip their mugs into the water which had been used to cool the heated metal.  This water was believed to have special strengthening properties, and it probably did, being rich in iron.  However, as industrialization progressed, other less desirable elements were in the foundry water, resulting in cancers.   John Herring died of stomach cancer, so one wonders.

Many thanks to Tom in Michigan for allowing me to use his photograph.

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Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Material culture

Kingston Conservateur, Alex Gabov, lands mission of a lifetime.

agvOne of our local savants, Alex Gabov, Adjunct Professor at Queen’s, will be part of the team documenting and restoring one of the earliest ritual sites in the world, the “deer stones” in central Mongolia.  The bronze age carvings were made by nomads between 3000 and 700 BC.  The stones have been badly damaged by weather, time and vandalism. 

The Mongolian government plans to save and restore them.

Alex has considerable expertise about stone monuments, but he has always made himself available to colleagues in the Kingston area to consult on a wide range of conservation challenges from cracking leather to rising damp.  His passion for defending Canadian material culture is legendary in our community.

Needless to say, we are all no-end pleased to hear that Alex has landed the trip of a lifetime and the chance to be part of a really distinguished international team. 

For more about the trip, see “Monumental Effort”, Kingston Whig-Standard, July 27, 2009.

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Heritage is a High Stress Vocation


If we do not support our heritage institutions, will anyone remember the path we came by?

Most Canadians believe that those employed in the heritage field enjoy one of the most pleasant work environments in Canada. This is not the case for most of us — I mean the majority of us — the staffs of medium museums, local historic sites and archives, as well as those who labour in archaeological teams or heritage planning departments.  I think, but don’t know for sure, that the climate may be different for employees of our National Institutions. I hope to hear their experiences.

It is true that we heritage professionals have the privilege of access to a trove of historical treasures.  If it is really one’s thing, then the delight provoked by delicate, translucent Meissen is never stale, and the breath-stopping moment when a fresh find connects a site with Hopewell culture is never diminished.  This is fact.  But in order to have responsibility for custody of our treasures and to interpret and explain a tiny piece of mica a very great deal of education is required and years of patient work once the structured halls of academe are far behind.

In reality, those sweet moments of discovery are a minority. Working with the collection is mostly a never-ending struggle to make sure that everything is inventoried, retrievable and protected.  The work experience generally feels nothing like Antiques Roadshow, but rather like spending one’s days cleaning and reorganizing the basement.   We strain to make ridiculously insufficient space adequate.   We are starved for appropriate containers, shelving, climate controls and conservation help.   We are pressured to abandon half-completed microfilming projects and jump into digitization while our documents crumble on the shelves.   We endure long hours and weekend work, mostly for time in lieu which we know we will never be able to take.

Many heritage workers spend their days struggling to keep the doors open. In Canada, there is always money for celebrations; that is, for short-term projects which are primarily entertainment.   There is sometimes money for infrastructure, which usually means new-build, or handicap upgrades.   In my experience this funding seldom includes specialty furnishings such as high-density shelving.    In Canada, there is never any new operating money.  The Ontario Museum Operating Grants were a rare and wonderful exception which have been neglected and allowed to shrink to almost comic size in proportion to the paperwork involved.   Don’t misunderstand, I am not against asking museums to fund-raise.    I am against curators being forced to spend far too much time doing it.   They are needed to do other things.  Sometimes, the quest for lucre is inspired: more often it drags the staff into a crazy world of teddy bear tea parties, fashion shows and seances. Occasionally we are forced by powers that be to do things against our professional standards — things that actually threaten the things we are sworn to protect.

If we are not chasing money, we are chasing statistics.   While local government assumes that the voters want another hockey arena they cannot believe that the voters want a museum unless one proves it over and over.     But, hey!   Avoid like hot coals any public outcry.   It is not likely to bring help and more likely to make fickle sponsors abandon commitment.  This balancing act is another source of stress for staff.

For, in Canada, culture and heritage are considered “nice” but not a priority.  Canadians remain unconvinced that heritage is worth any investment.  The dark secret is that most politicians privately believe that heritage employees are not worth paying.  For forty long years I have endured elected officials who think that a museum may be saved by having high school students do the work, or that archaeological permits are some kind of plot hatched by the intelligentsia.   Otherwise reasonable people (who would not think of taking grandmother’s pearls to the retired-librarian-next-door for an estate appraisal) somehow think that a team of senior citizens can decide whether a Krieghoff is genuine or assign a value to a daguerreotype for a tax receipt.  Some even believe that when there is no researcher, an archivist has nothing to do!

If an heritage worker is one of the lucky few to escape the world of endless contracts and no benefits, and actually win a full-time job, the relief is short-lived.  In my experience, he or she will spend the rest of their working days in accute terror of being terminated.   Because of the recession, many unfortunate Canadians have been recently put in this situtation.   Welcome to our world.   Small museums have been living on the edge for the last forty years.

All of this is remarkably short-sighted.   Heritage employees are some of the cheapest employees in the country, many working for only a little above minimum wage despite all that post-secondary education.   Heritage generates economic pay-back in a hefty way, including education, tourism, publishing, film / television and sustainable communities.   Our history is the source for expression of our Canadian shared values.   It is how we learn who we are.   It is how we plan where we are going.   Information from our collections exceeds nostalgia. Information supports sound policy development and independent research.

In the twenty-first century world we are told that workers must expect career changes.  If we are unhappy as heritage employees, “Well then re-train and move on.”   I don’t think that this template should or can be applied to the heritage community, where a significant investment in education and experience are required even for entry.   Would we tell our nurses to leave their field, re-train and move on?   Which brings me back to the beginning.  We in heritage are neither respected nor valued, for credentials, experience or loyalty.   Until we change this, Canada will remain a unenlightened society, a one-diminsional country driven by resource extraction economics unable to articulate itself and make a presence on the world stage.

For the Olympics, we are told that Canada needs to attract and sustain the best.   It should be no different for those whom we trust with our heritage.

In the meantime, “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be curators or cowboys.”


Filed under Archaeology, Archives, Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

Marine Museum of the Great Lakes Hires Archaeologist

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingston) is to be congratulated for adding a full-time, marine archaeologist Ben Holthof  to its staff. The core of the funding for the position is a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for three years. This is one of those rare examples of Trillium helping with full-time staff for sustained period. In my opinion, there is far too much messing about with a few months of untrained staff here and there in Ontario. My guess is that the Marine Museum does not know what they will do at the end of the three years, but kudu’s to Ann Blake for holding out for a qualified, registrar-curator to attack the backlog and rebuild the catalogues. I sense an intelligent, long-range plan behind the scenes. Ben Holthof  has hands-on experience with two Canadian museum collections and a Masters in Maritime Archaeology from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. (His speciality is near-shore infrastructure.)    Attention Hon. Aileen Carroll:   We need more like this please!

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Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Museums

Thoughts on Bill 149, An Act to Protect Ontario’s inactive cemeteries.


Gravestone, Napanee

Bill 149, a private member’s bill submitted by Jim Brownell, M.P.P. for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, has now passed Second Reading. This brief bill proposes that no one may relocate an inactive cemetery.

In Ontario, whipping the remains of our ancestors out of the ground and interring them elsewhere to make way for development has been common practice. I have been very unhappy about this for a long time.

In 2000, I spent part of the winter in Boston, Massachusetts. There are many interesting cemeteries in greater Boston, but what impressed me was the Old Granary Burying Ground, which dates from the 1600’s and is now deep downtown, surrounded by tall modern buildings. If this had been moved in the early twentieth century to convenience the business community, Boston would have lost one of its five-star attractions and America one of its greatest treasures.

So, the reader knows where my heart lies.

Back to Bill 149. When cemeteries are known and clearly marked I am in favour of stopping the current practice of moving the remains. Since developers know when they acquire the property that there is a burial site involved, they should be able to adjust their plans to comply with the legislation.

But what will happen when a developer stumbles on a formerly unknown burial site? He already has considerable investment in his project. The proposed development may simply not permit re-working to avoid the cemetery. Once the problem is public, the resale value of the land will drop significantly. The temptation would be to keep the bulldozers running and not report the discovery. It happens now. I fear that it will happen more often and we would loose more of our history, not less.

My worry is that Bill 149 is too much stick and no carrot.

The promotional material published about the bill claims that there will be future additions which: “will establish clear-cut regulations for potential developers to avoid unnecessary planning and additional costs”. (Office of Mr. Brownell.) These regulations are yet to be written. Has anyone with planning experience thought deeply about them?

I have worked defending material culture most of my life, and I can tell you that drafting such regulations will require the creative brain of a genius and the patience of a saint.

With all levels of government in 2009 insanely pro-development and averse to any new spending for heritage (which is seen in Canada as “nice, but not essential”) I do not know what can be offered to developers which will make them happy to stop the bulldozers.

The heritage site problem is world-wide. No magic fix has been discovered. In Vancouver, the developer may get more “air rights” in exchange for preserving heritage. He is permitted to build taller on another site. The jury is still out as to whether this is a good or bad system. Other things that have been tried elsewhere include swapping of lots with the municipality and tax relief, both of which require enthusiastic participation from local government.

In Ontario, municipalities are now supposed to be preparing archaeological master plans to map below-ground heritage so that developers will be able to learn where the sensitive areas are. Archaeological master plans don’t necessarily map everything, but where one exists there are fewer surprizes. However, municipalities don’t have the money to invest in the exercise and few archaeological master plans have been completed. I believe that the City of Toronto has one, and the City of Kingston and there may be a couple of others. With municipalities strained to the limit to cope with aging infrastructure, we are not going to see the province blanketed with archaeological master plans in the near future.

My other question is what will happen when the family or the first nations band actually want to move the remains.  This has not been acknowledged in the supporting materials either. However, I think that this will be a much easier problem to rectify through the regulations unlike the problem with developers.

A brief, simple bill such as Bill 149 has a much better chance of becoming law than a complicated draft. What alarms me is that the background materials presently provided show almost no familiarity with the history of heritage struggles in Ontario.  There is no evidence of any sophisticated thinking about how to improve the situation. There are no astonishing new suggestions. So, although I support Bill 149, I believe that some future, pro-business government will simply emasculate it, as Mr. Harris’s government did to our old Ontario Heritage Act, and we will be back where we started. I would put money on it.


Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Material culture