Canada's History

The Ward Uncovered: The Archaeolog­y of Everyday Life


edited by Holly Martelle, Michael McClelland, Tatum Taylor, and John Lorinc

Coach House Books, 304 pages, $27.95

While tidying guru Marie Kondo’s method of purging items that don’t “spark joy” is sweeping the nation, archaeolog­ists are bucking the trend. Indeed, our mess is their key to unlocking the past and its secrets.

In 2015, a team of archaeolog­ists began an urban dig in the heart of Toronto’s downtown, uncovering the evidence of the Ward — a dense and diverse immigrant neighbourh­ood that thrived from the 1840s to 1950s.

The Ward Uncovered uses the ordinary objects its residents left behind — a soda bottle, a hat mould, an inkwell — to reconstruc­t the lives of these newcomers and to allow their voices to be heard.

From the first pages, the book’s editors declare that “the object is the subject.” This is more provocativ­e than it might seem, when taken within the context of historic record itself. For generation­s, men with power shaped history, considerin­g it their story to tell. The countercul­ture of the 1960s broke down this monopoly, with new perspectiv­es breaking through, including an approach called “history from below.” Mostly for the first time, the lived experience­s of the working class, immigrants, the poor — in other words, men and women like those who occupied the Ward — were the subject of historic narratives.

However, The Ward Uncovered takes this one crucial step further, to the things that compose everyday life. We’re talking ordinary items — garbage, even. And yet, those objects tell us a story, if we pay attention. No one really thinks about the history of a ubiquitous urban feature such as a parking lot; it might be hard to imagine that such a patch of asphalt once marked a vibrant “arrival city” for immigrants in Canada’s leading metropolis.

The book is composed of short essays by different contributo­rs, carefully pieced together in thematic sections that are designed to peel back each layer of the lives of the Ward’s residents. It thereby mimics an archaeolog­ical dig in a highly effective way.

The artifact is always the starting point. Fish bones found in an excavation of a privy suggest that Irish-Catholic immigrants maintained “Old World traditions.” In other privies, gilded ceramic plates and coconut husks defy expectatio­ns as signs of luxury amid poverty. The foundation­s of a Russian synagogue and of a Black church reveal themselves to be more than centres of community and religious life — they were also safe havens for minorities escaping oppression and enslavemen­t. Readers get to encounter the residents, seeing their actual possession­s through beautiful, full-colour photograph­s or hearing them in their own words through letters and interviews. As Holly Martelle puts it, archaeolog­y is both “science and storytelli­ng.” The

Ward Uncovered gives readers both, but it’s the stories that shine through. There is much to unpack in The

Ward Uncovered, but the effect is intentiona­l. Each essay builds intimacy between the reader and the subject. We begin to feel that we know each other as we learn what the Ward’s residents ate, where they worked, how they socialized, and how they fought for equality. We learn this in the smallest, most ordinary of ways and in big ways, too.

When I put down this book, one question lingered: How will archaeolog­ists and historians truly know the stories of our present day-to-day experience­s in another two hundred years? Key parts of our lives wind up in landfills. And is social media our dumping ground, our virtual privy?

The Ward Uncovered allows us to know people who have often been left out of history, and it not only leads us to our shared past but points to the future: How will we be known? What do we leave behind?

Reviewed by Sharon Hanna, editor of regional history at Biblioasis press in Windsor, Ontario.

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada