Dollery Site

Urban archaeological fieldwork conducted in the hustle and bustle of the big city can be exciting. The potential exists to uncover some extremely complex sites created over decades and centuries of development, demolition and rebuilding.

As people live their lives on small parcels of inner city land, the parcels are changed by their daily activities. An extension room built off the back, a shed erected, a family pet buried by the fence, an old well filled in, loose pocket change and children’s toys lost in the garden… an ever-evolving time capsule slowly grows in size and content. Once the residents have vanished into the mists of time and the structures that sheltered them wear out and melt away, that physical piece of property—and the clues and secrets hiding below its surface—are often all we have to tell their stories.

This is the case at the Dollery Site on Adelaide Street West, Toronto.

Work Begins

Stage 4 excavation at the Dollery Site in 2012.
Stage 4 excavation at the Dollery Site in 2012.

In June 2012, an ASI crew began Stage 4 salvage excavations on a parcel of land on Adelaide Street West in advance of development. Earlier trenching conducted by ASI had revealed the site had high cultural heritage value. Archival research revealed that the property had originally been part of the Garrison Reserve surrounding Fort York in the early 19th century. In 1835, military officer James Fitzgibbon had acquired a parcel that was severed from this reserve.  A few decades of transfer titles and new surveys followed and, by 1856, two semi-detached single-storey frame homes had been built on the property. Railroad conductor William Dollery had taken up residence in the eastern-most house with his wife Selena and six children. They remained there well into the late 1870s.

The neighbouring home was divided into two dwellings where a succession of families resided, including the Bishops, Buchanans, Thompsons, Smarts and Sullivans. By the late 1870s, both structures had been replaced by a series of frame houses. These houses were, in turn, replaced by brick homes at the turn of the 20th century. As excavation work continued, ASI discovered that the one mid-to-late 19th century working class lot that had been occupied by multiple tenants was mostly destroyed through early 20th development. The Dollery lot, on the other hand, contained well-preserved mid-19th century deposits consisting of part of a mortared fieldstone foundation, a barrel cistern, a cellar and a remnant yard surface.

The shovels and trowels went into action.

Bringing Order and Meaning to Complexity

It takes a great deal of archaeological expertise to be able to dissect a complex piece of property like the Dollery Site and uncover, record and interpret the multiple deposits and layers. In this case, ASI staff had to discern which portions of the site were representative of the Dollery occupation (1856– 1878) and which were later. These later deposits, according to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, hold no cultural value. At the site, all layers were carefully evaluated to determine their chronological association…and if they were of cultural interest.

East profile, capturing the stratigraphy and foundation below street level.
East profile, capturing the stratigraphy and foundation below street level.

As the fieldwork unfolded, the complexity of the Dollery site became clear. Each exposed layer that represented a buried soil layer, artifact cluster, occupational level, intrusion, structural feature, etc, was assigned a “lot” number. These lots were then described and mapped. For example, Lot #13 was described as “brownish-yellow silty clay mixed with charcoal,” and Lot #67 was “metal barrel cistern filled with very dark gray silty clay mixed with red brick fragments, charcoal and wood fragments.” In total, ASI staff identified an astounding 136 lots. Of those, 15 were determined to be features/deposits associated with the Dollery occupation, while 33 lots yielded artifacts associated with the post-1880 occupations. As incredible as 136 lots sounds, it is typical of an urban site where many episodes of construction, destruction and soil disturbances took place over the decades.

The entire site yielded 7,006 artifacts, of which 4,494 were from the Dollery occupation. These artifacts include assorted ceramic types, furnishings, architectural items, and personal artifacts such as buttons, clay pipes, chamber pot fragments, and toys. Excavators also recovered the remains of domestic animals that were used for food. An analysis of these bones pointed to the on-site raising of fowl and hogs and, incredibly, possible on-site dairying activities. Imagine the sights, sounds and smells that must have been associated with such a neighbourhood!

When it comes to unravelling buried secrets and stories through urban archaeology, the City of Toronto is a world leader thanks to the development of a comprehensive archaeological resource master plan in the last decade. Every year, more puzzle pieces are discovered and snapped into place, breathing life, depth and character into Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

 Written by: Doug Todd