Barrack Hill: Archeologists dig into the Ottawa history beneath our feet

The foundations of Barrack Hill are slowly being uncovered beside Centre Block. Photo: Julie Oliver / Postmedia

Monday, August 19, 2019

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By Jacob Hoytema

We’ve known all along that the history was beneath our feet. We just weren’t sure what it would look like.

All summer, archeologists have been digging in the grounds around Centre Block as part of the Parliament Hill renovation project, and they have been finding artifacts and foundations from what was known as Barrack Hill during the time that Lt.-Col. John By used the location as a military outpost in the early 19th century.

The team of archeologists has found fragments of old dishes, pieces of military equipment and soldiers’ uniforms, but the gem of the excavation so far is the foundation of a remarkably preserved guardhouse.

Historians have known from maps and records that remains of Barrack Hill were down there, but, as lead archeologist Stephen Jarrett explained, they weren’t sure what condition it would be in.

“This building, we have some vague information about it,” Jarrett said of the guardhouse, explaining that his team’s work had switched to “adding to that story and understanding it better through the excavations.” He said this was what made the dig so exciting for him: “the newness and learning about how they were using the site.”

The guardhouse is almost a square, about 10 feet by 11 feet, with an extension off the west side. It’s made of unevenly sized grey stone bricks and is divided into several rooms. Some of these rooms are very small and don’t appear to have doors or entryways into the building’s main section.

Jarrett said there was a fear that construction of underground utilities during the 20th century might have damaged the buried remains of the By-era barracks. In this year’s excavations, though, archeologists discovered that the ruins were protected by about a metre of earth that had been piled on during construction of the original Parliament buildings in the 1860s.

The project of renovating Centre Block is expected to take nearly a decade to finish. Archeologists are working right next to its eastern facade, in an area that once held a parking lot.

Asha Boucher-Sharma, project manager for the dig, says doing archeological work is important in the context of the renovations to ensure that undiscovered ruins or artifacts don’t get damaged during construction.

“The renovations are happening, and it’s always part of due diligence to do desktop studies to see if there’s a potential for archeology. So we did that and we saw that there are hotspots, various places where we could do archeology,” Boucher-Sharma said.

A few preliminary trenches were dug last year, revealing the guardhouse foundations. This year has been about uncovering the site as a whole.

Jarrett said excavations hadn’t yet…

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