What Lies Beneath: Archaeological Excavation Reveals Similarities in Student Life Past and Present

Yvonne Palkowski
Magazine Section: 

A group of students got down and dirty—literally—in UC’s Sir Daniel Wilson quadrangle this summer as part of ARCH306Y Archaeological Field Methods. The course, led by Professor Ted Banning (BA 1978 UC) and Sally Stewart (BA 1980 UC) of the Department of Anthropology, is an introduction to the basic field methods of archaeology, including mapping, surveying, and, of course, excavation.

“The purpose of the course isn’t so much to find things, although it makes it more interesting for the students when we do,” say Banning. “We’re usually pretty lucky on the University of Toronto campus. Because it’s so old, we typically find objects from the early twentieth century.”

And find things they did. “I think the most interesting thing I found was a shotgun shell,” says Jeremy Dunin-Markiewicz, a first-year UC student pursuing an archaeology specialist. “They used to train with rifles in this area during the First World War, when all University students had to be part of the militia,” he explains.

Aside from evidence of historical conflict, the students also unearthed objects indicative of more peaceful, leisurely times. Fragments of crystal stemware and ceramic transferware, marbles, and animal bones were likely deposited during a picnic or garden party that was, perhaps, hosted by the College Principal of the day; the Principal’s official residence, Bissell House, is adjacent to the site.

And given the site’s location along the western wing of University College, which served as a men’s dormitory until 1899, it is perhaps unsurprising that the students found several clay pipe stems and broken bottles—“smoking and drinking paraphernalia,” as Banning tactfully calls it.

Betraying the arrival of greater numbers of women students at UC is a tube of lipstick with a stylized logo consisting of the initials HR. “It’s Helena Rubinstein brand,” says Stewart, “and the logo dates from when she started the company in 1915. She sold it in 1927 and they changed the logo when the new company bought it. So we know for sure that this lipstick, which is completely intact, dates from somewhere between 1915 and 1927.”

Also uncovered was a considerable amount of construction debris. Fragments of brick, copper, and ironwork, as well as nails and even a tape measure all point to restoration and rebuilding efforts, a common theme in UC’s history.

As for any indication of the fire of 1890, which destroyed much of the College, Banning says: “We found some charcoal, but not a huge amount, so I wouldn’t say so we have certain evidence of the fire. I think we’d get more of that if we were on the other side of the building, because the west wing didn’t burn.”

By this point you might be wondering, how does all this stuff end up in the ground, anyway? “The build-up would largely be due to landscaping activities and also leaves from trees, which fall and add material to the soil. Quite often in archaeology, it is human processes—digging and moving stuff around—that causes the build-up,” Banning explains.

And what happens to the objects once the site is backfilled? “We catalogue them as part of the course,” says Matthew Reijerkerk, a fourth-year UC student in archaeology, history, and geography information systems. “They get sent to the archaeological lab where other students will do the testing and dating. Then they will be cleaned and stored in the U of T Anthropology Department.”

The meticulous processing of the artefacts isn’t just a learning opportunity, it’s a requirement of the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, which issues permits for archaeological excavations in Ontario. Under the terms of the permit, Banning is required to submit a substantial report on the results of the dig, to which the students contribute through their individual reports.

In addition to its clear pedagogical significance, the course also has a positive reputational value. “I think it’s important for the University of Toronto to have this sort of thing happening here,” says Stewart.  “It’s fairly high-profile and we’ve had numerous people walking by asking questions. They’re all excited about what we’re doing.”

Banning concurs: “One man said to me, he got his degree at a different university, but seeing us excavating here made him wish he had went to U of T.”

Blue Willow pattern (?) transferware fragment
Late 19th century





Door hardware
Mid-20th century





Medicine bottle fragment
Mid to late 19th century





Shotgun shell
Post 1914 (?)






Cigar mouthpiece
Mid-20th century







Pipe stem
White ball clay
19th century







Pipe stem
Bakelite (?)
Early to mid-20th century



Champagne bottle fragment
Late 19th to early 20th century






Vase fragments
Early 20th century





Wine bottle fragment
Handblown glass (?)
Early to late 19th century






Canadian penny






Lipstick tube, Helena Rubinstein brand
Copper (?)




Late 19th century