Bone Fragments Found During Baker Street Excavation

Perhaps predictably, the archaeological consultants working with the City of Guelph crews to excavate the Baker Street Parking lot announced that they exhumed bone fragments from a lost grave. This is not the first time that remains have been found in the Baker Street area over the years, but this time the City is trying to carefully find them all before the redevelopment of the area can begin this coming spring.

“The City is following an established process for managing discoveries of human remains including notification to appropriate agencies such as Guelph Police Services, partner Indigenous governments and Provincial ministries,” said a City of Guelph notification on Friday. “The City will also share public updates on progress and discoveries of remains every two weeks until the work is complete.”

The remains will be documented and then reinterred at Woodlawn Memorial Park, but it will be virtually impossible  to identify the individual they belong to. According to the City, the site of the Baker Street parking lot was once an all-faith cemetery from the city’s founding in 1827 until 1853 when a new bylaw outlawed human burials inside City limits.

“The property continued to be owned by the Canada Company for another 24 years until it was purchased by the City for use as a public park in 1879,” said the City’s release. “When plans were made to move the remains from the old Public Burying Ground to a new cemetery (Woodlawn Memorial Park), family members moved some burials, but others, especially unmarked graves, remained.”

The announcement reminded me of the first time I covered the discovery of remains under Baker Street in October 2005. Digging through the Politico archives, here’s the article I wrote about the discovery in one of my first forays into local news in the University of Guelph student paper, The Ontarion.

It was an otherwise ordinary day, as City workers descended onto Baker Street in Guelph to repair a sinkhole. Little did they know that they would discover a former Baker Street resident one-metre down and 150 years in the past. The unearthing of this skeleton poses a number of questions, not the least of which is: Are there any more skeletons waiting below Baker Street?

Of course, Baker Street wasn’t always what it is today. A century and a half ago, when the skeleton was only just recently deceased, the area behind Knox Church on Quebec Street was a graveyard. It closed in 1854, and most of the bodies interned there were moved to the then newly opened Woodlawn Cemetery. This is not uncommon in modern, growing cities, but the longer a graveyard’s been around, the harder it is to ensure that all the occupants get moved to their new home.

“Families maybe couldn’t afford monuments, or families that used wooden crosses or things like that as a memorial. People didn’t even know where the graves were there when they moved them,” says Ceska Brennan of the Woodlawn Cemetery.

A simple wooden cross can rot away with age, fall down, or disappear some other way. Combined with inexact methods of record keeping, we start to see how one loses a whole grave.

“Record keeping was very, very, very different at that time… sometimes back then, a lot of records were just word of mouth, who knew who, it was much more casual than it is today,” Brennan says.

In these cases, after an initial determination by the coroner, the remains are taken to an expert for a more detailed examination. In this case, the onus is on Michael W. Spence, professor or anthropology at the University of Western Ontario.

“Standard stuff we always look for is the age and the sex of the individual. We also try and find out something about their past health, maybe the reason that they died. If we can, we try to identify their race, basically reconstruct as much of the individual as we can,” says Spence.

Spence will accomplish this through general examinations and observations, but detailed DNA tests or isotopic analysis will not be conducted.

“Mostly, we’ll be looking at the bones for any evidence of poor health, and we’ll be looking at the teeth,” Spence adds. “The teeth carry a record of childhood health in them. You can see in both the teeth and the bone a line of interruption in the growth, and that line represents a stress episode, and we can usually get a rough age of the stress episode by looking at where in the teeth and the bone it appears.”

While what precisely killed the former of owner of this skeleton may never be known, there are specific diseases that Spence will test for.

“We look for evidence of anemia, or infection, or tuberculosis. We also look for trauma, which may include cause of death: say if the person was murdered or something like a car accident,” Spence says. “It’s kind of like a prehistoric autopsy rally.”

While the discovery of a skeleton provides a source of curiosity for some, it’s a proverbial pain in the neck for the City. Aside from keeping up completion of the sinkhole repair, the City’s plans to turn the Baker Street parking lot into a five-storey parkade would surely be affected by the discovery of any remaining remains.

“This City is still hoping to begin construction in the new year,” said Tara Diefenbachr, senior communications advisor for the City’s environment and transportation group.

According to Diefenbacher, and the City’s corporate properties manager, construction is set to go forward, and the call for tenders will be going out this month as planned. Diefenbaher observes that, “the project wasn’t supposed to take this long. Once they’ve taken care of what they need to in respect to the bones, they plan to get right back in their, and get the project finished.”

By Friday afternoon, the once great hole on Baker Street had been filled, and paving was scheduled to commence on Monday once the ground was settled.

The simple moral of the Tale of the Skeleton on Baker Street is to be weary of your surroundings, know its history, an be careful where you dig. For where you rest your car, may have once been, and still might be, home to the final rest of someone else.

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