The Lawson Site: Lifeways and Landscape

Map of London Ontario by Sharon WoodsMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

Establishing Place

Located in London, the Lawson site is listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places and is designated provincially under the Ontario Heritage Act. The site is 5 acres in size and has been continually investigated by archaeologists for over a century. Carbonized plant remains found there have been radiocarbon dated and confirm the site dates to approximately 1500 CE and was occupied for between 30-50 years. It represents the remains of a large Indigenous village or town.

Map of Lawson Site by Sharon WoodsMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

The 500-year-old site is situated on a flat plateau overlooking Medway Creek, a tributary of the Thames River, connecting the village to the Great Lakes watershed. Ancestral Indigenous people would have selected this location for its defensible characteristics, access to water, level and fertile soils for growing crops, and proximity to a wide variety of resources. A natural ramp at the south-eastern point of the site leads down to the banks of Medway Creek at the mouth of Snake Creek and would have been a primary entrance to the village.

Lawson site drone photograph by Colin CreamerMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

Today three-quarters of the Lawson site remains forested. It has not been disturbed by prior farming and archaeological excavations have been limited. The green-space area represents a later expansion of the original village. It was used as farmland into the mid-1900s and has since been extensively excavated. The only archaeological work that continues today is restoration and preservation of the site. At its greatest capacity the Lawson village is estimated to have been over two hectares in size; a thriving permanent settlement occupied year-round by over a thousand Indigenous inhabitants.

Lawson site archaeological map by Sharon WoodsMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

This archaeological map of the Lawson site includes all the known locations of longhouses, earthworks, and palisades. Most of what we know about the village’s layout comes from excavations in the site’s green-space. "Post molds", marked by stains in the soil, indicate where walls made from wooden poles once stood. From those we know the village went through a major expansion during which at least 10 longhouses were added. The north-western edge of the village was enclosed by a complex system of palisade walls which created rows of maze-like defenses. To this day we don’t know exactly why the village was expanded, but a large increase in size and dwellings in a comparatively short time may suggest another community was welcomed into the settlement.

Rim sherds (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Just like today’s ceramics, pots used at the Lawson site broke easily, so surviving fragments reflect the developing styles potters used over time. By comparing the styles of pot sherds found at one site to those found at others, archaeologists can “map” the changing ceramic styles through time based on their shape and decorations. That helps archaeologists determine the relative period a site was occupied. At the Lawson site, the popular decoration styles consist mostly of an angled row of decoration along the upper rim of the pot, and sometimes another row or two just below. These styles are most prevalent on sites across southwestern Ontario dating to between 1450 CE and 1600 CE, suggesting Lawson was inhabited within this 150 year window. Radiocarbon dating has helped narrow that time-frame down even more specifically to approximately 25 years on either side of 1500.

Material Culture Collage by Sharon WoodsMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

Lifeways

Lifeways reflect traditional patterns of living and knowing in historic and contemporary Indigenous communities. Today there is much we cannot know about the inhabitants of the Lawson site based solely on the archaeological record, including what they looked like or how they identified and spoke about themselves. However, the recovered material culture objects, their creation and usage can provide insights into the daily patterns of lives within the village. They reflect a lifestyle that was innately tied to the seasons and resources found in the wider landscape of what is now southwestern Ontario.

Projectile points (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Projectile points are regularly recovered at the Lawson site, reflecting their importance as hunters’ tools. The two styles of points predominantly found are small, triangular and sometimes exhibit notches on the side of the base, which would have helped in hafting them to a shaft such as an arrow or a dart. The size and shape of these points are typical of those found throughout the lower Great Lakes region between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and are further indication of when the village was occupied.

Drill bits (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Stone drill bits like these were once part of a larger, more complex drill tool used to bore holes in materials like shell, bone, pottery or wood. The points would have been attached to the end of a long wooden shaft. They may have been used manually, rotated between two palms, or in combination with a bow or pump to increase the tool’s speed and friction.

Bark container MicroCT still (2018)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Organic materials like bark decay relatively quickly and don’t usually survive being buried in the seasonal, loamy soils of southern Ontario. To be preserved, these materials must have been buried in special conditions like very wet or very dry environments or have been carbonized by fire. But even when preserved, they are fragile. That’s why plaster casts, or field jackets, have been used to preserve and transport fragile organic materials found during excavation. This cast was made during the excavation of the Windermere site in 1983, a site of similar age and located close to Lawson. It contains large fragments of bark, outlined here in red, thought to be part of a container. Bark containers were made and used by Indigenous people across the Great Lakes region. They are still made today, but it is extremely rare that archaeologists recover evidence of this ancient craft.

Bark Container MicroCT scan (2018)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

The cast was scanned in a Micro-CT scanner by Professor Andrew Nelson of the Anthropology Department at Western University in Dec. 2018. This video takes you through the different layers present inside of it.

Assorted beads (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Beads made from a wide variety of materials have been recovered from the Lawson site. Those made from animal bone are most frequently found, but examples made from shell, stone, ceramic, fossils and even natural copper also occur. This tiny stone bead (far right) measures 7mm in diameter and is an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Nearly 140 distinctive beads made from the ends of deer knuckles, like the leftmost example, have been found at Lawson. There are also similar, though rare, examples made of elk and bear knuckles. This style is something of an oddity, as it is rarely recovered from other contemporary sites.

Bone needle (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

A variety of bone tools have been found on the Lawson site, most frequently needles and awls. Tools such as these are thought to have been used in fibre-making and leather-working, to create or expand perforations in hides and to stitch them together. Some needles have such fine points that they may have been used for other purposes, such as healing or perhaps tattooing. Other bone tools from Lawson include harpoons and fishhooks.

Assorted pipes (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Pipes and pipe fragments are a very common archaeological find at the Lawson site and smaller campsites in the area. They appear in a variety of styles and sizes, some plain and functional and others displaying intricately carved geometric designs or figures. Smoking was an important personal and wellness practice, and played a significant ceremonial and social role among and between the Lawson site's residents. These pipes represent a sample that is typical of those found in the London area.

Ceramic discs (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

An intriguing find at Lawson are fragments of pottery that have been ground down around the edges to make oval or rounded discs. Objects like these have been found on 11th-17th century sites across Southern Ontario. Occasionally archaeologists find examples with holes drilled through them, or intentionally made discs with decoration and finished edges. Archaeologists have speculated these objects were used as gaming pieces. Although we cannot say what types of games might have been played, their presence provides material evidence of the recreational pastimes that would have been part of village life.

Confluence of Medway Creek and Snake Creek by Heather HatchMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

Landscape

The Lawson site was an agricultural settlement, so farming was a vital part of its residents’ livelihoods. However, in no way were the lives of its inhabitants confined to the village or agricultural fields that extended out from it. There was a multitude of food, medicinal and crafting resources available nearby, such as clay from the banks of Medway Creek, as well as fish, clams, birds and mammals. Other resources such as copper or marine shell were only accessible through long trips down the waterways to the Great Lakes, or interactions with distant communities. Material evidence recovered from the Lawson site proves its inhabitants enjoyed and made use of a landscape that offered a diverse network of natural and human resources, and supported lifeways that extended well beyond the town’s palisade.

Characteristic ceramics (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Over 100,000 fragments of ceramic pots and pipes have been recovered from the Lawson site. Ceramic pots were used in every household for cooking and for storing food, water and medicines. The uniform pot shapes and common decorations seen across the site’s fragments suggest pots were made for households in the community by a small number of specialized potters. Pots and pipes were primarily made from clays sourced locally, probably along waterways like the banks of Medway Creek. These clays would have been further prepared by adding grit temper, which helped bind the clay to prevent cracking during firing. Pots and vessels would have been fired above ground.

Grinding stoneMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

A boulder used to sit below the Lawson site, along the flats by Snake Creek, likely since a glacier deposited it thousands of years ago. This photograph of it clearly displays the distinctive depressions across its surface, which are similar to those seen on grinding stones found in the village. When the site was inhabited, it’s likely this stone was heavily used for grinding, perhaps to process dried foods such as corn or nuts into flour, to prepare clay or temper for making pots, or to shape pottery or shell into beads. Unfortunately, the boulder was taken away sometime during the 1980s, but the records we do have, like the photographs taken ca. 1980, give us a good idea of where the grinding stone used to be and what it looked like.

Carbonized corn (zea mays) (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

North American corn or maize (Zea mays) was an important crop and staple food source for the inhabitants of the Lawson site. Open areas where maize and other domesticated plants were cultivated would have been maintained and worked to grow foods that could be stored and eaten year-round. Archaeologically, these foods are rarely found intact, except when they have been burnt and carbonized. Hundreds of carbonized maize kernels and cob portions have been recovered from the site, along with less abundant evidence of burnt beans and squash seeds. These artifacts represent the importance of plant foods and agriculture to the lifeways of the people who lived there.

Map: Lawson site and Three Related Hamlets by Sharon WoodsMuseum of Ontario Archaeology

Fieldwork undertaken by the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in the 1980s and 1990s documented a range of smaller sites in north London and along the Medway Creek dating to the same time as the Lawson site, including three found less than two kilometres from Lawson, as shown on this map.















Excavations there revealed distinctive settlement patterns, including single longhouses and refuse deposits, suggesting people lived at those smaller settlements for extended periods each year. Archaeologists have interpreted them as satellite camps extending out from Lawson, perhaps used by family groups during the warmer seasons, while tending to agricultural fields, hunting, and other activities best carried out away from the village. The presence of these sites speaks to a broad region around the village that was part of the cultural landscape shaped by the Lawson site’s inhabitants.

Fish remains (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

An abundance of animal remains were recovered from refuse pits and middens across the Lawson site. While deer remains are the most common, a large amount of fish bones were also recovered, both from Lawson and the satellite campsites, emphasizing that fish were an important part of the inhabitants’ diets. Most fish bones found onsite were from species that lived in Medway Creek or the Thames River, but the presence of whitefish, lake trout and salmon remains suggest that some residents of the site may have traveled to Lake Erie or Huron to acquire these species, or exchanged goods for this resource when others visited the town from these regions.

Kettle point chert (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Chert is a fine-grained, smooth rock similar to flint that has been preferred for tool production by Indigenous people in Ontario since time immemorial. Its structural make-up allows for controlled, predictable removal of flakes of stone, which lets artisans carefully shape their tools. Indeed, 85% of stone tool making debris at the Lawson site comes from a variety called Kettle Point chert. The source of this chert is in the west, at the Kettle Point outcrop on the southeast shore of Lake Huron, so its abundance at the Lawson site speaks to extensive voyages undertaken by the site's inhabitants to harvest it. It is this type of material evidence from Lawson that reflects its people’s awareness of a wide landscape and an array of resources across southern Ontario, underscoring that their lives were hardly limited to the village alone.  

Indigenous copper bead and bone fragment (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

A
thin, cold-hammered strip of Indigenous copper rolled into a tubular bead has
been recovered from the Lawson site. It is short, measuring 16.2 mm long and
displays significant corrosion and discolouring. This Indigenous copper may
originally have been mined from sources at the west end of Lake Superior or
from smaller, isolated deposits across southwestern-most Ontario. Use
of Great Lakes copper by Indigenous craftspeople is a unique metalworking
tradition that goes back at least 6,000 years. It consists of cold-hammering and
shaping the metal into a range of personal and functional items. Copper items
are infrequent archaeological discoveries from the time the Lawson site was
inhabited, but still speak to the long-distance exchange and use of this
material.

This fragment of deer bone exhibits green copper staining. Although it was not found in the same archaeological context as the copper bead, at some point it was in direct contact with copper for an extended period of time, as this discolouration occurs as copper slowly breaks down.

Marine shell bead (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Beads and a pendent made from marine shell have also been found at the Lawson site. These shells would have come from the Atlantic Ocean, along the eastern seaboard from Chesapeake Bay south to Florida. Their presence definitively points toward the broad exchange networks Lawson residents and other Indigenous communities had established across the Great Lakes and eastern North America at the beginning of the 16th century. These shells are not native to the London area, so the village’s inhabitants would have acquired them either by travelling to those far off regions themselves or through a series of exchanges with peoples from or living nearer to those communities.

Parker festooned ceramic rim (1500)Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Beyond the foreign objects and remains that appear on the Lawson site, an elaborate ceramic style characterized by undulating rows of chevrons between horizontal bands has been recovered in small numbers. This style is regularly found on sites along the St. Clair River and west around Lake Erie into Ohio, but it is rare in the London area. A possible explanation is that these ceramics were acquired through trade or as gifts from communities where they were more frequently produced. Their presence provides additional evidence that the Lawson site was a cosmopolitan community, and its residents were well aware of distant groups, particularly those to the west. These atypical objects and materials in the site’s archaeological record emphasize that Lawson’s inhabitants were well aware of the wider world and their role in it, beyond the palisade.

Credits: Story

Curated and written by Sharon Woods
With special thanks to:
Dr. Heather Hatch
Dr. Neal Ferris
Dr. Rhonda Bathurst
Brad Phillips
and
Fleming College

The Lawson Site: Lifeways and Landscape Copyright © 2021 Museum of Ontario Archaeology, London, Canada

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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