Carving Out a New History

History is not only discovered through the reading of texts and documents, it is also recovered through unearthing pieces that have been buried for centuries. These are the hints and stories the people of the past have left behind for us to decipher and study. These little or large pieces of history are speaking riddles to us, pushing us to find the truth. But these objects would not be around if it were not for the people who created and used these items. History is truly people and their cultures.

Curse of the Axe
Curse of the Axe is a television show about the discovery of a five hundred year old Huron village found in Ontario. The site existed from 1500-1520. However, the show mainly focuses on this small, singular piece of iron found in the site. Now what seems so odd about a piece of metal? It's something that is commonly used as a tool throughout history; however, this piece of iron predates European contact in the area by one hundred years. Etienne Brule, the first European to come in contact with the Native Americans in this area, did not encounter these people until 1610. The past is not always as clear as we would like it to be; it can actually be quite opaque at times, or it can be changing shape so we are second guessing what we were told and what we believe, leaving us scratching our heads. It seems that new questions are always coming up about history. This show follows how the questions like what the piece of iron was, where it came from, how it got there and what it meant to the people, were answered. These are answered like a puzzle with different pieces coming together to form the whole picture. Places like Mantle also show us that the history of Canada is not necessarily as new as we like to think; it was the homeland and country to the Native Americans before it became Canada. And these questions and changes in history all started with a little piece of iron.

The Emotion of History
I enjoy watching shows that document the discovery of historical sites and follow the process of understanding the site. It is almost like you are figuring out the meanings of artifacts along with the archaeologists. We, the audience, are a part of the process of discovery. I sometimes like to come up with my own theories about the site and the objects before the outcome is determined. With this format of a show we can experience the emotions, especially the excitement, from others when it comes to history. The archaeologists on the televisions show make the audience almost just as excited as they are. Ron Williamson, the lead archaeologist on the Mantle dig, was practically bubbling over with excitement through the whole hour of the programme. My mother happened to be watching the show with me, and she was never one for historical shows, but she said she was intrigued and engaged with the show. She even was paying attention enough to give my grandmother a summary of the what happened in the show.

Not only are the emotions of the historians involved made tangible but the life of the village is recreated for the audience to witness. They created a set with actors to portray the time when the village originally existed. Part of uncovering the village was learning of the inhabitants day to day life. The narrator provided pretty static information but the story of Mantle was really brought back to life with the portrayal of the village, the Huron and the Spanish fishermen. It recreates the world of a different time and provides a vision beyond dates and facts.

Involving the Present
The Native Americans believed that all things, even inanimate, had a spirit. The archaeologists who found the iron tool felt it necessary to involve the descendents of these historical peoples. It was an important choice because it would help provide a cultural perspective on the find, to see what it might have meant to the past Hurons and what it might have been used for. Not only was the involvement of the present-day Hurons helping the archaeologists, the find was also helping that group of Native Americans. The group had been transferred to Quebec many years ago. They saw this find as a way to regain their past. This find from Mantle, their ancestral home, was a way for them to know who they were as a people, but a lot of their past and culture has been lost over the years. This loss is partially attributed to the Native Americans' lack of literary material, thus leaving their descendants to rely on oral traditions and archaeological remains. I also think involving the present day Hurons in the project and in the show allows for a more human connection to come from the site. We see that these are the descendents of the people that lived at Mantle, and we can see what it meant for those people of the present to reconnect with their past culture and their ancestors.
scene of Hurons within Mantle from Curse of the Axe

The Science of History
Part of the mystery of the iron object is where it came from. It was wrought iron so it would have came from a place that had that type of technology, and that pointed to the Europeans. Through the use of science and new techniques they were able to distinguish where this piece of iron came from. They had used a high power x-ray to examine the form of the iron to tell how it was formed. Since they distinguished that it was wrought iron, and not caste iron, they were able to tell it was a much older piece of iron rather than a something left behind by a farmer. Science was used to understand history.

In the end they were able to find out the piece of iron was actually from an axe from an area in Spain called Basque through a small maker's mark found on the tool. Spanish fishermen had brought the tool along with them to the coast of North America. They had left the tools when they returned to Europe and local Native groups had took the items the fishermen left behind. They had most likely broken up the axe into pieces to make more tools and more items to trade. That small piece of iron travelled from Spain to the coast of North America and then it moved further north and further into the interior to end in this Huron village. With the use of new technology and new techniques historians and archaeologists alike are better able to understand a history that would have previously been left misunderstood.

The Village
This show presents the piece of iron as something that changed history. Half of the show focuses on the mysterious piece of iron while half of the focus was on the advancement of the village. It is now believed to be the most complex Native American settlement in north-east North America. It was a planned village. It had even rows of over ninety longhouses centered around a plaza; this mirrors European towns of the same period. There is even evidence that they may have been the first farmers in the north. There were acres and acres of corn fields that could even be close to the size of present day New York City. These fields of corn would have provided food and items to trade; it is possible that they traded that corn for the iron object. There were other various artifacts, like pottery that were abound with different tribes' styles, such as a style matching that from their enemy, the Iroquois. This shows the people from Mantle had a very large trade network. But it was never just about the objects found in the remains of the village, it was about the people who owned them. The objects and village would not be there if it was not for the community that had settled there, created their way of life, and traded with other groups for items that may have came a very long way.
sketch of Mantle village

The Secrets of History
Ron Williamson, the lead archaeologist on the Mantle dig, said that history is a mystery, a secret that is trying to speak to us. With the surfacing of this piece of iron broken off from an axe, it was history's way of finally showing something that it had kept hidden and kept secret for five hundred years. Even little pieces have big stories in history. The axe was shaped in Spain, travelled across the Atlantic with a group of fishermen, then to be stolen by a group of Native Americans, and travelled and traded all the way to Mantle where it found its resting place with the Huron. The emotions of the archaeologists and the present day Huron community make the history of Mantle all that more tangible and exciting. The use of science also expands the appeal of history. Shows, like the Curse of the Axe, that document the archaeological process of discovery, allow us to see something new in history; even if it is a bit of an oxymoron. But this shows us that history keeps moving and shifting with new discoveries and new theories of the past.


  1. The Basque connection to the axe piece is really interesting, especially considering that in Remembering and Forgetting Acadie we learnt that Mathieu da Costa, possibly the first black person that came to Canada, was able to speak Basque and thus could communicate with the Aboriginal populations. This was because seemingly some parts of the Basque language and the Aboriginal languages of North America are related. My interest is piqued as to what other connection exist between North America and this corner of Spain. I guess this could just be proof that when considering traditional narratives, like in this case about North America, we have to keep open minds.

    On another note when we reflect upon how history is remembered, while in the case of this axe science shed light onto a forgotten link in history do science and historical memory become complements or substitutes?

    1. I do think history and science can go hand in hand. Science has its own history, and as we can see from Curse of the Axe we see that sometimes science is needed to help better understand objects and the history behind them. I do not think the one substitutes the other because they are sometimes needed to understand each other.

  2. "Curse of the Axe" looks very interesting, and the You Tube preview link you provide makes me want to sleuth out a copy. Some historical documentaries can be quite bland, but the mixture of archeological field work and historical significance seems gripping. For me, a good work of public history engages viewers and readers, and as you say "makes the audience almost as excited as (the producers) are."

    In response to 11223344, I believe that science and historical inquiry can (or should) work in tandem as much as possible. Scientific fact, such as in the example from "Curse of the Axe" above, give us the tangible evidence to study the past and form important narratives based on largely indisputable details. In treating scientific fact as such, history can indeed "speak to us," as archeologist Ron Williamson suggests. Moreover, as new scientific fact emerges, historical events and facts as we have come to know them can be further solidified or clarified.

  3. This sounds like an interesting archeological dig. To me, the viewer, the main theme you describe of trying to understand and unlock where this axe comes from is particulary engaging because it allows to story to be told as a mystery, and with conclusions presented at the end. Unless you are the smaller group of people who are researchers or academics, it seems as though a certain level of entertainment is necessary to get people interested in history.

    So through watching the television show, you mentioned how this Huron village discovered was one of the most advanced of its time. Although this may go beyond what was spoken about, were one of these reasons they were so advanced was access to these European tools? Or does it tie in with the tools in that they had such an extensive trade network that could acquire such items that allowed them to grow so large, and outpace other aboriginal tribes?

    Reading through your blog post made me think why I am not as interested in Aboriginal history, as other groups of people such as the Mongols, Greeks, Egyptians, or Americans. It makes me question why the history of conquered people seems less appealing than that of the conquerors. I wouldn't assume that is everyone's view, but it seems as through learning history through school, and watching programs on television, that conquerors and empires have more time spent telling their stories.

  4. Ideally I agree that science and history should work in tandem. Zzzzzz, you are right that this artifact scientifically verified can shed light on the indisputable details, lessening the opacity of history.

    Sometimes history or its memory can grow to take on a nature where it is the disputable or factors beyond the empirical and indisputable that become important for the various parties. This might manifest in us asking legitimate questions like those posed by the Jason for example. Disputable history can be from primary, secondary or even verbal sources like in the case of aboriginal history sources. Perhaps in the hard thing about the “truth” is discerning a truth or the many truths is beyond what is indisputable. Often, especially outside the world of studied and academic history this evolves to be the case. Take for example the portrait of Laura Secord in the Government of Canada’s War of 1812 commercial, and how she wasn’t much rewarded or recognized for her efforts in her contemporary era.

  5. It is a really interesting blog. I agree with Zzzz that the historical work should be more fun to encourage public to paticipate on them. Only the academic or government work is hard to keep up the progress. It is important to let all society to know that history needs entire society to work. It is our job to know the history. I think nowadays people do not care about history anymore. For me, if I am not registrate un this course, I would never go to any museum in Alberta. It is a great experience to go to the museum and learn from the history.