Archaeologist left mark on Tiny ... artifacts in a Museum

By Jindra Rutherford

Many years ago, when I worked as women's editor of an Etobicoke weekly, I interviewed and wrote about a most remarkable man. A builder by vocation and an archaeologist by avocation, Frank Ridley was destined to go far beyond the scope of an amateur archaeologist.

From Kenneth E. Kidd, then the curator of ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum, he received a thorough grounding in excavating techniques and existing literature on Indian archaeology. He published dozens of studies and monographs, has been quoted extensively in learned journals and delivered numerous lectures and papers to university audiences.

He was the first to propound the theory of dual passage into North America: via the Bering Strait from Asia and the Atlantic from Europe. He had noticed the striking similarities between northeastern Canadian pottery and that of northwestern Europe. But he needed more evidence. In 1959, he was invited by the Chinese to come and interpret Canadian archaeological research. While in China, he searched for evidence but found none. As a gesture of gratitude to the Chinese for their help in his search, he donated two boxes of Huron artifacts, containing four restored clay vessels, a selection of pipes, stone implements and bone objects. This part of Huronia's history was subsequently displayed in a Beijing museum. It was the first instance of archaeological material passing from the West to China.

Ridley continued his journey to Moscow and there, in the State Historical Museum in the Red Square, he made a momentous discovery: the earliest northeastern Canadian potsherds of 500 B.C. showed striking similarities in decorative techniques to the Russian potsherds of 1000 B.C.

But Ridley also left his mark on Tiny Township. He added a wealth of information on Huron Indians of the Bear clan when he located the village of Ossossané (pronounced Oss-so-saa-nee), meaning "where a mountain is split in two". This had been the head quarters of the Jesuit Mission until 1939 when the Mission center was moved to Sainte-Marie near Midland.

Locating the Village was the first step toward what Ridley had been searching for: the famous bone pit. Famous because Jean de Brébeuf, one of the Jesuit missionaries, in his letters to France, had described in detail the ceremony of the Great Feast of the Dead that had taken place at Ossossané in May 1636. (Who has not seen the sign on County Road 6 between Wyevale and Perkinsfield, south of Conc. 8).

Once in 10 or 12 years, the Hurons from a clan's villages brought the remains of their dead for a final burial in a huge pit. After three days of feasting and dancing, the dead, along with many artifacts and treasures, were lowered into the pit, which was lined with beaver furs. Nearly 100 such pits have been found in Northern Simcoe.

The pit at Ossossané was excavated in 1947 and 1948 by Kidd, Ridley and a team of ROM archaeologists. It contained the bones of close to 600 Hurons. Among the artifacts were the following: clay pipes (some with human effigies), European beads acquired by trade, stone discs (sun worship symbols), pottery fragments, totems (bear symbols), stone and shell wampum (money). You may see some of these objects in the Huronia Museum in Midland, courtesy of Frank Ridley who donated them. And, while you are there, take a good look at the exquisite Huron soapstone carving of a human head. Only one-and-three-quarters of an inch long, it is one of the finest examples of Huron art. (I found it strangely reminiscent of the Greek cycladic figures of 3200 B.C. that had inspired Picasso, Modigliani and others.) Ridley had found it on the surface of the Vints settlement (Conc. 11) in Tiny Township, a site that has been dated to ca. 1640.

Ridley has left us another - this time living - legacy: Tiny Marsh. From the Jesuit maps of Huronia, he knew that the location of Tiny Marsh had been a lake in the 17th century and he decided to save. In 1954, he asked the Township to re-flood this troublesome property (see Recollections, Township of Tiny) to create a wildlife sanctuary and limited hunting area.

In 1966, some 1400 acres were set aside for just this purpose and administered by the Department of Lands and Forests. In 1972, the Marsh came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Natural Resources and is now a marvelous network of nature trails.

Frank Ridley died 11 years ago and, fittingly, the curator of the Huronia Museum, Jamie Hunter, was one of the pallbearers.

This then, in a way, is a belated tribute to a remarkable man whose research has greatly enriched our knowledge of Huron archaeology and whose environmental awareness has helped preserve for us a precious resource - the Tiny Marsh.