Piecing Together A History of Erosion and the Erosion of History
The Toronto Islands began, not as Islands, but as sand bars, built from the sediment that was produced through the erosion of the rock of the Scarborough Bluffs and carried west by the currents of Lake Ontario. By the early 1800s, the sand bars had formed into a peninsula that stretched "nearly 9 kilometres south-west from Woodbine Avenue, through Ashbridge's Bay and the marshes of the lower Don River, forming a natural harbour between the lake and the mainland." In 1858, erosion turned the peninsula into an Island when a storm severed the peninsula from the mainland.
Walking around Toronto Island today (which is technically a group of islands), it's hard to believe that a mere 60 years ago it was well-populated from one end to the other, featured a main street with shops and entertainment venues, a baseball stadium, several large hotels, and had a population of permanent residents that numbered in the thousands. The same "visionaries" at City Hall who decided to raze entire communities, parks and recreational space on the mainland to make way for a highway (the Gardiner Expressway), also decided to raze entire communities on Toronto Island to make way for a park. The complete erosion and erasure of these human and social environments is reflected in the fact that today, there is little material evidence left on the sites of these razings to remind people of the communities (and the people, structures and stories that constituted them) that once stood on Toronto Island and on the lands now occupied by the Gardiner Expressway.
In the 1950s, roughly the same time as Toronto Island was cleared of the vast majority of its residents, construction of the Leslie Street Spit began as a way to expand the harbour to accommodate the anticipated increase in shipping that would result from the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
Today, the Leslie Street Spit blocks the currents of Lake Ontario so that the silt from the Scarborough Bluffs no longer continuously travels to the Island and rebuilds and reinforces its shoreline. As a result, the Gibraltar Point Beach and the south and south-west shoreline of Hanlan's Point are being eroded at a staggering rate; with every storm, large swaths of beach, forest, and rare sand dune ecosystems along the shoreline are washed into the lake. And while the state of the eroding Gardiner Expressway has been dominating local new headlines, culminating in a decision by Toronto City Council to spend close to a billion dollars to rehabilitate it, the erosion of Toronto Island is receiving little attention – a reflection of present-day priorities.
Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the erosion of the shoreline is serving to literally unearth the buried histories of the Island's former residents; embedded in the landscape but rendered invisible, erosion is making the fragmented and dissociated material culture of the displaced and erased visible in the present, where people like me can stumble upon it.
This project slowly evolved out of an obsession with beachcombing and a fascination with the unearthed fragments that I was finding on the Gibraltar Point Beach. For this interdisciplinary art project, I am beginning with these fragments and piecing together a transtemporal, fragmented history of Gibraltar Point Beach, and presenting this history in a variety of forms and with a variety of media.
The Story So Far
My beachcombing obsession began soon after I arrived at Gibraltar Point at the end of March, 2015. I had picked stuff up off the beach before—I always seemed to come home with stones and bits of something or other when I went to the beach—but being out there right after the snow had melted, with the beach pretty much to myself, I quickly discovered a wealth of treasures out in the sand, the sheer amount of which made my jaw drop.
I quickly developed a list of things that I was looking for/criteria to avoid collecting too many things: ceramics that either had a pattern or had nice crackling, glass that was an identifiable shape (a bottle top or bottom) and/or a nice/interesting colour (blues/aquas and purple in particular), glass that had a pattern or writing on it, porcelain doll fragments, pretty rocks/stones, fossils, interesting random stuff, nice driftwood.
This was the first of many taxonomies I applied to the Gibraltar Point beach.
The dynamism of the landscape is what fuelled my beachcombing obsession. Something new could wash up on the beach at any moment, so my beachcombing was never done. I could walk the same stretch of beach back and forth and back and forth and still find something new that wasn’t there to be found minutes earlier. The same desire for treasure that fuels compulsive gamblers kept me on the beach long after my fingers had grown numb in the cold. There was also something very meditative about painstakingly combing the beach, from one end to the other, to the rhythmic sound of the crashing or lapping waves.
It wasn't long before I noticed that I was finding pieces that belonged to the same china patterns. I was mystified by where all these bits of glass and ceramics were coming from. Were they being washed up onto the beach from other places along Lake Ontario, and if so, how far had they travelled? Were they being dredged up from the bottom of the lake? Had they been dumped from a boat?
I thought it would remain a mystery, but then one day I had a massive breakthrough. As I was walking down the beach, I happened to notice a bottle sticking out from the roots of an overturned tree off in the bushes. I pulled the bottle out and discovered that it was very old and it was intact, and included the name of the bottler on the bottom. Upon doing some research online, I learned that it was a medicine bottle from around 1915. I dug around the tree roots with an old spoon I’d found nearby and unearthed more bottles, so I came back with a trowel and dug up the (small) area. It was full of coal and smelled like a fire pit. The most exciting thing that I found there was a piece of a bottle that read “Hospital for sick children pasteurized milk” on it. I had found a couple of shards of dinnerware on the beach with “sick children” written on them, medicine bottles, and porcelain doll fragments, and this connected some dots. Upon researching via google, I learned that this was a pasteurized milk bottle from The Hospital For Sick Children's bottling plant (see here). Soon after I learned that the Lakeside Home For Children, run by The Hospital For Sick Children, once stood not far from my little archaeological site.
It seemed that the bits I was finding on the beach had been garbage, buried or dumped long ago by the Victorian Islanders who had once inhabited the space, and was now being washed out of the Island and onto the beach, thanks to erosion.
The erosion of the Island was something that I had been aware of, and disturbed by, for years. Watching my favourite place in the city slowly wash away is heartbreaking. And now it was this very thing that was making my new beachcombing obsession possible. I felt very conflicted. Was the amount of material I was collecting from the beach reflective of a change in the amount of material washing up on the beach, thanks to the erosion of the Island finally reaching the rich deposits of Victorian garbage, or was it just that I hadn’t looked hard enough, or in the right spots, or at the right times when I had been on the island before?
For the next two months I collected things from the beach. I tried to get to the beach at least once a day and I was often out there for hours, scouring the beach. The best days for beachcombing were the days following a big storm, when the lake was calmer and the water level lower, but it was still a bit choppy. During the storm the crashing waves would erode the shoreline, freeing the Victorian debris, and in the subsequent days the debris would be washed up on the beach. With the lake a bit choppy, new debris would be constantly tossed up onto the beach.
I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the pieces I was finding, but I knew I would figure out something eventually. At first I thought I would make jewellery out of them, turning them into pendants or earrings; treasures for people who wanted a unique souvenir of Toronto. But the more I collected, the more I felt that there was something meaningful about the collection of pieces, and that removing pieces from the collection was the wrong thing to do.
When it was time to pack up and leave Artscape Gibraltar Point and return to the city, I sorted my beachcombing bits into ziploc bags, organizing them by pattern, colour, and shape, put the bags into big plastic containers, and hauled my treasures home on my bike.
Beach archaeology is a practice-based research methodology that developed out of my beachcombing practice.
With traditional archaeology, archaeologists isolate a specific geographic site and excavate it at a specific point in time. The site is relatively static during the excavation process and the excavation process is relatively finite: once the designated area has been excavated, the excavation is complete.*
With beach archaeology, the archaeological site (the beach) is inherently dynamic. Instead of the archaeologist doing the excavation, the environment directs the process. In the case of the Gibraltar Point Beach, the lake, directed by a variety of environmental factors that affect water levels and the direction and intensity of the waves, excavates artifacts through the erosion of the shoreline where the artifacts are buried. The fact that the island, and the shoreline, are made of sand, is critical to this process. The artifacts are then deposited on the beach over time, a process that is again dependent upon a variety of factors (currents, water levels, wind/intensity of waves, weight of the artifacts, etc.) The role of the beach archaeologist is to observe, search, document, and collect. Beach archaeology is therefore site-specific, yet transtemporal, and an environmentally-directed practice.
*I have no training as an archaeologist, so this is my current impression of traditional archaeology. For this project, I am to learn more about the practice of archaeology to better develop my concept of beach archaeology.
I had been told by a few people at Artscape Gibraltar Point that I should meet the owner of Weird Things, a shop/gallery on Bathurst St., just north of Bloor. On February 16, 2016, following a job interview up at Yonge/St. Clair on the day after a huge snowstorm, I decided to go for a long walk home and eventually found myself in front of Weird Things. Jonathan, the owner, and I talked for awhile and he showed me all his amazing finds (he's a bottle digger) and told me so much about the history of each of them. It was exciting to connect with someone who shared a similar passion for local history/the history of local material culture and the search for buried treasure. I told Jonathan that I’d bring my fragments in to show him and pick his brain about what they are and their history. I also hoped he’d take me digging sometime.
In a year's worth of beachcombing, I had amassed a significant number of fragments that were clearly part of the same china pattern. I had also amassed a collection of fragments of "potter's marks," the stamps on the back of china that indicates the name and location of the manufacturer (and in some cases, the name of the china pattern), which makes it easier to deduce the date the piece was produced. I had also found a few very special fragments: pieces that had a pattern on one side and a potter's mark on the other, making them overwhelmingly helpful when it came to identifying the manufacturer, place of manufacture, date of manufacture, and the name of pattern for each of the fragments I had collected.
I had searched for the china patterns online before, but had had no luck. Things turned around on March 14, 2016. I was googling some of the pieces of potter's marks that I had found when I finally figured out the problem: I hadn't been using the right search terms. Adding "transferware” to my search made all the difference. (Transferware is a term that refers to the manufacturing process used to produce the china.) “Transferware” and the name of the manufacturer and terms like “alphabet mug” (a term Jonathan from Weird Things had turned me onto) turned up lots of great image results. It was just a matter of going through all the photos and finding the one that actually matched the pieces I had. Over the next day or so, I managed to identify 4 china patterns:
Royal Doulton "Elaine," circa 1887.
Hope Carter "Harvard," circa 1860s.
Bridgewood and Son "Ida"
Brownhills children's Alphabet mugs, circa 1850s-1880s
I was still left with a few questions though: even though the Elaine pattern appears exactly the same as what I have, the mark I have is different from the one pictured on the items on the internet, so further investigation is required. The alphabet mugs have no marks on them, so even though I found a listing for the mug I have, it’s difficult to know if the seller actually identified the correct manufacturer in the listing, and if the other patterns I have are made by the same manufacturer.
The images that I was using to identify my beach finds were photos of pieces for sale on Etsy, Ebay, Ruby Lane, and other online retail websites. Just as the beach is a dynamic archaeological research site, I realized that the internet is a similarly dynamic research site: the information available to me depended entirely on what people posted to sell online. Information would appear and disappear as items were put up for sale and sold, just as the waves deposited fragments on the beach and then pulled them back again into the lake as the weather changed. If at first I didn't find what I was looking for online, I would have to return again and again and again until it appeared.
It also dawned on me after 5 hours of online searching, how impossible a task this would have been before Google image search and online retail/auctions existed. Over the past 15 years it’s become relatively easy to piece together a broken/discarded historical record from more than 100 years ago that only becomes increasingly distant in time.
Culturally-specific Lenses & Privileged Histories
Another issue is that my beachcombing is cultural: I’m picking up the familiar: garbage that is culturally familiar to me, while ignoring/overlooking things that aren’t familiar or eye-catching. In so doing, I've developed a project that privileges British Victorians and their history, and I'm wondering how I might include other stories and histories (such as indigenous histories) going forward.
...To Be Continued.