Canadian Archaeologist, PhD, FRSC
A hallmark of many early scholars is the considerable breadth and variety of their research. This is no less true of archaeologists and early Canadian pioneers in the discipline can be considered Renaissance men for the methods they employed and the spatial, temporal and cultural scope of their contributions. When James Valliere Wright was hired for the position of Ontario Archaeologist by the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) in 1960, he was one of but 10 archaeologists employed in all of Canada. And, like his intellectual forbears, his contributions to archaeology were extensive. His surveys extended as far west as Alberta and encompassed Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. He was involved in the excavation of two New York state sites, three Northwest Territory sites, and more than 20 Ontario sites. A considerable number of the sites he excavated can be classified under the Ontario Iroquois Tradition (OIT), a cultural taxonomy he created, or as St. Lawrence Iroquoian. Many, too, were Algonquian. In fact, it was his belief that the contrast between his Iroquoian and Algonquian interests helped to maintain an objective perspective with respect to each. Yet other sites involved Palaeo-Indian and Archaic peoples and a few multi-component excavations spanned thousands of years up to and including the historic period.
A life-long interest in classification, both artifactual and cultural, was evidenced early on in “The Middleport Horizon” (1960) and the dissertation for which he received his Ph.D. and which was later published by the National Museum of Canada. The Ontario Iroquois Tradition (1966) constitutes a cultural taxonomy pertaining to past Iroquoian populations resident in what is now the province of Ontario, exclusive of the St. Lawrence Iroquois. The taxonomy is still in use almost half a century after it was created, although it has occasionally been targeted for criticism by those who tend to focus more on the diversity evident within it than on the broad similarities it encompasses. This is a frequent issue with any taxonomy and one which can be explained to some extent by the observation that “... splitters are ... more impressed by the appearance of internal cohesion, and lumpers by external isolation. It may also be that splitters have simply a sharper eye for differences than have lumpers, or they may have a lower tolerance for diversity” (Adams and Adams 1991:280). One point misunderstood by several critics of the OIT was the fact that the author never intended it to be “cast in stone” but, rather, fully expected it to be subject to revision with the advent of new evidence and insights. His own contributions in this respect can be found in Chapter 33 of Volume III, Part 1, of A History of the Native People of Canada (2004a), “The Conquest Theory of the Ontario Iroquois Tradition: A Reassessment” (1992b), and responses to other author’s publications; for example, “Comment on Spence’s ‘Mortuary Programmes of the Early Ontario Iroquoians’” (1994a) and “Archaeology of Southern Ontario to A.D. 1650: A Critique” (1990b).
The publication of Richard S. MacNeish’s Iroquois Pottery Types: A Technique for the Study of Iroquois Prehistory (1952) constitutes a landmark in Iroquoian archaeology. Not only did it provide the first evidence in support of the in situ development of Northeastern Iroquoian-speaking peoples but it offered a classificatory key to ceramic vessels that assisted in the identification of broad spatial patterns across Iroquoia. The key was comprised of types, a concept that William A. Ritchie and MacNeish defined in their 1949 article “The Pre-Iroquoian Pottery of New York State” as “a group of objects exhibiting interrelated similar features which have temporal and spatial significance” (Ritchie and MacNeish 1949:98). While acknowledging the utility of MacNeish’s types to previous research, Wright nevertheless was of the opinion that the many weaknesses associated with the use of types justified their abandonment in favour of individual, irreducible, attributes. These views were expounded in “The Role of Attribute Analysis in the Study of Iroquoian Prehistory” (1980) and “Type and Attribute Analysis: Their Application to Iroquois Culture History” (1967a).
When he was asked to assume overall responsibility for the archaeological content of the Historical Atlas of Canada: From the Beginning to 1800 (1987c), a task which ultimately involved his authoring or co-authoring nine plates himself, Wright found himself tackling issues of taxonomy at a national scale. Stitching together insights garnered from multiple regional perspectives necessitated the creation of an overall structure within which to understand and communicate the disparate parts. Such a complex task had not previously been undertaken although, 13 years earlier, Wright had noted the fundamental association between taxonomy and the advancement of knowledge in “Archaeological Taxonomy: Apples and Oranges” (1974a). The process by which this was done for the Historical Atlas of Canada was outlined in “Mapping Canada’s Prehistory” (1986a). Similarly, the process by which his even more ambitious taxonomical efforts, apparent in the multi-volume A History of the Native People of Canada series (TBD, 1995a, 1999b, 2004a), were accomplished, was described in “Archaeological Cultural Constructs and Systematics: A Proposed Classification System for Canada” (1999a) and “A History of the Native People of Canada: Genesis of a Synthesis” (1996). Not only was he aware of the need to communicate the necessity of cultural taxonomies but, in the spirit of sound science, the means by which they are accomplished.
The Ontario Iroquois Tradition (1966) was also one of the first of Wright’s publications to raise what would become a recurring theme throughout his published works; the advocation that all evidence from archaeological sites—settlement patterns, bone artifacts, lithic artifacts, ceramics, and so on—be analyzed together (e.g., “The Gordon Island North Site and Cultural Settlement Distributions Along the Upper St. Lawrence River Valley” (2004b), “Comment on Spence’s ‘Mortuary Programmes of the Early Ontario Iroquoians’” (1994a), Chapter 23, Volume II and Chapter 35 of Volume III, Part 1, of A History of the Native People of Canada (2004a)). Too many researchers, he felt, relied on ceramic artifacts alone or on the presence of cultural markers/index fossils. As an indication of just how misleading such a practice can be “The Glen Site: An Historic Cheveux Relevés Campsite on Flowerpot Island, Georgian Bay, Ontario” (1981c) demonstrated that there is an inverse relationship of ceramics and lithics at Iroquoian versus Algonquian sites. In “A Regional Examination of Ojibwa Culture History” (1965) he found that, with respect to Ojibwa culture history, ceramic artifacts reflect the influences of different foreign traditions but that lithic manufacture was locally inspired.
Like all true scholars, Wright was interested in addressing the issues of his research more deeply. To that end, he made several strides with respect to the methods he used during excavation and analysis. Some of this involved physical experimentation as when he used a mano and metate to grind dried corn kernels into flour which was used to make a corn pancake or when he built a tipi primarily from materials available on his own woodlot. Such experimentation occurred on an even grander scale during the excavation of the Nodwell site (1971, 1974b) when three longhouses, stockades, shooting platforms and ladders were reconstructed. Years later, when Mima Kapches misinterpreted these activities and postulated a method of longhouse construction that Wright considered improbable, he again resorted to his own woodlot to measure tree diameters versus height in order to rebut her arguments in “Three Dimensional Reconstructions of Iroquoian Longhouses: A Comment” (1995b). The Nodwell site excavation was also distinctive because it tied with William D. Finlayson’s excavation of the Thede site for first utilization of flotation at an Ontario site. The potential benefits of this recovery technique versus no such effort or sieving with the ubiquitous ¼ inch screen were amply illustrated in two articles co-authored with his wife, Dawn M. Wright: “Iroquoian Archaeology: It’s the Pits” (1993) and “A News Item from the McKeown Site” (1990a). Both resulted from an unwillingness to discard nearly 27 tonnes of pit fill from more than 1,000 features at the Maynard–McKeown site. The wet and dry techniques they employed resulted in several unique insights and, most notably, the only extant archaeological evidence of contact between Europeans and St. Lawrence Iroquoians. In another study, he used Nodwell data in conjunction with data from the McIvor site to examine the effects of different materials on radiometric dates in “The Comparative Radiometric Dating of Two Prehistoric Iroquoian Villages” (1985b).
The explicit purpose of Wright’s multi-volume magnum opus, A History of the Native People of Canada, “... is to serve as general reference works treating the culture history of the pre-European native people of Canada as revealed by archaeology” (1995a:3, 1999b:v; 2004a:1571). Likewise, culture history and culture process were listed as his two foremost archaeological interests on his curriculum vitae, a fact that is attested to by virtually all of his publications. The key point here is that culture history and culture process were linked for him and probably for many, if not most, of the scholars who spent their careers furthering it. As Wright says himself: “no one told me when I was going through university that culture history was only description devoid of explanation and consideration of cultural process. In fact, cultural process was a key element of the method” (2004:1574). Criticisms that culture history over-emphasizes description and relies too heavily on explanations of migration and diffusion inadequately explain the current disdain with which so many researchers appear to view it. One possibility is that the term has been misconceived by some as pertaining to rigidly bounded cultures equatable with ethnic groups such as those known in the historic period. Such a misunderstanding would naturally lead to scorn if it were justified; however, at least with respect to Wright, this was not the case. In “The Cultural Continuity of the Northern Iroquoian-Speaking Peoples” (1984a) he explains that “While prehistoric cultures cannot be equated with historic political units per se, they can be recognized as contributing cultural ancestry of political groups of the historic period.” Even relatively early in his career, in “Cree Culture History in the Southern Indian Lake Region” (1968d), he stated that “It is relatively clear that the ethnic designations derived from ethnology and history will never equate neatly with the archaeological reconstructions. On the other hand, it may be possible for the archaeologist to assist the ethnologist, the ethnohistorian, and the historian by tracing the time depth of local sequences and by presenting the evidence for broad areas of interaction ....”
Part of the business of being an archaeologist is tending to the discipline of archaeology. Each of us must determine our own direction in this regard but, for Wright, it was expressed through administration, teaching, and popular writing. In the first instance, he accepted several leadership terms of office at the National Museum of Canada. As all archaeologists are aware, this is not something that any scholar would necessarily want to do because it leaves so little time for research; however, it is necessary to ensure that control of archaeological interests rests firmly with those who understand the discipline best. He was also very involved in an administrative capacity with a number of archaeological organizations including the Canadian Archaeological Association (of which he was the founding president), the Ontario Archaeological Society, the Society for American Archaeology, the Council for Canadian Archaeology, and the Ontario Council for Archaeology. Likewise, for two terms he was a Member of Council for Academy II of the Royal Society of Canada to which he was elected a Fellow in 1980 and, for four years, he was a member of the Board of Directors of the London Museum of Archaeology (now the Museum of Ontario Archaeology).
Second, he took on a professorial role when he accepted invitations to teach, on a visiting basis, at the University of Toronto and the Université de Montréal (he was also a Conjunct Professor at Trent University but never taught a class there). He loved the lively interplay of ideas and debate and since, like the best of professors, he was always open to learning himself, it is likely that he profited as much from these classes as did the students. Certainly, he was revitalized by them. As an external examiner, he evaluated more than a dozen French and English language master’s and doctoral theses at universities stretching literally from one coast to the other, including theses authored by: José Benmouyal (Ph.D.), Claude Chapdelaine (Ph.D.), Hugh Daechsel (M.A.), Laurent Girouard (M.A.), Walter Kenyon (Ph.D.), René Levesque (M.A.), Marcie Madden (M.A.), Roger Marois (Ph.D.), William Noble (Ph.D.), Peter Ramsden (Ph.D.), Priscilla Renouf (M.A.), Huguette Trudeau (M.A.), and Barbara Winter (Ph.D.). In one instance, he even prevailed over a student’s own academic advisor in support of a thesis. Several students who worked during the summer months at the Archaeological Survey of Canada (ASC) were provided with free room and board at the Wright residence.
Third, Wright translated the specialist literature of the discipline into formats accessible to interested lay-people. Volumes like Ontario Prehistory: An Eleven-Thousand-Year Archaeological Outline (1972f ), Six Chapters of Canada’s Prehistory (1976c), and Québec Prehistory (1979b) became best-sellers and can still be found in museum gift shops and undergraduate classrooms to this day. The more recently published A History of the Native People of Canada series was also intended to be accessible to interested members of the general public. In part, these works were created for Canada’s taxpayers who had paid, knowingly or not, for his opportunity to do archaeology. In part, too, they were written with the full understanding that future support of this nature would depend in large measure on the awareness of Canadians of their archaeological past. And, finally, as syntheses of the diverse and unordered research efforts of himself and other scholars, they served the discipline of archaeology by looking at the “big picture” and making a first attempt to understand how it all works together. He was very pleased when other scholars also took up this task as reflected, for instance, in “Archaeology of Southern Ontario to A.D. 1650: A Critique” (1990b) and William D. Finlayson’s Iroquoian Peoples of the Land of Rocks and Water, A.D. 1000–1650: A Study in Settlement Archaeology (1998) to which he wrote the foreword.
Wright considered himself extremely fortunate to have joined the discipline of archaeology when he did. Indeed, his tenure at the Museum coincided with a period in Canadian archaeology, spearheaded in large part by the Archaeological Survey of Canada, that witnessed a fluorescence of fieldwork across the country, the employment of new and exciting research strategies and interpretations made possible by the rapidly expanding database, and the establishment of resources—including research grants and a Palaeoenvironmental Laboratory at the ASC—that betokened an ever-brightening future for the discipline. Shortly after he joined the Museum, he was given a piece of advice by that doyen of Canadian Anthropology, Diamond Jenness, who urged him to “go and do better”. He did, and I know that, at one now with the ancestors whose interests he worked so hard to serve in his life, it would be his wish for those of us who remain to do the same.
© Joyce M. Wright