Buried puzzles

Curious about the history of his Georgestown house and the artifacts he found in his backyard, Andrew Draskoy set to researching the history of the house and the area. To explain how he did it, to help other Georgestown residents explore the history of their own houses, and to bring people together to help unravel the story of the past, he is holding a workshop this Thursday, March 15 entitled If Walls Could Talk.Elling Lien visited Andrew at his house on MacDougall street to talk to him about it.

When did you first get interested in researching the history of your house?

It’s been gradual over time. I really started to get interested in what was going on, physically, with the house when I started adding a window on to the side of the house…

And at that point also I started gardening in the back and started digging up all sorts of interesting stuff when I was digging flower beds.

It was just a combination of those things, plus the fact that I was very interested in history anyway. It was an old house, and I became curious about the neighbourhood.

I’m a dance history scholar, so studying old documents to find out about things was just something that I knew how to do anyway. And I combined that with my computer skills too, when I went and looked at cartographic research — the maps of the area – to try and find out how to match up old maps and new maps and figure out exactly where things were.

From that I discovered quite a lot about Georgestown that I haven’t seen documented anywhere else. I was able to get a pretty accurate fix on, I think, where the powder house was. The powder house belonged to Fort Townsend. It was where they stored munitions, I guess to keep it a good distance away from the city and from the Fort proper. The Irish Rebellion in 1799-1800, there is some focus around the powder house and that’s where they rendezvoused for the night they were going to torch the city and take off out of town. [laugh]

…A real problem with doing anything about the history of this neighbourhood is that most of the official records would have been municipal, and they would have burned down with the city hall in the last Great Fire. So 1892. In historical terms that’s awfully recent.

We still have beer coming from that year.

[laugh] You can document a lot of stuff after 1892, but the earlier you go it gets harder. If you had a house built in 1892 in many parts of Europe it would be considered recent.

The problem was that no one knew where the powder house was. They had a general, vague idea—there’s a plaque up on the corner of Barnes Road that talks about it. But actually, through my research, I discovered the powder house was not there, it was just a few houses down from where we are now and back a little.

When did you first came across an artifact in your garden?

I was digging a flower bed and my shovel hit something and it turned out to be the bowl of an old clay tobacco pipe. That was the first thing that I noticed, and after that I was much more careful with my digging. I have no background in archaeology, but what I realized was there was many small things that were in the soil and just appeared to be rocks or whatever. I had already decided I was going to filter the soil..

So I was filtering the rocks out of the soil, I found all sorts of things in there. Things would just catch my eye, like a tiny pebble that looked a little too round… I sprayed it off with water and it turned out to be a brass button from a military uniform from the 1700s.

How do you find out where these things came from?

That’s where the historical research comes in. When I washed it off, I could see that there was a little coat of arms on it. I have a background in heraldry as well — I looked into that at one point many years ago – so I knew how to find out what the coat of arms was. And it turns out it was the coat of arms of the British Board of Ordinance. They used that coat of arms in association with Fort Townsend when it was on the go in the 1700s.

Now, this is one of the things that make me a little afraid, because depending on who you talk to, they hung five traitors and, in theory, buried them somewhere around here. And I was thinking to myself, “if I’m finding little bits of uniforms in my backyard, I don’t want to dig too deep!” [laugh]

How deep were you digging?

It was not very deep at all. Less than a foot. Six inches to a foot.

There are all kinds of little curiosities. [Reveals a shelf full of little artifacts.] This is the top of an ink bottle from the 1800s, this is an old silver spoon with an indecipherable mark on it.

These are beach rocks that have been under the soil for quite some time because they’re all very pitted. When researching who lived here in this house, one of the first guys was a fellow who was a Tidewaiter. Which I think is a wonderful name for a job. Basically you wait for the tide to bring the ships in. He was a customs officer down at the harbour. The harbour at that point was much more like a normal beach than it was now and these beach rocks look very much like the ones that you can still see in certain parts of the Battery where you can still reach the water. My theory is he was just bringing them back for the garden. They’re all over the garden.

Some of the more interesting stuff for me is here. These are clay marbles, which at that point may have been used by kids but might have also been used by adults. And I think bored soldiers hanging around might also have done so. There is a gun flint, and this is a musket ball. 1700s.

How did you get into studying history?

In a very roundabout fashion. It started out from an interest in folk music, which lead to an interest in traditional dance, which ended up with me studying Renaissance and Medieval dance. That required doing research with primary sources, and it was the first thing I’d looked at which had not been well-documented: How do you figure out how people moved 400 years ago?

Well, because it hasn’t been well-documented, the only way to do it was to become a scholar and go and dig into primary sources and start doing a hell of a lot of work.

And I found it was an amazing, wonderful puzzle, and I really enjoyed it. So I started doing it and because it’s not well studied, I found that unlike Computer Science, which is what my degree had been, it was an area that I could actually contribute to the scholarship. Publish papers, go to conferences, present the findings of my research and have it be useful to all the other people who study this, including the top scholars in the field. They can make use of the work I have done. So if you are studying a small area of research, then it can be a rewarding thing.

So, after [I researched how people moved 400 years ago,] when I wanted to find out things about my house—things that happened just a hundred years ago, and where there was physical evidence—I was like, “Easy!” [laugh]

If someone was interested in researching their own house, how should they go about it?

Part of the workshop is intended to show, by example, how you can research the history of your own house. So I’m going to talk about archival resources, how you figure out who lived there and when. It’s not a simple matter, you do have to go to several different archives and offices looking for several different things, and if you really want to find out all the details you’re going to have to do a fair amount of detective work.

I’m not an historian of 18th-19th century Newfoundland—although I’ve learned a hell of a lot about it by looking into the history of my house.

For me, as it would be for most people, it’s an interest in the place you live.

What did it feel like when you dug up that first button?

It was quite neat. Having an interest in historical things already, and to actually stumble upon something like that was a real “wow” moment.It was pretty cool. Here is this actual, physical thing that connects you with what’s gone before and it’s something where you weren’t expecting it. A fun puzzle to solve.

I saw a Rubik’s Cube over there.

[laugh] Not that I’ve ever figured that one out… [laugh] That must be a relic from when I was a kid.

But, yes, I’ve always been interested by puzzles. It’s all about putting the little clues together.

If Walls Could Talk: A workshop exploring Georgestown’s history w/ Andrew Draskoy will take place on March 15 at 7:30pm. By donation. St. Bon’s Cafeteria


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25 June 2012

  1. George Draskóy · June 25, 2012

    Neat article.

  2. The Scope · June 25, 2012

    You’re just saying that because you’re his dad, aren’t you? :)

  3. Leah · June 25, 2012

    I’m not his dad and I think it’s a neat article too! ;)