"You found what?"
I’d already had a long, dreary day, and heavy rain was approaching. It was the end of October, the time of year when an archaeologist’s patience wears thin from working in Ontario’s unpredictable fall weather.
"A bomb!" said an excited digger, dressed in fluorescent-orange safety gear and holding his hard hat. He was short of breath after running across the site to find me.
Puzzled, I made my way over to where the crew was excavating a series of very rich and very ripe wood-lined privies, unearthed below a 1940s cinder-block storage building and garage that once stood behind the Pearl Furniture Company. I was highly skeptical. What would a bomb be doing in an early Toronto working-class neighbourhood — and in an outhouse, no less? I was prepared to dismiss the find. Clearly someone had an overly active imagination.
I neared the excavations, and my heart began to beat a little faster as the startling outline of the curious object came into view. There it was in plain sight, now undeniable. After inching closer, I was able to make out the familiar shape of an artillery shell of modest size, roughly 20 centimetres long and eight centimetres in diameter.
It had a rounded cap and a long, grooved body that had been partially cleaned of the damp, putrid-smelling night soil it had been buried in.
My mind was racing. How did it get here? Who would have ever disposed of it in an outhouse, and why? What were we going to do with it? And, most important, was it dangerous? While this certainly qualified as one of the most intriguing and bizarre finds of my career, it was also potentially the most concerning. Putting my archaeological curiosity aside, I took a photograph of the shell and sought expert advice.
Most popular depictions of archaeology portray it as an adventurous endeavour. But beyond Indiana Jones’s snake pits and booby-trapped temples, the safety hazards of our profession might not be obvious. We often encounter dangers such as contaminated soils, deep excavation pits, weather exposure, and the discovery of volatile objects and substances. Health and safety training is a big part of the ‘business’ of archaeology as it is practised today. Crews are versed in the correct use of personal protective equipment, identifying poisonous plants and harmful substances, and even how to evacuate or secure a site should any threats to safety occur. Yet our training can’t prepare us for every dangerous situation we might encounter.
The excavation crew had all returned to the hotel while I tried to sort out what to do next. I spent some time scrolling through the Toronto Police Service website, trying to establish whom to contact. The local bomb squad's phone number isn’t something archaeologists typically have on hand. My searches for "bomb squad," "munitions," and "explosives" all turned up blank, so I resorted to calling the main switchboard number. I dreaded the thought of having to tell my unbelievable story over and over again, first to the nice lady with the pleasant voice who answered all general inquiries, and then to a seemingly endless number of detectives and department heads, until I was connected with someone who could handle this unique situation. Finally, I heard the reassuring words, "We’ll send someone over."
After just short of an hour, I was greeted by a young constable. "Today is your lucky day," I said sarcastically. He was clearly unsettled, uncertain of what to do. Appreciating that this was not everyday police business, I showed the officer our bomb, offered my account of finding the piece, gave a layperson’s identification, and did my best to explain why we were digging on the property in the first place. Admitting that he was just a "regular street cop," the officer brought out his phone and initiated a round of calls, looking for assistance.
Eventually, word came that experts from Canadian Forces Base Borden had been called to examine and collect the find — the Toronto Police Service’s procedure in situations where old munitions were found. "Ma’am, you’ll need to evacuate the site," the officer said. "I’ve been advised to shut down the area until this thing is resolved." With a feeling of guilt about having created such an inconvenience, I quickly left the site to await further news in my hotel room.
Walking down Armoury Street, I did my best to stay out of the way as barriers and caution tape were set in place. Police cruisers had surrounded the site. Curious reporters, assembled at the adjacent courthouse to collect their daily news, conveniently turned their attention to the north side of Armoury Street and began asking questions. After all, our discovery had shut down the entire city block, from Dundas Street to Armoury and between Chestnut Street and Centre Avenue. The police had turned vehicles away, causing a traffic nightmare, and asked pedestrians to vacate the block. Students from the University of Toronto’s Chestnut Street residences were late for class. Judges and lawyers from the courthouse had to return to their building, probably annoyed by the archaeological work for their soon-to-be new, state-of-the-art facility. It was already enough of a hindrance to have lost their most convenient parking lot in a congested neighbourhood.
Eventually I received a call saying our site was all clear. The police informed me that the military folks had taken the bomb away for disposal.
That was it. No identification, no helpful information to quell my curiosity. I let my imagination run wild. Perhaps it was a wartime trophy of an elderly British or Canadian veteran who propped it up on his mantel in memory of friends lost on the battlefield, despite significant protest from his wife. She wanted no visible reminder of the time she was without her husband and felt the munition was too dangerous to have in the house. It was only upon his passing that she felt it was finally okay to dispose of it.
The most plausible explanation I could offer for the find was the historical presence of the armouries nearby. Built between 1891 and 1893 as a training site for soldiers and militia, they had been demolished in 1963, replaced by the 361 University Avenue courthouse that now stands on the south side of Armoury Street. It’s possible that someone took the bomb from the armouries to a lot across the street. What if it was the plunder of a mischievous teenager, dared by friends, who later disposed of the evidence, fearful of the consequences of getting caught?
In February 2018, our office received an email from Eric Fernberg, an arms and technology specialist at the Canadian War Museum, to whom we had sent images of the shell and questions about its provenance. Fernberg’s initial hunch, as he explained, was that it was a lead-coated munition used in 20-pounder Armstrong guns by the Canadian militia. "I will let you know when I find out more," he wrote.
A few days later, Fernberg sent a follow-up. "My hunch was right," he began. The shell wasn’t an explosive at all, but rather a solid artillery shot dating to the 1860s — something confirmed by the ribbing pattern on its exterior. He couldn’t, of course, explain how it had ended up buried in a privy in a working-class neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. But we learned that the bomb squad never really had anything to worry about.
Excerpted with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved. Photo generously provided by Infrastructure Ontario.
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.