Gem Beneath the City Transcript


Fort Ville-Marie revealed itself to us very slowly. We knew we were on the birthplace of Montréal, but we didn’t know its exact location.

We knew that the French Regime had occupied the site, meaning that there had been relatively old occupations on Pointe-à-Callière.

In 1998, exploratory drilling revealed occupations that seemingly had not been subject to disturbances typically seen in urban environments and that dated to the days of the French Regime… including a survey in 1999 that showed that the grounds were sitting on organic soil that appeared to be old and that could potentially be found on-site.

A dig campaign was then carried out between 2012 and 2014, by the Université de Montréal’s field school, which, little by little, revealed buried soils, ancient soils, which, beyond all expectations, had been preserved… something that’s really special in an urban milieu. It’s extremely rare, in an urban context, to have ancient soils that have been preserved like this.

So, between 2002 and 2014, various structures — remains, relating to these natural soils, dating to the earliest occupations of Montréal — were brought to light. It was only in 2015 that archaeologists discovered the fort’s actual palisades.

There are a great many discoveries that I find astonishing, but the most astonishing is really the site as a whole.

Extraordinary circumstances were required for ancient soils — soils from 1642—to remain preserved.

The grounds had to have been covered up after their abandonment by a thick backfill from Callière’s estate in order to remain preserved and protected from all disturbances related to urban development… and it is also extremely rare for a building, in a city as old as Montréal, to not have an excavated basement.

This is what allowed a wide area of soils from 1642 to remain preserved until the 21st century… something that we absolutely never see in an urban environment.

Overall, the project went on for some fifteen years… and it’s a project that was, to begin with, extremely ambitious, involving extremely complex technical issues.

In fact, the archaeology was the easiest part. The architectural enhancement, preserving the soils — showcasing them beneath a glass floor in an architectural unit that uses very few columns, and with very few disturbances to the soils — posed enormous technical challenges. But throughout it all, day after day, one small challenge after another, we surrounded ourselves with teams of professionals who were enthusiastic and courageous in certain ways. And so, we were able to finish it up and get to the end.

What makes us most proud about a project like this is, of course, the realization that, beneath our feet, we have the birthplace of a North American city — an important and relatively ancient city… It’s something that is completely unique in the western world: to be in a city and to have beneath your feet the first European structures — linked, in fact, to Amerindian structures — that have been preserved.

And to be able to exhibit them… there are very few stone remains, the remains are mostly rather fragile, made up of soils… to be able to preserve them, to strengthen them and present them to the public like this, really brings history to life… and it’s an enormous privilege to be able to do this.

What we have right now is already a lot. Has the fort revealed all of its secrets? Certainly not.

Personally, I would eventually like to see if there are buildings, structures, next to the parts of the fort we currently have, that might have basements that are not too deep.

Now that we know the depth at which the soil is located, where grounds from that era may have been preserved — particularly in negative spaces, like hollows, pits, maybe building basements, palisade trenches that may have been preserved despite the fact that basements may have been dug out in later buildings — we could then follow, in a secondary context, the shape of the fort and perhaps discover other buildings that were within it and — why not—perhaps even the very home of Sieur de Maisonneuve.