Trove of artifacts from Esquimalt Harbour remains untouched at Royal BC Museum due to pandemic

A remediation project has uncovered centuries-old artifacts under the waves.

by Aaron Guillen
March 4, 2021

Trove of artifacts from Esquimalt Harbour remains untouched at Royal BC Museum due to pandemic

A remediation project has uncovered centuries-old artifacts under the waves.

by Aaron Guillen
Mar 4, 2021
Department of National Defence / Submitted
Department of National Defence / Submitted

Trove of artifacts from Esquimalt Harbour remains untouched at Royal BC Museum due to pandemic

A remediation project has uncovered centuries-old artifacts under the waves.

by Aaron Guillen
March 4, 2021
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Trove of artifacts from Esquimalt Harbour remains untouched at Royal BC Museum due to pandemic
Department of National Defence / Submitted

Tom Bown is sitting on a treasure trove of historical artifacts, but he’s not allowed to open it up. 

The research associate at the Royal BC Museum, alongside a few staff members, has been combing through boxes of items – engraved war medals, clay pipes and gas masks – dredged from the bottom of the Esquimalt Harbour. Those are just a handful of items that together form a slice of Victoria’s history that locals have rarely seen for themselves. 

The property at CFB Esquimalt was the British Royal Navy’s base headquarters in the Pacific. The base was established in 1865 after the navy moved from Chile the year before. Forty-five years later, the base was officially given to Canada for its own maritime defence in 1910, as the British couldn’t afford the expense. Esquimalt was the anglicized version of the First Nation’s word, “es-whoy-malth”, which means “the place of gradually shoaling water.” 

With a navy presence since the 1840s, the base sprawls over 4,000 hectares and has been a national historic site since 1995. The base is divided into two parts—Naden, which serves as the administrative and training centre, and the dockyard, which focuses on fleet maintenance. The base became a major employer during the First World War for shipbuilding and would later host 10,000 troops and officers training before deployment in the Second World War.

Over the past 170 years, many industries have operated out of the harbour, including military shipbuilding and repair, sawmilling, and military and commercial ship operations. Over that century and a half, metals and toxic ingredients in the paint from ships were allowed to enter the harbour and eventually settle into the seabed through activities like sandblasting and log booming. 

Some of the contaminants were deliberately dumped in the harbour. According to a Dalhousie University study, a large number of chemical weapons were dumped and buried into the ocean after the Second World War, most of them ending up along the harbour areas, including the Esquimalt and Halifax harbours. In the early 2000s, the Esquimalt and Victoria harbours were considered “hotspots” for sediment contamination in the province.

By 2016, the Department of National Defence launched the Esquimalt Harbour Remediation Project to deal with contaminated sediments that had settled onto the seabed over time with a $162.5-million budget. Bown was at the harbour himself to watch as clamshell buckets scooped up large amounts of “black muck,” with both trash and treasure to be discovered.

Untouched artifacts

Amongst the heaps, archaeologists cleaned and tagged artifacts to send to the Royal BC Museum to be further investigated, identified and potentially restored. Bown, who had devoted a portion of his career to the museum since the seventies, was pleasantly surprised to find glass bottles, a 19th-century spyglass, and even tropical turtle bones.

“It seems out of the ordinary, but sailors would keep them on board for months, then eat them when they needed to as they were relatively easy to keep,” he said.

But the uncovering of artifacts from the harbour came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 when the pandemic intensified. Nearly a year later, Bown has yet to be allowed to return to the lab in downtown Victoria. In fact, most staff who aren’t full-time still work from home, unless they’re needed on-site, due to COVID-19 restrictions set by the museum.

The latest shipment of 90 boxes of artifacts has sat untouched in its warehouse since last November. Museum employees say they have no idea when they will be able to look inside.

“I wish we had a timeline,” said Genevieve Hill, collections manager for BC archaeology collections at the museum. “At this moment, that would make my job a lot better, but we’ve got none. It’s been a huge hit to us because we rely on volunteers and research associates to do much of that work. It’s been a huge temporary setback.”

Hill says she isn’t worried about the degradation of artifacts sitting in the warehouse as archaeologists at the harbour have already pre-screened the boxes for anything that would be perishable. While stone, glass, and flatware don’t tend to be of concern, porous materials will most likely have already been rinsed with fresh water to avoid salt crystallization and potentially breaking apart. 

A ceramic jug stamped by former Victoria grocers Erskine Wall and Company, whose ads are listed as early as 1896. Researchers believe this is a clear example of local businesses providing goods for Esquimalt. Photo: Courtesy of Tom Bown

While there are processes and orientations currently set up to allow a handful of full-time staff to safely access the museum, those do not exist for research associates yet, according to an emailed statement by the museum. 

“So long as [public health guidelines] remain predominantly the same, as they have since fall 2020, our policies will similarly remain unchanged.” 

Despite Hill’s disappointment, she gushes over the density of artifacts coming out of the harbour since 2016. Items that are popping up are being traced back to Britain, Australia, Central America, and even East Africa.

Five display cases have already been installed in a building near the B Jetty. They currently sit empty but they’ll eventually contain a rotating inventory of artifacts found during dredging. 

To date, 214,000 cubic metres of contaminated sediments have been removed from the harbour as a whole, which would fill up 85 Olympic-sized swimming pools. In total, they’ve cleaned up 159,000 square metres of the harbour, equivalent to 100 hockey arena rinks. Within Y Jetty and Lang Cove alone, more than 14,000 tonnes of contaminants—including aluminum, copper, iron lead, and mercury—were removed. 

“It’s mind-boggling numbers, so it’s sometimes hard to visualize,” said project manager Mike Bodman, equating the weight of the contaminants to more than 7,000 cars.

Currently, crews are actively remediating around B Jetty. Although their original project to remediate four areas of Esquimalt Harbour by 2020 was completed this past summer, they’ve now added two more areas to remediate by the end of 2025: one area on the western side of the harbour along Colwood’s waterfront, and another in the northern area by the old sawmill in Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations’ waters.

Bodman says they’re in the planning phases for the two new sites, which includes plans to remove wood waste. In the northern section of the harbour, there was a sawmill and plywood factory that allowed wood waste to fall to the sea bed. Bodman pointed out that the wood waste acts as a smothering blanket of sorts. When the wood decomposes, it releases hydrogen sulphide gas, which is toxic to marine life. 

Given that Esquimalt Harbour is a relatively protected body of water, material that settles on the seabed doesn’t tend to move much. 

“The reality is that this is a working harbour, so it will never be pristine,” Bodman said. “The activity in the harbour can move things around a little bit, but not enough to make it somebody else’s problem.” 

In addition to adding angular rocks to improve kelp growth, Bodman said they’ve built artificial reef mounds and imported sand from the Fraser River for the harbour shorelines, which acts as a way to dilute the contamination beneath.

The remediation project has played a key part in peeling back a part of Victoria’s past that wouldn’t have otherwise been uncovered, as the Department of National Defence doesn’t have any obligation to start digging up their seabed for the purpose of archaeological finds—according to the Heritage Conservation Act, there is no protection or legal requirement to perform any archaeological work for objects from 1846 until the present day. 

“We’re getting a real glimpse into the life off of that harbour that has been out of view for so long,” said Hill. “It’s not been accessible to the public and its history has been closely guarded. This project is a way to start filling that void.”

But that void remains only partially filled, at least until the Royal BC Museum researchers can crack those boxes open again. 

Correction at 1:30pm on March 4: The article has been updated to clarify that the base was not moved from Chile to Canada in 1865—two years before Canada was its own country—but that it was under British control until 1910.

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