Quebec Premier François Legault speaks at the November press conference announcing the find. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec City reveals archeological secrets

“Every time we dig a hole in Quebec City, people ask if we’re searching for Champlain”

In the knee-deep mud of a future Quebec City condominium project, it was a spot of dark soil that led archeologists to uncover the edge of an axe-hewn wooden stake, preserved in wet clay far below the surface.

What eventually emerged last fall was hailed as a major find: a 20-metre segment of a wood palisade, built in 1693 by French troops and settlers to protect against attacks from British and Indigenous groups.

“For the history of Quebec City, it’s extremely important, because these were the first ramparts,” said Jean-Yves Pintal, who led the dig on behalf of archeological firm Ruralys. “There were small forts before that,” he said, but nothing like the defence these palisades offered.

But for some, the discovery of part of the 325-year-old Beaucours palisade was a reminder that North America’s best-preserved fortified city still has secrets to reveal, including a major mystery that has stumped archeologists for over a century.

“The palisade was one of a few secrets that remained to be cleared up or understood,” Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume said at a November press conference announcing the find. “There’s one left, and that’s Champlain’s tomb.”

Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1608, has been dubbed “the father of New France.” His name graces streets, bridges, and a major lake on the Canada-U.S. border, but his final resting place remains unknown. Despite intense public interest and multiple efforts, archeologists say they’re no closer to finding his tomb.

While Labeaume’s remark was made jokingly, the search for the grave has become a minor sore spot for archeologists, said Pintal. Even the announcement of one of Quebec City’s earliest fortifications was overshadowed by remarks about the search for the founder.

“Every time we dig a hole in Quebec City, people ask if we’re searching for Champlain,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a never-ending story.”

For independent archeologist Carl Lavoie, who has taken an interest in Champlain, the subject is no joking matter. Lavoie says past failed attempts to find the founder have somewhat “discredited” the subject and led to Champlain fatigue among some of his peers. But he sees no reason why the search should not be treated seriously.

“Every nation, every country would like to know where their founders, their great figures can be found,” he said. “The mayor may have said that with a smile, but I think that he’d also like to find him.”

Even Lavoie acknowledges the search is an uphill battle. Records suggest Champlain died on Christmas Day in 1635, and his remains were moved to a chapel that was later burned to the ground. A Jesuit text from 1642 refers to a priest who was buried alongside the founder and another friend, but there is no record of where that burial took place.

“It is likely the remains were moved, but nobody knows when or where,” Lavoie said.

Serious efforts to find the tomb began in the mid-1800s. Scientists began “digging left and right” to find Champlain, he said, but without success. More recently, an archeologist who shared the name of former Quebec premier Rene Levesque led a series of digs in the 1980s and 1990s that proved equally fruitless.

Lavoie believes the location of the original “Champlain chapel” to which his remains were moved has been found in the old city. Lavoie believes there’s a good chance Champlain could be lying somewhere beneath Quebec City’s basilica, either on his own or in a common grave.

But the search for the founder’s remains are at a standstill, and even if found, they would not be easy to identify. Champlain fathered no children and left no descendants, which eliminates the possibility of DNA matching. To confirm the identity, researchers would have to match up remains with what little that is known about Champlain physically — for example traces of the arrow wounds he suffered during a 1613 conflict with the Iroquois.

While it’s a long shot, Lavoie points to the case of English King Richard III — whose remains were found under a Leicester parking lot in 2012 — as a reason to not give up. “We can still dream a little,” he said.

Pintal agrees it would be wonderful to finally find Champlain — if only so people can stop asking him about it. But for now, his focus remains firmly on learning more about the newly discovered palisade, which he says has great symbolic importance for the city.

He’s hoping the discovery will shed light on the construction techniques of the day and teach researchers about the role both civilians and the military played in shoring up the city’s defences. “The fact that France recognized that Quebec deserved to be protected by ramparts, it’s a bit like a consecration,” he said. “France recognized Quebec as the colonial capital of North America.”

He said the centuries-old wood risked rapid deterioration once exposed to air. It has since been moved to a temperature-controlled warehouse where it can be preserved to ensure that its secrets, at least, won’t be among those to disappear.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dancing and cheering together, apart

How Xtreme Cheer Dance in Langley is handling the COVID-19 outbreak

Fraser Health stops hospital television set service to limit COVID-19 spread

Dr. Victoria Lee said personal mobile devices can still be used by patients at this time

Langley School District Foundation asking for donations to feed hungry students

Organization has put out call to businesses to sponsor gift cards in wake of COVID school closures

VIDEO: Langley Advance Times launches Workout Wednesday with Brand Fitness

Starting April 8 local fitness trainer will lead weekly workout session

Langley ER nurses, doctors pay it forward to local students

The ER is donating to help feed Langley kids in need

COVID-19: 4 new deaths, 25 new cases but only in Vancouver Coastal, Fraser Health

A total of 1,291 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus

COVID-19: Don’t get away for Easter weekend, Dr. Bonnie Henry warns

John Horgan, Adrian Dix call 130 faith leaders as holidays approach

COVID-19: Trudeau says 30K ventilators on the way; 3.6M Canadians claim benefits

Canada has seen more than 17,000 cases and at least 345 deaths due to COVID-19

RCMP call on kids to name latest foal recruits

The baby horses names are to start with the letter ‘S’

As Canadians return home amid pandemic, border crossings dip to just 5% of usual traffic

Non-commercial land crossing dipped by 95%, air travel dropped by 96 per cent, according to the CBSA

Logan Boulet Effect: Green Shirt Day calls on Canadians to become organ donors

While social distancing, the day also honours the 16 lives lost in the 2018 Humboldt Broncos Crash

COMMENTARY: Knowing where COVID-19 cases are does not protect you

Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. withholds community names

B.C. wide burning restrictions come into effect April 16

‘Larger open burns pose an unnecessary risk and could detract from wildfire detection’

Most Read