Over several weeks in June, Archaeology staff at the Ontario Heritage Trust, an agency of the Government of Ontario, excavated a remarkable site in the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake: the Niagara Apothecary. Niagara-on-the-Lake played an important role in Canada’s early history as a center for economic, political, and military activity with notable events during the War of 1812. Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a popular tourist destination in the summer due to its proximity to Niagara Falls, its picturesque downtown core, and it’s placement in the heart of Ontario’s wine country.
The Niagara Apothecary was one of the earliest pharmacies established in the area and served the citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake under various owners from approximately 1820-1964. However, the business was originally located on a different property, and moved to its current location in 1869. During the 19th century, pharmacies – or apothecaries- satisfied many of the needs of the local community. Not only a place where prescriptions were mixed and distributed, apothecaries also carried various merchandise items such as paints, candy, cleaning supplies, fabric dyes, soft drinks, train tickets and much more. Today, the Niagara Apothecary building maintains many of its original interior attributes, and while owned by the Trust, operates as a Museum by the Ontario College of Pharmacy.
This year’s archaeological excavations took place in the rear yard of the property, behind the apothecary building. Due to the location of the site, just off the main street of a flourishing tourist town in the height of summer, we had over 700 visitors stop by as excavations were being conducted. While a previous dig in 1988 yielded some excellent discoveries, nothing could have prepared this year’s crew for the incredible finds that were to come.
The first discovery this year was the remnant of a building foundation. From previous investigations and background research, it was known that several buildings on the property were constructed, demolished, and renovated before the Apothecary business moved into the building that still stands today. The brick foundation that we uncovered in our excavations may have originally been part of the existing building (similar to a semi-detached structure), as architectural evidence indicates that the rear portion of the building may have been larger at one point than it is presently. Built by 1834, it is possible that the building was altered to be a more reasonable size when it transitioned from a law office to an apothecary in 1869. Another possibility is that the foundation is the remaining evidence of a domestic structure that was once located in the center of the lot and was likely removed sometime in the 1860s. This possibility is based upon a map from 1857 that describes two residences on the property in addition to the building that remains today.
The second main area of note that was uncovered was a spectacular refuse pit which contained 60 intact glass pharmaceutical bottles, as well as thousands of additional fragments of broken glass containers. The extremely high yield of complete bottles was thrilling to excavate, as it allowed a look into the operation and procedures of the apothecary over the past 125 years. The bottles reflected many of the common items that would have been sold in the apothecary, such as Vaseline, Rose water, glycerine, Bromo Seltzer, malted milk, and Florida water. Also present were numerous containers for chemicals as well as prescription bottles. Another particularly exciting trait of many of the artifacts was that residue from unknown medicines were still preserved in the interior of approximately 12 bottles. Perhaps the most intriguing of these was a small glass phial, filled with dozens of pills! Residue analysis will be performed on these items by colleagues at the University of Idaho, and may yield interesting information about the ingredients used in the creation of medicines during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Today, the Ontario Heritage Trust archaeology team is working to wash, sort, label, and analyze the thousands of artifacts unearthed during the Niagara Apothecary excavation. In addition to glass fragments, other types of artifacts such as nails, ceramics, pipe stems, faunal material, and a coin from 1820 were unearthed. As for the complete bottles, investigations are under way to learn as much as we can from these spectacular artifacts. Many of them are embossed which indicates where they were made and by whom, and their contents. Another interesting question is to determine why these bottles were discarded; particularly those that still contained drugs. We hypothesize that the refuse pit may be associated with a changeover in pharmacists that occurred in the early 20th century. As we analyze further, we are excited to see what other surprises the Niagara Apothecary has in store for us.