Uncovering Bishop’s Block: How Artifacts Reveal Rich Histories

I took a walk this past Monday to Adelaide Street, west of University Ave. to find a stylish red-bricked building, relatively buried within the surrounding high-rises. With thousands of artifacts excavated from its original location, Bishop’s Block demonstrates the value in how objects reveal the dynamic histories of a particular place.

Exterior of Bishop’s Block, taken with my Sony Alpha DSLR

As one of the city’s oldest buildings, Bishop’s Block dates back to 1830 consisting of five Georgian-style townhouses constructed for landlord and butcher John Bishop. Its original location was on University Avenue where the luxurious Shangri-La Hotel now rests in its place. According to ASI’s website, some of the first tenants in Bishop’s Block were prominent members of the community. The building pictured above is a 2012 reconstruction from the two remaining townhouses, with some of the original red brick used. A plaque designated by Heritage Toronto is mounted on the side facing north of Adelaide Street.

In 2007, ASI Heritage excavated this site, revealed the foundations of about four townhouses and recovered almost 70,000 artifacts, including hygiene products, children’s toys (specifically dolls’ heads), kitchenware and even a leather shoe. ASI’s archaeological evidence and written documents show “a changing landscape on Adelaide Street from a semi rural, upper middle class range of single family homes to a fully urban, working class enclave of boarding houses and commercial businesses by the early twentieth century.”*

Material history is fundamental for studying heritage conservation and museum practices. It’s always fascinating to hold and study a physical remnant of a distant time and place. But material history also presents some interesting questions. Who was the object’s owner? Was it passed on to someone else, or perhaps lost? Used by different people at the same time? There could be signs of wear or damage, beyond the usual aging process. Understanding historical objects and seeking for answers reveal meaningful new stories. With storytelling as my unifying theme for Finding Sonder, it’s no surprise that the stories behind objects are personally significant to me.

I’m reminded of my experience as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of History, when I used objects as my primary method of historical interpretation. By demonstrating a pair of Viking horns, I educated kids about how they were actually used for drinking mead instead of helmets! When learning about the Gold Rush, visitors held a 4 lb gold nugget and a heavy 8 lb bar (all fake, of course) to get an idea of how heavy pure gold was. I used a real scale from the 1800s to teach them how gold was properly weighed. An object can do wonders, even create a moment of enlightenment, an ephemeral but meaningful exchange between others.

I share that same enlightened feeling by the excellent work ASI does to uncover these amazing artifacts.

For more information about ASI’s excavation work and their other projects, check out their website here.

* ASI Heritage, “Bishop’s Block.” Accessed Aug. 14, 2020. https://asiheritage.ca/portfolio-items/bishops-block/

More resources:

  • Historical images of Bishop’s Block, courtesy of Toronto Archives. See ASI Heritage’s website on Bishop’s Block to view an original photo of the building.
  • For more images and info about the building’s reconstruction: http://www.eraarch.ca/project/bishops-block/.
  • The Shangri-La Hotel, the site of the original structure, hosted an exhibit about Bishop’s Block. See here view some of the artifacts displayed.

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