To borrow Winston Churchill’s famous quote, Curse of the Axe, airing on History Television on Monday, July 9 at 8 pm ET/PT (repeated Friday, July 13 at 9 pm ET/PT) tells the story of a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.
Narrated by Robbie Robertson of the legendary music group The Band, yap films’ new two-hour documentary Curse of the Axe unfolds like the best page-turning detective story, starting with the earth-shaking archaeological discovery of “Mantle”, by far the largest and most complex Huron First Nations village ever found. Dr. Ron Williamson, one of Canada’s foremost First Nation experts and lead archaeologist on the archaeological dig, describes the discovery as “an Indiana Jones moment”, after excavation of the site turns up first hundreds, then thousands of native artifacts.
When the site, located in present-day Stouffville, near Toronto, is radiocarbon-dated to around 1500-1530 A.D., a stunned Dr. Williamson and his team members Andrea Carnevale and Dr. Jennifer Birch realize they have found something unheard of in the history of the Huron. The sheer size and scope of this 500 year-old Huron Wendat village has shocked historians and fundamentally changed our understanding of North American life before “contact”, that is, the arrival of the Europeans.
Mantle contains 90 longhouses surrounded by a high, defensive three-row wooden wall or “palisade” that required the Huron to cut down 60,000 trees – using only stone axes! Beyond the walls the Huron cultivated over 2,000 acres of cornfields, stretching over two kilometers from Mantle in every direction – enough to feed its thousands of inhabitants. The Mantle discovery, as revealed by research in the film, shows a level of organization, agriculture and extensive trading that is forcing a rewriting of history.
But the revelations do not end with the discovery of the village itself. Compounding the mystery of this remarkable discovery is a second, shocking find.
During the excavation, a mysterious metal object is unearthed, buried with great care and respect deep in the earth and in the middle of the village. It is a piece of iron – a material unknown to the aboriginal peoples of this region until it was brought by Europeans like Étienne Brûlé, Samuel de Champlain, the Jesuits, and others nearly 100 years later.
As recorded in Curse of the Axe, the discovery is initially met with some skepticism, until the rusty artifact was subjected to powerful, industrial x-ray examination, which revealed that the iron was forged, rather than made by the later process of cast iron. Underneath the rust, the x-ray also revealed two small forge marks. That evidence confirmed that the piece of iron was, in fact, what it appeared to be: a five hundred year-old fragment of what had likely been an axe, and European in origin. It is the earliest European piece of iron ever found in the North American interior.
This startling discovery raises more questions than it answers. How did a piece of European iron get to Mantle almost 100 years before the arrival of the first Europeans in this part of the world? Where did it come from? And why did the people of Mantle bury it? Did the Huron have a premonition that the piece of iron represented a curse: the coming of the Europeans and the end of their way of life?
Digging deep into historical documents and using cutting-edge forensic technology, the search for answers leads the archaeologists on a worldwide journey full of unexpected twists and turns. The ultimate solution to mystery surrounding the origin and journey of the discovered axe is a fitting end to this remarkable riddle.
But the discovery, excavation and revelations about Mantle and the buried iron axe fragment are not all about the past. They have special meaning for one group of present-day people: the descendants of the Huron Wendat. Smallpox, measles and influenza brought by the Europeans killed off two-thirds of their population within a generation. Their numbers were further reduced by warfare with the Iroquois, and the Huron Wendat were dispersed. Many of the surviving members of the Nation finally took refuge in Wendake, near Quebec City, where they still live today, although elements of their culture and their language have almost been lost to centuries of assimilation. But the recent discoveries of Mantle and the mysterious blade have helped them to learn more about their distant past.
In Curse of the Axe, Luc Lainé, a member of the Huron Wendat Nation and a Huron ambassador, rallies the Grand Chief and elders of his Nation and they make the 10-hour journey back to their homeland to take part in the archaeology of a newly-discovered Huron village near Mantle and walk through Mantle in the footsteps of their ancestors.
“The discoveries revealed in Curse of the Axe confound everything known about the Huron Wendat before the arrival of the Europeans,” says the film’s executive producer, Elliott Halpern. “The film is a rollercoaster of a detective story, in which our archaeologists go to extraordinary lengths to find answers to the baffling questions they confront. What they find rewrites history as we know it. But, as we see in the film, their discoveries also give a renewed sense of identity to the descendants of the Huron Wendat, a Nation who were displaced from their Ontario homeland hundreds of years ago.”