Work Reviewed
Review date
Canadian Art
Gillian MacKay


So far, more than ten thousand visitors have toured the archaeological excavation He Named Her Amber at The Grange, the 19th-century house attached to the Art Gallery of Ontario. I took the tour in a small group guided by Jennifer Rieger, the sensible, serious and authoritative historic site coordinator of The Grange. We were told that a diary belonging to Henry Whyte, butler at The Grange from 1817 to 1857, had recently come to light. In it, he recorded that an Irish maid named Mary had secretly made and buried a number of bizarre objects throughout the house. Unbeknownst to Mary, the butler was watching from the shadows and taking notes.

Alerted by Xs found on Henry’s floor plans of the house, the AGO had hired Archaeological Services Ontario (ASO) to investigate—or so we were told. In the front hall, a portion of the wall had been ripped down to the lath to expose a hiding place. There, researchers had found a blob of clay and beeswax the size of a baby’s clenched fist containing dried blood; it now sat labelled in a display case.

Nearby, the Victorian-era library had been turned into a CSI-style laboratory equipped with coldly lit examination tables, a stereo microscope and scientific clutter. A packet of century-and-a-half-old letters dipped in wax had been placed beneath the lens of the microscope. Twelve X-ray images revealed materials suggestive of folk magic or witchcraft—animal bones, baby teeth, nail clippings, human hair, dried flowers, a small porcelain doll, shards of china—encased in the lumpy pieces of clay and wax mounted in cases nearby.