Archaeology in the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador: The L’Anse Amour burial mound

Tags

, ,

During the summers of 1973 and 1974 Dr. Robert McGhee and Dr. James Tuck, both then professors at Memorial University of Newfoundland surveyed a large portion of the southern Labrador coast from the Quebec/Labrador border up to Red Bay. They found or relocated 13 sites including a number of important archaeological sites such as the L’Anse Amour burial mound and the oldest known site in the province at Pinware Hill. At L’Anse Amour they found or relocated another 14 discrete scatters of flakes, fire-cracked cobbles, and occasional artifacts and the L’Anse Amour burial mound, all of which they saw as a single site. Today we would treat these as separate sites. I say relocated because part of the area had been surveyed and several of the sites had been found 25 years earlier by Dr. Elmer Harp.

The data from this survey formed the basis of McGhee & Tuck’s 1975 Mercury Series volume An Archaic Sequence from the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador. For the most part the cultural sequence laid out in this volume still stands.

ABSTRACT
This report presents the results of archaeological survey and test excavation undertaken on the southern coast of Labrador during the summers of 1973 and 1974. Preliminary reports summarize our work at 14 sites, all but one of which relate to Archaic occupations. These components are placed in chronological sequence using evidence from seriation, comparison of collections, relative site elevations, and radiocarbon dating. The resulting sequence is used as the basis for postulating the development of a local variant of the Maritime Archaic tradition from a late Palaeo-Indian immigration to the area at approximately 8000-9000 years ago. We postulate continuity in the local occupation and adaptation from that time to approximately 3000-2000 years ago, when we suggest that the local tradition was interrupted by a possible environmental change and the immigration of Dorset Eskimos. The prehistory of the last 2000 years is unclear, and we suspect that occupation of this region was sparse and perhaps sporadic during the late prehistoric period. (McGhee & Tuck 1975)
 

The last 2000 years of the sequence was later filled in by people with a culture that archaeologists refer to as Recent Indian.

The field crew for McGhee & Tuck’s surveys included Marcie Madden and Priscilla Renouf. Both of these women produced influential Master’s theses based on sites found or relocated during the McGhee & Tuck survey. Both of them also continued on and earned PhD’s. Dr. Renouf became a professor at Memorial University and ran the very successful Port au Choix Archaeology Project from the mid-1980s up to her passing last year.

While cleaning out Dr. Renouf’s office someone came across an envelope of photos marked L’Anse Amour burial mound. The photos were taken during the excavation of the burial.

Archaeological work at L’Anse Amour took place during the summers of 1973 & 74. McGhee and Tuck noted the presence of the mound in 1973 “…and ignored it in favour of the pleasure of surface collecting in the extensive blowouts closer to the coast.” (McGhee & Tuck 1975:85) They walked over and around the mound for the rest of the summer. It wasn’t until 1974 that they sent several crew members to clear the bushes and sand off the mound.

The burial mound at L'Anse-Amour restored to its original form after the excavation (McGhee 1976: 13)

The burial mound at L’Anse-Amour restored to its original form after the excavation (McGhee 1976: 13)

Clearing the mound in 1974 (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Clearing the mound in 1974 (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

The positions of the boulders were mapped, the structure was divided into quadrants, and the boulders removed from the southwestern quadrant. The rocks averaged some 30 cm in diameter, weighed perhaps 10 kg on the average, and were piled closely together. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:86)
 
Excavation of the burial mound (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Excavation of the burial mound (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Several layers of boulders were removed which totaled nearly 1 metre in depth.

These were mapped and removed, revealing the upper edges of three large slab-like boulders which were set upright in a line, apparently forming the edge of a cist-like structure. Traces of red ochre were found in two places along the line of upright boulders. In order to locate the remainder of the cist, the boulders of the northwest quadrant were removed, and the excavation enlarged to include a two metre strip of the eastern segment of the mound. We duly located the other edge of the cist, a parallel line of two boulders one metre north of the first line but beginning and ending 60 cm farther east than the boulders of the first line. The upper edges of these boulders were encountered at approximately 45 cm below the top of the mound, and they extended to a maximum depth of 100 cm beneath the original surface. At this point we began to have trouble with our excavation, as the sand dried and we began to get cave-ins and threatened cave-ins. Accordingly, we enlarged our excavation to a square pit seven metres on a side and centred on the original centre of the mound. This removed all of the heavy concentration of piled beach boulders in the central area, an irregular concentration some four metres in diameter. The floor of the excavation was now entirely composed of sand, save for the two parallel lines of upright boulders forming the cist within which we expected to find a burial. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:86-87)

 

Photographing the cist-like structure (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Photographing the cist-like structure (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Photographing the excavation (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Photographing the excavation (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Early on in the excavation, large boulders can been seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use ply-wood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Early on in the excavation, large boulders can be seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use plywood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Photographing the excavation, large boulders can been seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use ply-wood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Photographing the excavation, large boulders can be seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use plywood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

We were to be disappointed in this, as excavation revealed only a few traces of a black substance which might be decayed organic material and a small patch of charcoal containing a few burned but badly deteriorated fish bones; the size of the bones suggests that they came from a fish about the size of a cod or salmon. Having excavated and removed the boulders of the cist, we were faced with a square pit with sand walls and a blank, apparently sterile, floor of sand. Rather discouraged, we nevertheless continued the excavation, and after a couple of hours of removing sterile sand we encountered a small stain of red ochre at a depth of 30 cm below the base of the cist, and 130 cm below the original surface of the mound. This ochre stain proved to derive from the back of a human skull, and a few more hours of excavation revealed the entire skeleton. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:87)
 
Excavation of the burial (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Excavation of the burial (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

The body had been buried in an extended position, directly beneath the cist-like arrangement of stones some half-metre above. It lay on its stomach, the hands at the sides, the head pointing west and turned so that the face looked to the north. A walrus tusk lay directly in front of the face, and 30 cm to the west of the head there was a pile of artifacts including four stone projectile points or knives, three socketed bone points, and a stemmed bone point. Two more stone projectile points or knives lay directly above and below the left shoulder, and a stone biface was found between the legs. A large slab of rock lay across the lumbar region of the back. More artifacts were revealed when we began to remove the skeleton. At the left side, at about the waist, were found two nodules of graphite stained with red ochre, apparently paint-stones, and a decorated antler artifact which may have been used as a paint-grinder or applicator. Beneath the upper chest area there was a small bone pendant, a bone whistle or flute, a few small fragments of bird bone, and a toggling harpoon-head. Beneath the sacral region lay a decorated ivory toggle. On either side of the skeleton there was a scatter of charcoal extending over an irregular area over one metre in diameter and one boulder lay at a distance of two metres to the northeast of the body. A badly decayed piece of antler, probably caribou antler, was found some two metres to the southeast of the body, and a few small chunks of white quartzite were scattered in the same area. The charcoal scatter indicates that the original burial pit, the walls of which we could not trace in the homogeneous sand marked with stains percolating from the boulders above, was at least five metres in diameter. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:87-88)
 
 
Top photo: A cache of grave goods found above the head, consisting of bone and stone projectile points and a stone knife. Bottom photo: Chipped stone spearpoints and knives, found with the body. (McGhee 1976: 20)

Top photo: A cache of grave goods found above the head, consisting of bone and stone projectile points and a stone knife.
Bottom photo: Chipped stone spearpoints and knives, found with the body. (McGhee 1976: 20)

Objects found in the grave. On the left is a socketed bone projectile point; in the centre, a harpoon head and a barbed bone point; and on the right, a decorated ivory object that may have been a hand toggle for a harpoon line. (McGhee 1976: 21)

Objects found in the grave. On the left is a socketed bone projectile point; in the centre, a harpoon head and a barbed bone point; and on the right, a decorated ivory object that may have been a hand toggle for a harpoon line. (McGhee 1976: 21)

A bird-bone flute and a pendant were found underneath the chest. The paint stones and pestle were on the left side of the body. (McGhee 1976: 24)

A bird-bone flute and a pendant were found underneath the chest. The paint stones and pestle were on the left side of the body. (McGhee 1976: 24)

We learned a tremendous amount about this early culture from this one excavation. For example, the burial clearly demonstrates the sophistication of their Maritime adaption. “The toggling harpoon, an ingenious device for taking sea mammals, is the oldest such weapon in the world.” “Other evidence includes a walrus tusk, the bones of fish and an ivory handle which may have been attached to the end of a skin line opposite the harpoon.” (Tuck 1993: 2-3)

Construction of the mound itself shows a very different society than archaeologists would expect from a hunter-gatherer group. “The construction of burial mounds is traditionally associated with stable, agriculturally-based societies, generally found in more temperate areas of the world. The discovery of such an ancient burial mound, perhaps the oldest such structure in the world, came as a surprise to many archaeologists.” (Tuck 1993: 3)

The dating of the L’Anse Amour burial mound makes it one of the oldest known sites in Labrador and it was far older than expected. The two oldest radiocarbon dates from the site, 8042+87/-110 and 8363 + 66/-324 years ago, suggest the site was constructed more than 8000 years ago. (Tuck 1993: 5)

The excavation of the burial mound took place 40 years ago and archaeology and attitudes towards the excavation of burials has changed since then. Archaeologists would not excavate a burial like this today unless it was under threat of destruction.


McGhee, Robert 1976  The Burial at L’Anse Amour.

McGhee, Robert & James A. Tuck 1975  An Archaic Sequence from the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper No. 34, Ottawa.

Tuck, James 1993   Interpreting L’Anse Amour and Southern Labrador Prehistory. Unpublished internal report submitted to Department of Tourism and Culture.

The Grade 5 trip to the Colony of Avalon in Ferryland

Tags

, ,

Many of the larger archaeology sites in the province have, over the years, also become tourist attractions. The Colony of Avalon site in Ferryland is a perfect example of such a site. I recently had the opportunity to tag along with my son’s grade 5 class as they toured the Colony of Avalon Interpretation centre and dig site.

It was an interesting experience for me because I went to the site as a parent. Often when I go to sites like Ferryland I have friends or family with me and I end up playing the role of site interpreter – which I am happy to do but this time I was just another parent. It was also interesting because I got to spend a day with a great group of grade 5 students. The kids were smart and well behaved, having said that, let me just say, teachers don’t get paid enough or get enough respect! Have you ever tried to get a class of kids just to walk in a group? It’s like herding cats!

The teacher in the orange coat is trying to her her cats in one direction and keep one cat from jumping over the breakwater.

The teacher in the orange coat is trying to herd her cats in one direction and keep one cat from jumping over the breakwater

The morning started out with an introduction to the history of the site by one of the site interpreters. She gave the students some background on when the colony started, who started it and why. She did an amazing job of handling the kids and interpretation; much better than I could have done. I am not going to tell you what she said; you’ll need to visit the site yourself.

She then took the kids out to the interpretation centre where many of the more interesting artifacts are on display. While they were out there they watched a short video on the site which reinforced the interpreter’s introduction to the site. The kids were then given a sheet of questions and divided up into groups and told to explore the centre to find the answers. I looked at the questions on my son’s sheet; I think I would have passed.

Showing the video

Showing the video

Exploring the interpretation centre

Exploring the interpretation centre

small 20140916_105519

Beothuk arrow heads and knives

small 20140916_104856

Tin-glazed earthenware

small 20140916_105025These are just a few of the artifacts on display at the interpretation centre. If you want to see more you can visit the actual site in Ferryland or the Colony of Avalon website. If you want to go to Ferryland you should check the website first to plan around their operating hours.

After they explored the interpretation centre and worked through their list of questions it was time to head outside. We first went to the early 17th century kitchen reproduction. The room contains a working fireplace, authentic doors and windows, a flagstone floor and other details typical of the era. Demonstrations of life in the 17th century take place daily. The kids were told about various games that would have been played in the 17th century and they were offered a sample of bread that was made using a 17th century recipe.

In the 17th century reproduction kitchen

In the 17th century reproduction kitchen

The final part of the trip was taken up by a tour of the actual site with the interpreter. This was a great experience because all of the things the kids were told about in the interpretation centre, such as the construction of the various buildings, the street and the waterfront, were shown to them in the excavation area. This really made the facts come alive.

The kids were shown the forge and the interpreter explained how it worked. They learned about where the iron came from and what was built at the forge. They were also told about the Beothuk occupation layer that was found below the forge.

Learning about the forge

Learning about the forge

They were shown the ‘prettie streete‘ as it was described by Captain Wynne. They also saw the foundations of numerous buildings including what is thought to be the mansion house.

Learning about the cobble stone street and the mansion house

Learning about the cobble stone street and the mansion house

One of the last features of the colony that was explained to the kids was the waterfront. This is a difficult feature to explain to children but seeing it themselves made all the difference.

The 17th century Colony of Avalon waterfront

The 17th century Colony of Avalon waterfront

Of course one of the feature of the waterfront is the stone privy. I am not sure what got more ‘ewwws’ and giggles from the kids, the fact that the privy was a two-seater or the fact that an archaeologist excavated the pit.

The stone privy on the waterfront

The stone privy on the waterfront

After this it was back to the interpretation centre and the bus ride back to St. John’s.  It was a great trip, thoroughly enjoyed by all.

The 17th century was such a different world than the one we live in today. Trying to get people to understand just how different life was in the past, such as the 17th century or even thousands of years ago, is made a little easier by places like the Colony of Avalon, L’Anse aux Meadows, Port au Choix or any of the Provincial Historic Sites.

The Beothuk and a Zodiac Trip on Notre Dame Bay

Tags

, ,

Back in May I briefly told you about a day long zodiac trip I took on Notre Dame Bay with Grant Cudmore of Ocean Quest Close Encounters Twillingate. Our intention was to revisit several known sites and check on a possible new site.

Notre Dame Bay zodiac trip. Red line is the route, yellow dots are the known sites in the area.

Notre Dame Bay zodiac trip. Red line is the route, yellow dots are the known sites in the area

We left from Twillingate and were immediately treated to beautiful views and numerous icebergs.

This is a view of a lighthouse not everyone gets to see anymore.

This is a view of a lighthouse not everyone gets to see anymore

Just one of the numerous icebergs we saw.

Just one of the numerous icebergs we saw

We have known there were archaeology sites in this area of the bay since the late 19th century, dating back to the work done by James P. Howley. Howley was a geologist who amassed a collection of mostly Beothuk material culture and a large quantity of documentation on the Beothuk including interviews with people who had seen and contacted the Beothuk. He published much of this written material in his book The Beothucks, or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland, published in 1915 which is still used as a reference on the Beothuk today.

The first site we planned to revisit was on Little Black Island. The site was recorded by Howley in his diary as ‘…Beothuk skeletal remains in a ravine…’ It is not much of a description to go on in order to relocate the site. The last attempt to visit the site was in 1973 by Ingeborg Marshall, who was unable to relocate the site. We spent less than an hour looking into and crawling over several crevices and ravines. Not surprisingly we were also unsuccessful in relocating the site.

View of a small portion of Little Black Island.

View of a small portion of Little Black Island

We were more successful with our attempt to find the Swan Island site.

As I wrote in my Teaser post, the site was originally visited by Howley in 1886 and it was looted at that early date. The site was revisited by archaeologists Helen Devereux and Ingeborg Marshall in 1965 and 1973 respectively. Unfortunately, like most Beothuk burial sites in Notre Dame Bay, the site was completely looted.

Fortunately, interpreters from the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove accompanied me on my trip. I say fortunately because thanks to the keen eye and sharp memory of interpreter Desond Canning we were able to relocate the site. Desmond remembered the second photo below Howley’s book and from that we relocated the site.

Unfortunately, as I’ve already stated, the site was looted long ago. Today it is little more than a rock over-hang full of boulders. Regardless it is still a place of reverence and respect, afterall human remains were buried here.

Swan Island burial location today.

Swan Island burial location today

View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915.

View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915

The Beothuk people are well known for their use of red ochre. Howley described the use of this material:

Many theories have been advanced to account for this curious custom
of using red ochre, a mixture of red earth, oxide of iron and oil or grease,
called by the Beothucks Odemet. It appears to have been their universal
practice to smear everything they possessed with this pigment. Not only
their clothing, implements, ornaments, canoes, bows and arrows, drinking
cups, even their own bodies were so treated. Small packages of this
material, tied up in birch bark, are found buried with their dead, and
there is evidence even that long after the flesh had decomposed and fallen
away, they must have visited the sepulchres and rubbed ochre over the
skeletons of their departed kin. At least one such now in the local
museum was certainly so treated. Howley 1915: 262.

Exactly where the Beothuk got this material is not clear. One place that has been suggested was Ochre Pit Island, though at this location the ‘ochre’ is more orange than red when compared to the Beothuk material culture I have seen in museum collections.

Ochre Pit Island.

Ochre Pit Island

Ochre Pit Island was also reported by archaeologist Helen Devereux in 1965. She recorded four beach pits as being intruded into the cobble beach and that on average they were ‘…with birch bark in bottom of some – ~2 feet deep and 5 feet wide.’

Close up of one of the the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits.

Close up of one of the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits

Showing the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits (inside red circles).

Showing the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits (inside red circles)

While the exact function or purpose of these pits may never be known archaeologist Marianne Stopp wrote an interesting paper in 1994 in which she details her study of 38 sites in the Province that have cobble beach pits. She concluded that these pits are usually either prehistoric food storage pits, habitation features, or historic fish drying platforms. Considering the attributes she gives for each of those possible purposes, it seems as though the Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits could have functioned as food storage pits.

Devereux also reported that locals told her that burials were removed from the island about 20 years before. Unfortunately, she found no evidence of the burials or evidence that anything was removed.

Interestingly, of those 38 cobble beach pit sites studied by Stopp, most of them are found in Labrador. On the island of Newfoundland the cobble beach pit sites are only found in Notre Dame Bay.

We made one more brief stop on Yellow Fox Island after leaving Ochre Pit Island. Yellow Fox Island also contained a Beothuk burial which was visited by Howley in 1886. No one has found that site since. The purpose of our visit to the island was to check on a small cobble beach pit that had previously been found by Grant Cudmore. The cobble beach pit was similar to those on Ochre Pit Island but it was smaller, little more than a metre in diameter.

Yellow Fox island cobble beach pit.

Yellow Fox island cobble beach pit

Like the beach pits on Ochre Pit Island this pit did not appear to have any artifacts associated with it. This lack of artifacts is not an uncommon feature according to Stopp’s article and it is one of the things that makes understanding who constructed these pits so difficult.

In the end we were able to revisit several sites that had not been seen by an archaeologist in decades and confirm the discovery of a new cobble beach pit site. I love my job.aIMG_1051


DEVEREUX, Helen 1965 A Preliminary Report upon an Archaeological Survey of Newfoundland July-August, 1965.

HOWLEY, James, P. 1915 The Beothucks or Red Indians, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland.

STOPP, Marianne 1994 Cultural Utility of the Cobble Beach Formation in Coastal Newfoundland and Labrador.  Northeast Anthropology, 48; 69-90

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 108 other followers