When I first learned about the precontact history of Newfoundland and Labrador I was taught that there was no ceramic period in the province. In fact, when I was at Memorial University of Newfoundland learning this material, and if I recall correctly, I was told that the lack of ceramics here is one of the reasons we have different categories for our precontact past than the rest of the Maritime Provinces. For example, we do not have a Woodland period; ceramics are a culturally diagnostic element in Woodland collections.
In this week’s post I’ll discuss the instances of aboriginal ceramics that have been found in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador; right now there are just eight such instances that I am aware of. It seems most of these are either directly related to Recent Indian occupations or there are Recent Indian occupations near where the ceramics were found. Is the evidence enough to suggest the Recent Indian period in Newfoundland and Labrador should have ceramics added to their diagnostic “tool kit”? A diagnostic “tool kit” is made up of typical tools that archaeologists use to identify an occupation as Recent Indian as opposed to another precontact group. Before I get into the ceramics I will present a little background information.
The Recent Indian Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador began approximately 2000 years ago on both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle. The connection between the Recent Indians and earlier precontact Indians of the province, such as the Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Indians, is not completely understood, if such a relationship existed at all.
Traditionally, the Recent Indian period on the Island was made up of the Cow Head (ca.1900-1000 B.P.), Beaches (early Newfoundland Recent Indian ca.1900-800 B.P.) & Little Passage complexes (late Newfoundland Recent Indian ca.800 B.P.-European Contact). The Cow Head complex appears on the Island around the start of the Recent Indian time period. Research suggests they are not part of the Newfoundland Recent Indian cultural continuum (Hartery 2001). The early & late Newfoundland Recent Indian complexes form this cultural continuum where the culture of the early complex slowly becomes the late complex. The Beothuk are not part of the precontact Recent Indian Tradition, but rather are descendants of the people of this tradition.
As on the Island of Newfoundland, the Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador is divided into an early and late period. The culture of the early Labrador Recent Indians (traditionally known as the Daniel Rattle complex ca. 2000 B.P. – 1000 B.P.) slowly becomes the culture of the late Labrador Recent Indians (traditionally known as the Point Revenge complex ca. 1000 B.P. – 350 B.P.). Archaeologists believe that these precontact complexes form a two thousand year old cultural continuum that represents the precontact Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador. There is not a consensus amongst archaeologists as to whether the Innu who live in Labrador today are descendants of the people of this tradition.
The first instance of possible precontact ceramics being found in the province is recorded by Junius Bird in 1934 at Avertok (Hopedale), Labrador. Bird described the piece as: “Lying directly on the surface of the paving stones at the inner end of the entrance tunnel to House 4 was a small grit-tempered potsherd of Indian manufacture. It is from the rim of a straight-lipped vessel, decorated on the inner edge with short diagonal incised lines and on the outer surface with an irregular row of indentations directly above a stamped impression showing parallel rows of small sharp indentations (Fig. 13). In section, it diminishes from an approximate thickness of 1/2 to about 1/4 inch at the upper edge, the inner surface curving outward.”
Ceramic sherd found by Bird at Avertok (Loring).
As far as we know, the Inuit culture in Labrador made no use of such ceramics. However, Stephen Loring who has seen the artifact noted that it was “…heavily encrusted (“saturated”) with what almost certainly is burned sea-mammal blubber –as is typically seen on steatite lamps and bowls.” (Loring, Pers. Comm.). Loring also speculates that a small precontact late Recent Indian component near this site (just over 100 m away) was likely the source for the ceramic (Loring 1992:279-280). Given that just about every other piece of precontact ceramic in the province was found in or near a Recent Indian component, as will be discussed below, Loring is probably correct in his speculation on the origin of this artifact.
In 1952, James Pendergast found several small grit-tempered ceramic sherds from a site he discovered near the airport at Terrington Basin in Goose Bay (Loring 1992:279). Unfortunately, nothing else is recorded about the site or the ceramics.
In 1975 near the community of Pinware, Labrador, James Tuck and Robert McGhee found “…a small sherd of dentate stamped pottery and two sherds of soapstone as well as small flakes of chert of a type characteristic of Dorset Eskimo assemblages.” (Tuck & McGhee 1975). Again, unfortunately, little else was written about the site or the ceramic. A nearby component of this site produced a hearth in association with flakes of Ramah chert, an end scraper, and charcoal. Based on current knowledge, it is possible this site was occupied by Labrador Recent Indians who relied heavily on Ramah chert.
During the excavation of the L’Anse à Flamme site in 1980, a member of Gerald Penney’s field crew, James Tillotson, found the rim sherd of a Point Peninsula pot. According to Penney 1981, this artifact was excavated in situ 35cm below the surface in a secure Dorset Palaeoeskimo context (1981:171). Penney goes on to describe the sherd: “J.V. Wright confirmed James Tuck’s initial identification and he estimated a manufacture date of A.D. 500. The single Dorset date for L’Anse à Flamme is A.D. 615 (S-1977:1335 +/- 115 B.P.). Wright describes the sherd (Figure 2) as being decorated with a sloppy form of dentate stamp that approaches a pseudo-scallop shell impression even though it superficially looks like cord wrapped stick. It has an incipent collar with an exterior chevron motif (personal communication, 23 September 1980).” (1981:171). The L’Anse à Flamme site has Maritime Archaic, Palaeoeskimo, Recent Indian and European occupations.
L’Anse à Flamme pot sherd (G. Penney).
In 1982, Stephen Loring found ceramic fragments from a single pot while excavating Area II at the Recent Indian site of Kamarsuk. He described the sherds as: “The sherds, all from a single vessel, include one that contains a part of the rim, one that is from the portion of the vessel where the straight sides curve towards the conical base, and the remainder which are from the upper portion of the vessel close to the rim. They appear to be part of a small conical pot with smooth straight walls. The maximum thickness of the body sherds is 140 mm; at the rim the vessel’s walls have thinned to 88 mm. This is the first incidence of prehistoric ceramics recovered from an undisturbed context in Labrador.” (1985:128).
Kamarsuk ceramics (Loring).
The site of Kamarsuk was located to the left of the peninsula on the gentle raised beach (Loring).
During the excavation of the extensive Basque site on Saddle Island in the 1980s a member of James Tuck’s crew recovered a piece of aboriginal ceramic between the roof fall and drain of a Basque structure. Tuck described the piece as: “It is the castellation (or “peak” on the rim) and is decorated with a design that is known to Iroquoian archaeologists and a “corn ear” motif. It is quite unlike the poorly-fired ceramics rarely produced by Recent Indians in Labrador and hints strongly that somebody from up the St. Lawrence visited Red Bay in the early contact period.” (2005:17).
This piece of ceramic was examined in depth by Claude Chapdelaine and Gregory G. Kennedy. They established the chemical composition of the piece and compared it to local clay sources in Labrador and selected samples from Saint Lawrence Iroquoian sites of the Quebec City area. With regard to the style of the sherd they write, “The Red Bay rim sherd is undoubtedly of Late Woodland style and it looks more like a Saint Lawrence Iroquoian vessel than any other Iroquoian ceramic tradition. However, the results of the neutron activation analysis seem to support the possibility that the specimen from the Strait of Belle Isle may well be a very good Algonquian imitation of a distinct Iroquoian pottery style.” However, with regard to the chemical composition of the piece they write, “The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians seem to have produced some pottery while away from their villages. Under these conditions, it is still possible that the rim sherd found at Red Bay was made by an Iroquoian potter during one of those journeys down the Saint Lawrence River.” (1990:42-43). So, the artifact was either made by an Algonquian potter imitating an Iroquoian style or an Iroquoian potter using unusual clay.
Saddle Island pot sherd.
Again on Saddle Island, but this time in 1987, James Tuck’s archaeology crew recovered more aboriginal ceramic fragments, this time in direct association with Recent Indian hearths. Tuck describes the fragments as: “…tempered with coarse grit and appear to be underfired, for the thick walls are severely delaminated and friable. The sherds appear to pertain to small, thick vessels, possibly with conical bases. The more complete of the two has a castellated rim with exterior decoration consisting of three rows of horizontal impressed (?) lines on an incipient collar set off by from the neck by a horizontal row of oblique impressions. The neck is decorated by oblique plaits of cord-wrapped paddle (?) impressions (Figure 3). The second vessel has a row of oblique impressions below the rim, and oblique, cris-cross and horizontal incised lines on the neck.” (1987:7).
Tuck believed these pieces were similar to the material collected by Loring. “The underfired nature and thick paste of the vessels compare with ceramics reported by Loring (1985:128) from the central Labrador coast, although the central Labrador examples specimens lacked any trace of decoration. Whether these ceramics represent an incipient local tradition, or are imports from somewhere up the St. Lawrence, is not presently known.” (Tuck 1987:7-8).
Saddle Island has an extensive late Recent Indian and contact period Indian occupation. In fact, several Indian hearths have European artifacts in them suggesting some form of contact.
Saddle Island pot sherds.
Saddle Island pot sherds.
Based on information from Stephen Loring, Ponius Nuk from Sheshatshiu has found traces of a Recent Indian site near his cabin at Shipiskan Lake, a tributary of the Kanairiktok River. A shallow ephemeral camp-spot to one side of the cabin produced an assemblage of plain grit-tempered ceramics associated with Ramah chert debitage (Loring 2013:31).
Cord-marked and dentate pottery from Shipiskan Lake (Loring).
View to the north looking past Ponius Nuk’s cabin to Shipiskan Lake. Grit-tempered ceramics and Ramah chert debitage have been recovered next to the small outbuilding on the left (Loring).
At the Recent Indian component of the Gould site in 1999, then graduate student Mike Teal found 290 pottery sherds estimated to be from seven different pots in two areas; near a charcoal concentration and near a large depression. This is the largest concentration of ceramics found, thus far, in the province. Teal writes: “All the pottery is composed of a grit tempered clay that varies in condition from highly deteriorated and crumbly, to quite solid; most pottery sherds fall somewhere between these two extremes. Also, several sherds are encrusted with a hard black substance which is presumably related to food preparation. Sixty-one of the 290 sherds could be identified to sherd type, and these pieces constitute the sample that will be described and analysed in this section. They include: 15 rim sherds, 10 neck sherds, and 36 body sherds.” (2001:54).
He goes on to describe the shape of the vessel forms: “There are five different rim shapes or forms: squared, rounded, in sloping, concave, and collared (Figure 3.1). Four of the rim sherds are squared, three are rounded, two are in sloping, two are concaved, two are collared, and two have undeterminable rim forms…Ten of the fifteen rim sherds are decorated with at least one of three types of decoration: dentate stamping, dentate rocker-stamping, and incised linear lines…Sixteen of the 36 body fragments were decorated with dentate rocker stamping.” (Teal 2001:57-59).
Gould site ceramics (Teal 2001).
The most recent discovery of aboriginal ceramics in the province comes from the archaeology work done by Fred Schwarz on the south side of Muskrat Falls. These ceramics were found at sites with radiocarbon dates that place their occupations in the very early part of the Recent Indian period, possibly even ancestral to the Cow Head complex Recent Indians. Ceramic fragments, a total of 34 pieces plus 23g of crumbled clay fragments, were found at three different sites. The sherds were described as “…a low‐fired, thick‐walled grit‐tempered ware. Many sherds do not show a complete cross‐section and have only interior or exterior surfaces. Where clear interior surfaces are evident, these are often blackened. Exterior surfaces show no evidence of surface decoration.” (Stantec 2013:98).
Muskrat Falls ceramics. Picture shows the interior surfaces (top) and exterior surfaces (bottom) of the same two sherds (Stantec 2013).
Muskrat Falls ceramics (Stantec 2013).
Considering all of this information, should ceramics be added to the Recent Indian tool kit? In 2005, James Tuck, the man who played a major role in defining Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology seemed to suggest that the Labrador Recent Indians occasionally made ceramics when he wrote of the ceramics found at Saddle Island: “It is quite unlike the poorly-fired ceramics rarely produced by Recent Indians in Labrador …” (2005:17). In fact, Mike Teal went so far as to suggest that ceramics should be added, at least to the Cow Head complex tool kit. In the abstract to his 2001 thesis he writes: “New artifacts, including contracting stemmed projectile points and ceramic vessels are introduced as elements of the Cow Head assemblage…” (2001:ii).
If we don’t add ceramics to the Recent Indian tool kit then in the very least researchers working on precontact sites in the province, particularly Recent Indian and Dorset sites need to be aware of, as I was warned in 1998, “…little clumps of mud that will not go through your screen, they may be ceramic.” (Loring, pers. comm.). This is how these ceramics were described to me when I was excavating a Recent Indian site on the Northern Peninsula in 1998.
This post was inspired by my reading of two articles in the 2013 volume of the Arctic Studies Newsletter. The first was by Kora Stapelfeldt entitled Pottery in Motion: Towards Cultural Interaction Studies in Newfoundland and Labrador. The second was by Stephen Loring entitled Pottery from the North: Addendum to Stapelfeldt.
Bird, Junius B. 1945 Archaeology of the Hopedale Area, Labrador. Volume 39: Part 2 Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Chapdelaine, Claude & Gregory G. Kennedy 1990 The Origin of the Iroquoian Rim Sherd from Red Bay. Man in the Northeast, 40 (Fall):41-43.
Hartery, Latonia 2001 The Cow Head complex. MA, University of Calgary.
Loring, Stephen 1985 Archaeological Investigations into the Nature of the Late Prehistoric Indian Occupation in Labrador: A Report of the 1984 Field Season. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1984, Annual Report Number 5. Jane Sproull Thomson and Callum Thomson ed. Historic Resources Division, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, pp 122-153.
1992 Princes and Princesses of Ragged Fame: Innu Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Labrador. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Massachusetts.
2013 Pottery from the North: Addendum to Stapelfeldt. Arctic Studies Newsletter.
Penney, Gerald 1981 A Point Peninsula Rim Sherd from L’Anse a Flamme, Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 5: 171‑173.
Teal, Michael 2001 An Archaeological Investigation of the Gould Site (EeBi-42) in Port au Choix, Northwestern Newfoundland: New Insight into the Recent Indian Cow Head Complex. MA, MUN.
Tuck, James A. 2005 Archaeology at Red Bay, Labrador: 1978-1992.
Tuck, James A. & Robert McGhee 1975 Belle Isle Archaeological Project, 1975.
Stantec 2013 2012 Historic Resources Assessment and Recovery Field Program.
Stapelfeldt, Kora 2013 Pottery in Motion: Towards Cultural Interaction Studies in Newfoundland and Labrador. Arctic Studies Newsletter.