The Grade 5 trip to the Colony of Avalon in Ferryland

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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

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Beothuk arrow heads and knives

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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

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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

Teaser: Notre Dame Bay zodiac trip

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I had the opportunity this week to take a zodiac trip around a small part of Notre Dame Bay and visit some known archaeology sites including Beothuk burial places. Thanks to the generosity of Ocean Quest Close Encounters Twillingate and Captain Grant Cudmore we were able to visit two possibly three known sites and we found a new cobble pit 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.

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 Swan Island Beothuk Burial Cave. Desmond remembered the photo below from James P. Howley’s book, The Beothucks or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland and from that we relocated the site. It 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.

View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915.

View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915.

Swan Island burial location today.

Swan Island burial location today.

Because I took the time out of my schedule for this trip I have some catching up to do at work so I will have more to say on this trip in my next blog post.

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