What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?


, , , ,

When I tell folks I am an archaeologist I usually hear the same questions ‘What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?’ I thought for this blog post I could try to answer these questions. I also sent the questions to several of my colleagues. Below are our answers.

A colleague told me a story of when she was working on the Basque sites on Saddle Island, Red Bay Labrador. She had become upset with her crew chief and had stormed off the site up to one of the rocks. She recalls that it was raining and she just sat there on a rock picking at the moss between the bedrock. As she picked at the moss she found what she thought was a nail and pulled it out, but she learned it was much larger than a nail and it just kept coming out. When she had the object exposed she realized it was a Basque flensing knife. She immediately put her crookedness aside and headed back on site with her exciting find.

The same colleague has had great luck in finding other unique artifacts such as a Beothuk bone pendant, a Basque barrel scribe and a mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend.

Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd's Cove (Pastore)

Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd’s Cove (Pastore)

Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)

Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay. I believe this was used by the Basque to inscribe information onto barrels

Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)

Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay

The mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend actually has a second piece. Believe it or not, my colleague found the soapstone fragment one season and the butterfly mending piece the next season.

Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (Tuck)

Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (right side) (Tuck)

Another colleague sent me this story about his most interesting artifact find: a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Ladle from Fleur de Lys.

“My crew chief Brent Murphy was responsible for finding and carefully excavating the ladle. It was unearthed in 1998 at approximately 1.5 meters below the present day ground surface. It is carved from a single piece of spruce by Dorset Palaeoeskimos approximately AD 430.

Although organic artifacts such as this are generally not preserved in the acidic soils of Newfoundland, this specimen remained intact for over 1600 years due to a cold wet anaerobic burial environment. Since there are few preserved organic Palaeoeskimo remains in Newfoundland, this specimen provides a rare glimpse of Dorset woodworking skills. The ladle measures 18.5cm long, 3.0cm wide, 0.5cm thick and weighs 65.3 grams – and was beautifully conserved by Canadian Conservation Institute staff.

As for its function, I think it actually served as a drinking ladle, and it’s deposition at the base of the soapstone quarry was like a bucket at the bottom of a well.

It is a delicate piece with wear in the vicinity of the “spout” which would be in keeping with such a function. We also have good evidence that the natural spring – which flooded our excavation at the quarry wall – was present at the time the Dorset were excavating the soil in front of the quarry face to access unweathered soapstone.

Incidentally the partial remains of the second ladle are almost identical in size and shape to the complete specimen.”

Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)

Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)

As interesting as that artifact is, the same colleague also found a glass eye while excavating in the United States. I think that wins for the most unique and interesting artifact find.

Another colleague passed on the story of how he and another archaeologist found a Beothuk summer wigwam site. Such sites are exceedingly rare and several other archaeologists had searched this particular area for the remains of the site. My colleague said he and the other archaeologist drove to the area and parked their car just off the road. They briefly searched the area and found a small biface which led them to believe they were in the right area. Then they located a shallow depression that was partly eroded into the nearby brook. A quick search of the eroded depression and they realized they had found the Beothuk summer wigwam and it was right next to where they had parked their car.

Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook

Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook (Reynolds)

Another colleague told me the story of how he had been doing a canoe based survey along the beaches of the Fraser River near Lillooet, B.C. He pulled his canoe up on a beach, got out of the boat and walked about 50 metres, bent over and picked up a ground and pecked stone pestle/maul. He said ‘Somehow I knew that’s the direction and place I should go’. This is incredible when you consider that the whole beach was a jumble of rocks.

Finally, yet another colleague told me the story of her most interesting find which came from the bottom of her excavation unit on the very last day of the excavation. She had been working on a large Dorset Palaeoeskimo site in Trinity Bay. The precontact sites in the area, and this site in particular, are known for their vast quantities of chalky white chert that archaeologists refer to as ‘Trinity Bay chert’. During her excavation she had found numerous flakes and artifacts made from Trinity Bay chert until she got to the bottom of her unit. In the corner of her unit she vividly recalls finding a tiny Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblade made from quartz crystal. She said this endblade sticks out in her mind because there was so much Trinity Bay chert in the unit and to find this beautiful little quartz crystal endblade was a shock to her.

Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert

Typical Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert

Personally, a few discoveries stick out in my mind. I still recall finding my first artifact. We were shovel testing a site on the west coast of Newfoundland near Cox’s Cove. We didn’t know for sure at the time but the site had both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo components and a Beothuk component. I can still recall turning over the shovel full of dirt and seeing the chocolate brown coloured artifact. If I remember correctly the artifact was part of a scraper, I was so excited because I found my first artifact and, more importantly, I knew enough to recognize what it was!

Parke's Beach, Middle Arm, 1997

Parke’s Beach, Middle Arm, 1997

I think one of the most interesting artifacts I ever found was on the same site near Cox’s Cove. We had been excavating a Groswater house pit and I had been finding a lot of seal bone. One of the small pieces of bone I pulled out of the ground turned out to be a bone sewing needle, or at least part of a needle.

Every archaeologist has stories about field work and their …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact they ever found. If you have an interesting story and want to share please comment on this post, I’d love to hear it.

Ilhavo Park: Fort William and the civil fort during the French raid of 1709



The City of St. John’s has a long human history and therefore has a long archaeological record dating back to at least the Maritime Archaic period ~3200-~5500 years ago. This antiquity is evidenced by the discovery of a Maritime Archaic biface near the Waterford River in the 19th-century.

With this history in mind, when the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) receives a land use application for within the city, particularly for downtown, an archaeological impact assessment is usually required. Thankfully, the PAO has a good working relationship with the City and they understand and support our goal of the protection of archaeological resources.

In 2003 the PAO received an application on behalf of the Grand Concourse Authority for the construction of a small park and monument that commemorated the cultural and historical influence of the Portuguese White Fleet on the City of St. John’s. The park was to be located at the intersection of Duckworth Street and Plymouth Road and it represents a partnership between the cities of St. John’s and Ilhavo, Portugal.

Ilhavo Park (Google Maps)

Ilhavo Park today
(Google Maps)

The area prior to development in 2003

The area prior to development in 2003 (Mills)

The PAO knew the area had archaeological potential because in 1993 Dr. Peter Pope with Memorial University of Newfoundland found portions of the late 17th to early 18th-century civil fort that was attached to Fort William directly across the street towards the Harbour (Pope 1993). Based on this knowledge the PAO advised the Grand Concourse Authority of the archaeological potential in the area and that an archaeological impact assessment was required.

The stage 1 assessment conducted by archaeologist Stephen Mills in 2003 identified…

Numerous cartographic sources dating back to the late-seventeenth century indicate that the area was within or adjacent to the military installations known as Fort William and Fort George (or Civil Fort) that date between the late-1690s and mid-eighteenth century. Residential occupations of the site date at least to the middle of the nineteenth century (2003:1).
A 1726 map of St. John's thought to have been made by M. de Saint Ovide de Brouillant. The whole map can be seen here: http://collections.mun.ca/cdm/singleitem/collection/maps/id/235/rec/11

A map of St. John’s thought to have been made by M. de Saint Ovide de Brouillan after he captured the city in 1709.  Fort William is in the upper right and a profile view of the fort is in the lower left. The whole map can be seen here.

Construction of Fort William depicted on the map above began in 1697 under the direction of Colonel John Gibsone and in 1705 it is described as having 40 guns and surrounded by ramparts and pallisades with a glacis descending from the parapet. There was a second fort surrounded by a pallisade on the southern flank of the fort intended for the defence of the town’s non-military inhabitants. This second fort, the civil fort, is visible in both the plan and profile view in the above map (Mills 2003: 8).

Fort William was attacked by the French in 1705 and in the winter of 1709. The English repelled the 1705 attack but on January 1, 1709, under the command of Joseph de Mombeton de Saint-Ovide de Brouillon, the French captured Fort William and demolished it along with the rest of the defences in the harbour before heading back to Placentia that same winter. The fort was rebuilt by the British in the summer of 1709.

By the 1740s, a battery with twelve 24-pounders was constructed just to the south of Fort William, near the same location as the civilian fort from the early eighteenth century. This southern fort came to be known as Fort St. George or simply Fort George. These forts were again captured by the French in 1762 and reclaimed by the English in the fall of the same year (Mills 2003).

By the last half of the 19th-century both forts were gone. At this time the area was being taken over by roads and dwellings. The dwellings in the area burned down during the 1892 fire but were rebuilt. By the first quarter of the 20th century however the area was devoid of homes (Mills 2003).

Late 19th or early 20th century shot of the wooden homes built Ilhavo Park. Left side, centre of photo

Late 19th or early 20th-century photograph of the wooden homes built at Ilhavo Park. Left side of photo. From a Memorial University photo collection

All of this information was gathered prior to the archaeological impact assessment which was conducted between October 10, 2004 and November 27, 2004.

A single east-west trench (Trench A) running some 45 meters in length and upwards of two meters wide was excavated to subsoil (up to 3.15m below grade) along the entire northern edge of the study area Two test pits were dug in the southern portion of the study area, both also to subsoil or bedrock. One (Trench C) was located at the eastern end and the second (Trench B) near the center of the southern edge.

Following testing the entire fill removal process was monitored constantly. When artifacts or features were encountered, mechanical excavation was halted, or redirected, to provide an opportunity to investigate the area by more traditional means (Aardvark Archaeology 2004:8).

Map of the Ilhavo archaeology site showing the location of features and test units

Map of the Ilhavo archaeology site showing the location of features and test units (Aardvark Archaeology 2004)

The late component of the site was concentrated in five cellars. Three of the five 19th-century cellars measured on average 4×3 metres and were about 60 cm deep. Cellar four was 6×4.5 m and 180 cm deep. The fifth cellar was 7×3 m and 150 cm deep. All of the cellars contained typical 19th-century artifacts including ceramics, smoking pipes and assorted glass.

Click on the picture to see a larger version.


The early component was first encountered about one metre below the surface in the southwest corner of the study area. The approximate dimensions of the intact portion of the deposit were about 2.7m north-south by 4m east-west. The deposit averaged about 30cm in thickness, but at the western extremity of the study area was up to 70 cm thick (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 25).

Though a small area the early component of the site contained a tightly dated event falling in the late 17th to the early 18th-century.

The most numerous class of artifact at the site was tobacco pipe stem and bowl fragments. Thirty-five bowl fragments and 394 measurable stem fragments make up the collection.

Of the bowl and bowl fragments 23 are from the English West Country and date to 1680-1720; three are forms from the West Country or London and date to 1680-1710; one is definitely from London, dating to 1690-1720; three are from Exeter and date to 1680-1720. Several of the bowl fragments had maker’s marks on the heel or side of the bowl; these can be dated to 1692-1700. The average date for the pipe stems was 1679 which was thought to be earlier than the archaeological component.

Assorted pipe bowls

Assorted pipe bowls

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Fifty-eight ceramic vessels were identified as coming from Europe including Spain, Portugal, the English ceramic centers of Totnes, Verwood and North Devon in Bristol/Staffordshire, the Midlands South and East Somerset, Beauvais, France and the Rhineland, particularly the Westerwald region of Germany. All the vessels could have been, and probably were, produced in the last decade of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth century. Vessel 42, for example bears a sprig-moulded likeness of William III of England (1694-1702), precisely in the centre of the proposed date for the early component occupation. Notable, too, is the absence of English white salt-glazed pottery. It was introduced about 1715 and within a few years became one of the dominant ceramic types on English colonial sites. Its absence from Ilhavo Park supports a terminal date of prior to 1715 (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 27).

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Fourteen glass vessels – four wine bottles, two case bottles, three pharmaceuticals and five wine glass fragments were recovered from the early component at Ilhavo Park. All could have been produced during the proposed 1697-1709 period occupation and at least two of the wine bottles (Vessels 1 and 2) are specific to that period (Aardvark Archaeology 2004: 31).

Glass bottles and stemware from the early component at Ilhavo Park

Glass bottles and stemware from the early component at Ilhavo Park

In a recent conversation with Steve Mills he speculated that some of the artifacts they found may have been related to either the 1705 or 1709 French raid, including a broad ax and what may be the “business end” from a ballista dart!

Click on the picture to see a larger version.

He also pointed out that they found a large iron hinge. These three artifacts were near where the ditch to Fort William was located and a sally port (also called a covered way) in the ditch which led into the fort. The hinge may have come from the sally port door or the gate to the civilian fort. Saint Ovide de Brouillan mentions going through the “covert way” or covered way to gain access to the Fort William ramparts. The broad ax, harpoon/ballista blade and hinge could be the only military-related artifacts found associated with Fort William and the civilian fort and the French raids on St. John’s. While this is all speculation it is certainly within the realm of possibility.

The Ilhavo Park site consists of two datable components. The later component is made up of five cellars thought to have been dug after the Great Fire of 1892 and refilled when the houses above them were torn down after World War II. The older component appears to be part of a much larger midden that was up to 70 cm thick in places and contained a typical assortment of smoking pipe stems and bowls, ceramics and glass vessel fragments. The archaeologists interpreted the material as a midden of domestic refuse deposited between 1697 and 1709 by residents of the civil fort. This component appears to continue to the south and west beneath Duckworth Street and probably to the north beneath Plymouth Road.

The recovery of all this material and information from this small area would have been lost under the blade of a bulldozer without PAO’s requirement for an archaeological impact assessment. This process is in place to ensure the protection of Historic Resources in the province and Ilhavo Park is a good example of how the system works.

Thanks to Steve Mills for comments on a draft of this blog and for sharing his photos.

Aardvark Archaeology 2004  Archaeological Investigations at Ilhavo Park (CjAe-53) Duckworth Street and Plymouth Road, St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Mills, Stephen 2003  Historic Resources Stage 1 Assessment Ilhavo Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.

Pope, Peter 1995  St. John’s Harbour area Archaeological survey.

Where did the Change Islands biface cache come from, chemically speaking?


, , , ,

In the fall of 2010, Neil White and Marion Adams were at the ferry terminal at Change Islands waiting for the ferry. They took a stroll around the parking lot and in the area just off the pavement they noticed something unusual sticking out of the ground. They recognized the stone they were looking at as having been knapped into the shape of a biface tip. They eventually recovered 30 bifaces made of a steel-blue coloured stone called rhyolite.

Location of Change Islands

Location of Change Islands

Neil and Marion are to be commended for what they did next. Rather than hide the collection away for themselves they shared their discovery with the province. This cache is just one of two biface caches known on the Island; the other one was found at Port au Choix. There are a few more biface caches known in Labrador and in Quebec. Neil and Marion’s discovery was very significant. They were pretty sure they understood what they had found but they wanted to bring the collection to the proper authorities. Within a few days they made contact with the Beothuk Interpretation Centre at Boyd’s Cove. Upon seeing the artifacts the staff at the Centre contacted the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) who later investigated the site and found two more artifacts bringing the total collection to 32 bifaces.

Change Islands biface cache (Rast).

Change Islands biface cache (Rast).

According to Neil and Marion the bifaces were stacked next to one another like a deck of cards. This suggests the cache was buried in a rather small area, perhaps in a bark or leather pouch of some sort. Unfortunately there was no physical evidence of such an organic container or any other organic remains associated with the bifaces. Without organic material there is nothing to radiocarbon date the site and we are left with less exact methods to speculate how old the objects are and who made them.

Given the size of the bifaces and their overall shape it is unlikely they were made by any of the Palaeoeskimo groups who lived on the Island in the past. It’s more likely they were made by either someone within the Maritime Archaic or Recent Indian cultural groups. The cache was found at an elevation of 1 to 2 metres above sea level. Since this area of Newfoundland has been submerging since the last glacial period, the site would likely have been underwater during the Maritime Archaic period. So, we are left with the cache having likely been created by someone in the Recent Indian population.

There are two known quarries for rhyolite that are relatively close. One is at Brimstone Head on Fogo Island, just ~10 km in a straight line north east of the discovery. The other quarry is at Bloody Bay Cove in Bonavista Bay, ~100 km in a straight line south east of the discovery. In an effort to try and find the source for the rhyolite used to make the bifaces the PAO had five samples taken from each of the quarries. Those samples and five biface fragments from the cache were loaned to the Dr. Derek Wilton of the Department of Earth Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The samples and bifaces were subjected to Laser Ablation Microprobe (LAM) – Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) – Mass Spectrometry (LAM-ICP-MS) tests. I am not going to pretend that I know exactly how this works, but my understanding is the samples and bifaces are shot with a laser. The material that comes off the sample from the laser is a gas. The chemicals, and their relative quantities, that make up the gas can be identified. Each biface and each sample will have unique chemical signatures but, for example, all the samples from Brimstone Head will be similar enough to each other that we can tell they all came from the same source at Brimstone Head. By conducting this test we can figure out the chemical elements and their quantities that make up each sample. Then we can compare the quarry numbers to the biface numbers and hopefully the biface numbers will be similar enough to either one of the quarry numbers that we can say the biface material likely came from this quarry.

Brimstone Head is in the background of the community of Fogo

Brimstone Head is in the background of the community of Fogo

Bloody Bay Cove quarry. The entire hill behind archaeologist Laurie McLean are pieces of rhyolite flaked from the quarry

Bloody Bay Cove quarry. The entire hill behind archaeologist Laurie McLean are pieces of rhyolite flaked from the quarry

Before anyone complains that we destroyed or damaged the bifaces by letting them be blasted by a laser, the blasted pits are just 30 – 50 microns deep. They would just barely be visible to the human eye.

How big is a micron?

How big is a micron?

Based on the LAM-ICP-MS tests the bifaces were determined to be geochemically identical to the Bloody Bay Cove samples. The LAM-ICP-MS tests also showed that the Brimstone Head samples were highly variable amongst themselves and none of them were chemically close to the bifaces.

Location of the Bloody Bay quarry (bottom left) in relation to Change Islands

Location of the Bloody Bay quarry (bottom right) in relation to Change Islands

In the end, we are left with a good guess as to who made the bifaces, most likely it was a person from the Newfoundland portion of the Recent Indian culture. This gives us an approximate time period, ~2000 years ago up to prolonged European contact. We may be able to narrow this period down a little more. The cache was made up of bifaces that would be interpreted as knives and throwing or thrusting spears, certainly not arrowheads.

In the first half of the Recent Indian period, ~2000-~1000 years ago, Newfoundland was home to two contemporaneous but unrelated groups of people that archaeologists refer to as the Cow Head complex and the Beaches complex. Both of these groups made larger stone tools usually thought of as throwing or thrusting spears. The last group of people in the Recent Indian culture, (~1000 to prolonged European contact) the people of the Little Passage complex, made and used stone tools usually seen as much smaller and more likely arrowheads.

It appears as though someone from the Recent Indian period, perhaps from either the Cow Head or Beaches complex, ~2000-~1000 years ago, used stone sourced from the Bloody Bay Cove quarry to make the bifaces that were left on Change Island. But we are still left wondering why were the bifaces made and why were they left on the shore of Change Islands? We can speculate, but we will likely never know the exact answer to these questions.

WELLS, Karen 2011 Change Islands Couple Makes Rare FindThe Pilot

WILTON, Derek 2012 Report on the LAM-ICP-MS analysis of Arrowheads from Change islands and rhyolitic flakes from the Brimstone Head and Bloody Bay Cove regions, Newfoundland and Labrador.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 118 other followers