Archaeologists are often presented mysteries or puzzles by the general public. In fact of the ~5000 known sites in the province, a lot of them were found by members of the general public. There are usually two types of people who bring puzzles to archaeologists, those who know they’ve found something but they don’t know what it is and those who’ve found something and are adamant that they know what they’ve found.
The former category would include the people who found two of Newfoundland’s most famous archaeological sites, Port au Choix and L’anse aux Meadows. At first, those folks had no idea what they had found but it was the job of an archaeologist to figure it out.
While these examples worked out to the benefit of everyone, some members of the public are led astray by their ‘discoveries’. In Newfoundland, people seem often led astray by their adamant claim of having found a lost ‘Norse’ site. Such claims have been extended to areas in the Codroy Valley, White Bay, outside St. Paul’s and the Bay St. George area. These claims have been investigated by various archaeologists and have turned out to be more recent European sites.
Occasionally information about a mystery does get passed on to archeologists that remain a puzzle to both the finder and archaeologists.
In 1999 while doing work on the northern Peninsula around the St. Lunaire-Griquet area I was told of a rock with inscriptions on it that was known to a few local people as the Irish Rock or St. Brendan’s Rock.
The rock is south-east of the community of St. Lunaire. The carvings are sharp and clear and appear as a jumble of straight lines. The lines are so clear and narrow they appear to have been made by a metal tool. The rock has been known to the local folks for decades and no one has claimed to have made the lines. Local legend suggests that the inscription is likely in Ogham, an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the Old Irish language and that is somehow related to St. Brendan.
St. Brendan was supposed to have journeyed to The Isle of the Blessed as described in the ninth century Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. Many versions exist of the story that tells of how he set out onto the Atlantic Ocean with several pilgrims searching for the Garden of Eden sometime between 512 and 530 AD. On his trip, Brendan is supposed to have seen St. Brendan’s Island, a blessed island covered with vegetation. He also encountered a sea monster.
While there is no evidence the inscription is related to St. Brendan, the inscription was made by somebody. Exactly who, why or when is still unknown.
In 2002 information from another member of the general public about another puzzling rock with an inscription on it resulted in a one day trip to the former community of Haystack, Long Island in Placentia Bay.
We know Long Island was home to precontact Aboriginal populations and it was later used by Europeans for a home base during the cod fishery. In fact, the island once had several little European communities such as Harbour Buffett and Haystack that were all linked by trails through the woods. The island would have had a population of several hundred people at one time. With the decline in the fishery and resettlement, the island has become a centre for summer fishing residences and cabins.
In the summer of 1970, Urve Linnamae surveyed Long Island and found 3 precontact sites on the north end of the island. The sites had Maritime Archaic and Dorset Pre-Inuit components. These sites hadn’t been seen by an archaeologist since Linnamae’s original work so along with investigating the Haystack Rock we also checked on Linnamae’s sites.
Haystack Rock is on the south side of the harbour at the base of the cliff. At high tide, the rock is actually underwater.
Author John Robinson has dedicated a short chapter to interpreting the Haystack inscription in his book Olde Founde Lande published in 1997. Robinson writes that the inscription was known to the locals as ‘the Frenchman’s letter’. His own interpretation is that the inscription was made by someone trying to emulate the voyage of St. Brendan. His reasoning is that the voyage occurred in the mid-500s AD but the written record of his voyage was recorded around 950 AD in the Voyage of St Brendan the Navigator. Robinson suggests the L and M are the Roman numerals 50 and 1000 respectively indicating that the inscription was made in 950 AD.
Like the Irish Rock, Haystack Rock has a set of clear and sharp symbols that were likely made by a metal tool. Since both sets of inscriptions appear to have been made by metal tools it is not likely they were made by precontact Aboriginal people because no precontact Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador had metal tools. Again, the inscription was made by somebody. Exactly who, why or when is still unknown.