Of all the places I’ve excavated my favourite place is in the Labrador Straits for various reasons including the very friendly and helpful local folks, the sheer quantity of sites many of which are thousands of years old, the ease of excavation (everything is buried in deep sand) and the number of absolutely amazing sites. For example, those sites include the 8000 year old L’Anse Amour burial mound, the Basque whaling sites in Red Bay, and the oldest known site in the province in Pinware. Without a doubt, the archaeology of southern Labrador never disappoints. To this list of amazing sites, we can add several Ramah chert biface caches.
The sandy beaches of southern Labrador have long been of interest to archaeologists. Dr. Elmer Harp first excavated on the beaches in 1949. But local residents knew about the stone tools eroding from the beaches long before Dr. Harp’s first work. Lithic and more recent historic material continues to erode from these beaches to this day.
In May of 1990, Mr. Gordon Spingle was enlarging his vegetable garden in his front yard with a rototiller when the machine jammed on rocks. To Mr. Spingle’s surprise, the machine had not jammed on regular beach rocks. From the blades of the machine he pulled 8 large Ramah chert bifaces that averaged 19 cm or 7.5 inches long. Shortly after he made his discovery Dr. Jim Tuck, who was already working in the area, was contacted and visited Mr. Spingle. Tuck’s archaeology crew tested the area around the original find and collected another biface bringing the total cache to 9 bifaces.
Since the discovery of the Spingle cache information on two other Ramah chert caches has come to light. In the fall of 1995 three hunters discovered a cache of 90 Ramah chert bifaces in the Alexis Bay-Port Hope Simpson area of Labrador.
In the early 1970s Huey Stubbert from Kegashka, on the Quebec North Shore (~350 kilometers west of the Strait of Belle lsle) found a cache of 25 Ramah chert bifaces in his garden. In the case of the Stubbert cache we know the bifaces were stacked on top of one another.
These photos don’t do the bifaces justice, they are spectacular. So, who made them, what were they used for? Given their size of some of the bifaces they were not hunting tools, many are just too large. Given their similarity in shape and material they were likely made by one person. They were all found clustered together in one very small area with no other traces of an archaeological site around them. Taken together the evidence suggests they may have been left as some form of ceremonial offering. But by whom?
During the last glacial period, Labrador was covered in thick, heavy ice. This ice exerted a tremendous amount of weight on the land causing it to sink into the ocean. At the end of the ice age, the ice retreated and the land slowly rose out of the water. This process, called isostatic rebound, meant that the beach where these bifaces were found was underwater until ~3000 years ago. Given this date, we can likely rule out the Maritime Archaic as the people who made the bifaces because they vanish from archaeological record around the same time.
Given their size the bifaces were not likely made by Pre-Inuit who are better known for making smaller artifacts. So this leaves us with Intermediate Period or Recent Period people as the makers of the caches. Since the Recent Period people don’t show up in the archaeological record until 2000 years ago it would make more sense that the makers of the caches were the Intermediate Period people. However, there are two pieces of evidence that suggest the makers were the Recent Period. For one thing, bifaces with similar shapes have been found in Labrador Recent Period sites. But, perhaps more convincing is the material the bifaces are made from. Anyone who knows anything about Labrador Recent Period knows that they were completely devoted to Ramah chert, to the near exclusion of all other lithic types. This is particularly true for the people of the first half of the Labrador Recent Period (~2000-~1000 years ago) known to archaeologists as the Daniel Rattle complex.
As spectacular as these caches are, they become even more so when you consider that the only known source from Ramah chert is more than 900 km north of the Straits (in a straight line) in Ramah Bay, northern Labrador.