You may have recently seen the news item about the Basque burials at Red Bay Labrador. These burials were excavated in the 1980s from Saddle Island, the largest of the islands at the mouth of Red Bay Harbour.
The burials are part of an extensive industrial whaling complex dating from the 1520s. This complex was operated by Basque whalers from northeast Spain and southwest France who would travel across the Atlantic Ocean in the spring and stay here all summer hunting whales and return to Europe in the Fall.
The Basque whaling operation at Red Bay represents the whole operation of catching the whales, processing them and rendering them into oil. There are 26 Basque sites in and around the harbour which have been well-studied. Those sites include the burials, four sixteenth-century ships (one of which is believed to be the San Juan) was fully excavated, several extensive underwater whale bone deposits, cooperages, tryworks and possibly living quarters. These sites are the reason for the Parks Canada National Historic Site and the impetus behind the current application for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. While the Basque occupation on Saddle Island is well-known, other people throughout history have used this island.
The Basque occupation comes at the more recent end of a long occupation history which began with the Maritime Archaic (Labrador Archaic). The only trace of Archaic occupation on the island is limited to a scatter of white quartz found on the west end of the island near the Lighthouse. Archaeologists know from previous research that this white quartz was used by the earliest inhabitants of the area and likely in the 7000 to 8000-year-old range.
There is a temporal gap of ~5000 years before the next occupation by two early Pre-Inuit groups. These sites are located on either end of the island and neither contained hearths or other architectural remains. However, there was a Basque occupation above both and this may have obliterated any early Pre-Inuit features. The earlier of the two occupations may have been Pre-Dorset and the other was Groswater.
On the northeast side of the Island was a Dorset Pre-Inuit occupation that again was limited to just a collection typical of stone tools.
The north end of the island was also the location of perhaps the largest Recent Period site in the province which contained at least 170 cobble hearths. Based on the style of artifacts the site was occupied numerous times throughout the whole Recent Period dating from 2000 years ago to contact. The post-European contact portion of the site is represented by hearths with burned European hardwoods and iron nails.
The Inuit and their ancestors the Thule were in Red Bay and likely on Saddle Island. Like the earlier Pre-Inuit, the Thule-Inuit occupation of the island is represented by just artifacts. On Saddle Island fragments of soapstone vessels were found in the sod roof of a Basque structure and in small ponds on the eastern end of the Island. A typical Thule-Inuit polished nephrite drill bit and a polished slate harpoon end blade were found on Twin Island, just 500m to the east of Saddle Island.
Tuck, James 1989 Excavations at Red Bay, Labrador – 1986. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1986, Annual Report No.7
2005 Archaeology at Red Bay, Labrador: 1978-1992.