Who else was on Saddle Island?

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.

Saddle Island, Red Bay, Labrador

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.

Model of the San Juan, from Pasaia, which sank in Red Bay, Labrador in 1565. This model is the result of years of research by the underwater archaeology department of Parks Canada, following the excavation of the wreck between 1978 and 1992.  The San Juan was a medium-sized whaling ship, with a capacity of 200 tonnes. The model shows the interior layout and the three decks, which could house approximately one thousand casks of valuable oil. © José Lopez http://bertan.gipuzkoakultura.net/23/ing/12.php

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.

Early Palaeo-Eskimo tools and weapons found beneath the Basque deposits at Area E. They include: top – true spalled burins, harpoon end blades and harpoon side blades; middle – scrapers; bottom – blade core, prismatic blades and flaked stone knives. (Tuck 2005)
Groswater culture artifacts from the Palaeo-Eskimo period found at Area F. They include top – burin-like-tools, harpoon end blades and harpoon side blades; middle – scraper and seven flaked stone knives; bottom – blade core and prismatic blades. (Tuck 2005)

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.

Dorset Palaeo- Eskimo artifacts from Area M. They include: top – harpoon end blades; middle-end scrapers and a concave scraper; bottom blade core and prismatic blades. The object at right is a fragment of a soapstone bowl mended with a chipped stone “butterfly”.  (Tuck 2005)

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.

Recent Period artifacts from Saddle Island West: upper row, projectile points; middle left, flake scrapers; middle right, bipolar core, and linear flakes; bottom row, bifaces. Photo by Jack Martin, ETV, Memorial University. (Tuck 1989)

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.

Polished slate harpoon end blade (left) and polished nephrite drill bit are typical of late precontact and early contact period Inuit of the Labrador coast. (Tuck 2005)

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. 


6 thoughts on “Who else was on Saddle Island?

    1. Hi
      Thanks for the comment. Scattered pieces of soapstone and other artifacts attributed to the Thule-Inuit were found all over Red Bay.

      You worked in Red Bay?

  1. ’84 and ’85 field seasons, primarily on the burials in Area L. Got to dive on the wrecks with Parks while I was there in ’85. Did a short contract with the underwater unit later that Fall.

  2. Did some field work, land and underwater excavation and impact assessments through most of the 80’s. Got into museums and archives in the 90’s. Mostly archival work since then with a little bit of research and exhibit curation now and then.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s