Part 1: If we only had context …

I have seen several private collections of artifacts and while legally the general public is not supposed to search for sites or collect artifacts, according to the Historic Resources Act, these collections do exist. Artifacts out of context are nice to look at but they don’t tell archaeologists much more than a person was in an area. It is the context of where an artifact was found, such as its depth in the soil and whether it was inside a house pit or next to the fire place that archaeologists are interested in and are trained to record. As it is illegal to sell artifacts, many people donate them to the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).

In practice, when the PAO knows of a private collection they’ll try to pinpoint where the artifacts came from and if this can be done they’ll record the location as an archaeological site which will be protected by the Historic Resources Act. Sometimes the artifacts will result in full scale archaeological work being done on a site, that is if anything is left in context at the site.

Ramah chert biface from Northern Peninsula

The artifact above was shown to me in 2005 by a gentleman who found it while tending to his garden in Ship Cove on the Northern Peninsula. It is an unusual shape for the precontact groups who inhabited Newfoundland so I can’t say which cultural group created it. I do know it is made from Ramah chert which doesn’t help with a cultural designation. If it had been found in context by an archaeologist we may have been able to answer the question of which group created it.

White chert artifact

This artifact was found by a gentleman in the Trinity Bay area while doing work around his cabin. The material is a patinated white chert that is referred to by Newfoundland archaeologists as Trinity Bay chert because the material shows up almost exclusively in the Trinity Bay area. We’ve recently come to suspect the geologic source for this chert is from the Conception Bay group formation on the Avalon Peninsula. Initially I thought this artifact was a large bifacial knife but I was puzzled by the smooth area of grinding on one end which is really visible on the right side of the artifact in the top photo. Grinding like this is typical in Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert in the Trinity Bay area (See artifact on the right in the link). Upon closer inspection I realized that the grinding formed the bit end for a Dorset Palaeoeskimo adze. The area where this artifact was found was investigated by an archaeologist in 2010 and nothing else was found.

Trinity Bay chert biface (scale is inches)

The photo of this biface was emailed to me in 2006.  Like the artifact above it, this artifact is made from Trinity Bay chert and is from the Trinity Bay area. We know the beach where this biface was found but not the exact area of the find. This biface was likely made by a person of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo culture. If we had the exact context of the find then maybe we could be certain of the cultural attribution and whether there is a full site in the area or if this biface was just a spot find of a single artifact.

Maritime Archaic Indian gouge
Maritime Archaic Indian gouge

This Maritime Archaic Indian gouge was found by a gentleman in South Brook at the bottom of Halls Bay, Notre Dame Bay. These gouges are not an unusual find on Archaic sites; we think they were used to make things like large dug out canoes. Knowing the exact contest of the find may have led to evidence for the tools intended purpose.

Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot
Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone lamp
Close up of a Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone lamp

The above three shots are of a soapstone pot fragment and a soapstone lamp fragment (the third shot is a close up of the lamp fragment). Both fragments came from a large Palaeoeskimo site near Port aux Basques. The site has both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo occupations, however, the pot fragments were likely made by people of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo culture. The pot, used for cooking, would likely have been suspended above the lamp, which would have provided the heat for what was cooking in the pot. All the black charring on the inside of the lamp would have been from burning blubber, likely from seal. The bottom of the lamp is clear of charring because the blubber burns so hot it prevents charring. These artifacts tend to be used inside Dorset houses. If we knew the exact context of their recovery we might have been able to figure out if they had been used contemporaneously.

Maritime Archaic Indian axe
Maritime Archaic Indian gouge/adze
Maritime Archaic Indian (?) plummet/net/line sinker

The above three artifacts are from the Northern Peninsula and were shown to another archaeologist a few years ago. The first artifact is an axe, likely made from slate, that has been ground to a sharp end (Visible on the left side of the photo). Most people would be surprised at just how sharp an edge you can get with slate; I’ve seen a slate knife used to easily cut through leather. The middle artifact looks like it had a dual purpose, an adze on one end and a gouge on the other. (Follow the link to see how an adze would have been hafted to a wooden handle. Follow this link to read a discussion about an adze/gouge.) The last artifact I assume was made by a Maritime Archaic Indian, but but I am not positive. Again, knowing the exact context of the find could have helped solve that issue. We believe it is a net/line sinker or plummet that would have been used to hold down some kind of net/line. The gouged lines would have allowed some kind of twine or rope to be tied around the artifact.

Slate biface
Slate biface

The above artifact was found in a scallop dragging net in Long Harbour, Fortune Bay. The scallop drag was in water that was between 30-90 m deep. No other artifacts were recovered. The artifact was examined by a geologist who summarized it as being made of slate, about 52 cm long, about 7 cm wide, about 1 cm in average thickness and flattened convex in cross-section. This is not a typical precontact artifact for Newfoundland and Labrador so saying which group made it is next to impossible.

Bonavista Bay historic European private collection
Precontact private collection from Bonavista Bay
Precontact private collection from Bonavista Bay

The above three photos are of private collections from the northern Bonavista Bay area around Lumsden and Cape Freels. The first is an assortment of late 19th and 20th century kaolin smoking pipe bowl fragments. The second is a mixture of precontact artifacts with a representative artifact from every precontact culture that was ever on the island of Newfoundland; MAI = Maritime Archaic Indian; GW = Groswater Palaeoeskimo; D = Dorset Palaeoeskimo; and RI = Recent Indian. The Recent Indian bifaces look like they maybe Little Passage complex, but because they are out of context it’s hard to say for sure from a photo. Most are bifacially flaked chert artifacts with the exception of the green/grey artifact on the bottom right marked with a D. That is a ground slate Dorset Palaeoeskimo harpoon head. The bottom photo shows a variety of precontact artifacts from another private collection. The black biface labelled RI looks to be a Beaches complex biface, but again, because they are out of context it’s hard to say for sure from a photo.

If you want to turn in a collection or report the presence of an archaeological site you can contact the Provincial Archaeology Office.


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