Part 2: If we only had context …

Two weeks ago I wrote about private artifact collections on the island, this post will deal with some private collections from Labrador. Although it is illegal for  the general public to search for sites or collect artifacts according to the Historic Resources Act, private collections do exist. As previously noted, 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 ‘found’ objects to the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).

Some of the best examples in the province of private individuals either turning over artifacts to the province or informing the PAO about artifacts/sites come from southern Labrador. I am thinking of two cases in particular.

In the first case, the two collectors loaned their collections to the PAO so they could be cataloged and analyzed and then the collections were returned to the collectors with the caveats that they would stop collecting and that the collections would eventually be turned over to the province.

Some of those collections were the only evidence we have of the Cow Head complex in southern Labrador. You’ve seen those artifacts before if you follow this blog. If we knew the exact context of those artifacts, we would have a much better understanding of the Cow Head complex.

Cow Head complex bi-pointed bifaces from southern Labrador.
Top row, first artifact on the left, Cow Head complex Recent Indian broad bladed, contracting stemmed projectile points from southern Labrador.

Along with the possible Cow Head complex biface, the photo above has biface bases from both the Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Indian cultures. Some of the bifaces we can ascribe culture to, however with most we need the exact context to positively identify culture.

Maritime Archaic, Rattler’s Bight complex

In some cases, as with the above photo, we can ascribe an archaeological culture to out of context artifacts but in this case just knowing the culture raises more questions. The people of the Rattler’s Bight complex are part of the Northern Branch of the Maritime Archaic (recently suggested to be named the Labrador Archaic). People of the Rattler’s Bight complex tend to live mostly in the northern half of Labrador, what were they doing on the southern coast?

Maritime Archaic arrowheads
Crucifixes from a southern Labrador private collection
Maritime Archaic bifaces from a southern Labrador private collection

The photo directly above shows an assortment of 17 Maritime Archaic bifaces, we know they were all found at one site. So, does that mean it was a biface manufacturing site or just a habitation site where some broken bifaces were refitted to shafts? If we had their exact context, we might be able to answer that question.

The other example of a southern Labrador private collection would be the Spingle cache from L’Anse au Clair. In this case, the collection was donated to the province.

Spingle cache, 9 Ramah chert bifaces.

While doing archaeological work in southern Labrador in 2005 I was shown a small private collection. The collector allowed me to borrow his material which was taken back to St. John’s where I had the time to properly catalog and photograph the collection. The material was then returned to the collector who agreed to stop collecting and to eventually turn over the collection to the province.

Assorted bifaces and slate axe I cataloged in 2005

Four of the artifacts in the photo above are from the Maritime Archaic culture. The slate axe on the bottom left is likely Maritime Archaic but without the exact context of the find, we can’t say that for sure. The other questionable artifact is the reddish-brown side-notched biface (second from the top, right side). There is some question in Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology about the transition from the late Maritime Archaic to the Intermediate Indian culture. This biface looks like it may have come from this period. If we knew the exact context of the find, it may have added some information to the discussion of the period between the late Maritime Archaic and the Intermediate Indian culture which is largely unknown.

Inuit soapstone lamp

In 2007 a Labrador resident found an Inuit soapstone lamp. Unfortunately, the area where it was found has two archaeological sites in close proximity. If we knew the exact context of the find we could confidently say which site the lamp was from.

Unusual biface (Loring)
Unusual biface (Loring)

In 2001, an unusual biface was found in a community on the Labrador coast (Two photos above). The biface is unusual for it’s form and the bright red coloured material. If we knew the exact context of the find, we may have been able to identify which culture made the artifact. It would have been interesting to know if the biface was made where it was found, or if it was something that was traded into the area. If it was traded into the area, we could have learned about ancient trade networks. The exact context of the find could have helped to answer these questions.

Ramah chert biface

A Ramah chert biface (photo above) was found during the construction of a building in 2003. Once again, the form of the artifact is unusual so identifying the culture of the manufacturer without the context is next to impossible.

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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5 thoughts on “Part 2: If we only had context …

  1. Terry J. Deveau

    Regarding the photo of the point with thw Swiss Army Knife on the parquet table top, which I presume someone sent you, I have to ask, “what was this person thinking?” Neither the table top nor the knife give any scale, as these items come in all sizes, as do projectile points. Is a ruler or tape measure really so hard to have handy?

    1. nlarchaeology

      Thanks Terry. You are right of course there is no scale, I suspect the photo was just a spur of the moment thing and the archaeologist was going to just use the photo for his own reference. I know the archaeologist involved and he is a pretty smart guy (No, it was not me.) Thankfully we do have the B&W photo with the scale. That gives us a good idea of the size of the biface.

      1. Terry J. Deveau

        Oops, I missed the fact that the colour photo and the B&W were the same artefact. My bad. 🙂

      2. nlarchaeology

        Ha Ha Ha
        No problem I should have said the two were the same artifact in the post.

  2. Re: The red biface with the missing tang illustrated above (Stephen Loring’s photo.) I believe the exact geographical context is well known to almost everyone in Natuashish. It was found in the course of installation of power lines to Natuashish and unearthed by machinery. The find site was in an area which had already been surveyed by professional archaeologists and declared devoid of historic resources.

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