Private Collection Part 1

Over the years that I have been an archaeologist, I’ve seen a lot of private collections*, including several from southern Labrador with precontact lithics that rivals what the Provincial Museum has in their collection. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen huge collections of rocks that the collector believed were artifacts. Generally, those people are not happy to hear they’ve only managed to collect rocks and not genuine artifacts. A few weeks ago the most eclectic private collection I’ve ever seen was given to the PAO. It included older books about archaeology, precontact lithic and bone artifacts, historic artifacts and even some fossils. The collection was from the Northern Peninsula and the Port au Choix area in particular. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the collector for donating this material.

This collection has such interesting material that I thought would make a great blog post. However, there is so much material that I am going to have to divide it into two posts; one focusing on the precontact artifacts and the other focusing on the historic artifacts.

Private collection

Let’s start with some of the more common precontact artifacts; flakes.

Assorted chert flakes

Numerous stone flakes are made during the process of making stone tools. The flakes are similar to the sawdust left behind when making something from wood except that the flakes can be, and often are, still used for cutting and scraping. Many of the artifacts and flakes in this collection had scotch tape attached to them at some point in the past; evidence of this can be seen as a shiny surface on some of these flakes. One or two of the flakes in this photo maybe micro-blades, a sharp straight edge.

There are at least 46 known archaeology sites in and around Port au Choix, 32 of these sites have some Pre-Inuit content. Not surprising, much of this collection consists of Pre-Inuit artifacts from the largest Pre-Inuit site at Phillip’s Garden.

The first three artifacts are Dorset Pre-Inuit and the last artifact is Groswater Pre-Inuit

The two black artifacts in the above photo are diagnostic Dorset Pre-Inuit endblades. Along with the overall shape, these artifacts are diagnostic because they have been tip-fluted. In Newfoundland and Labrador, only the Dorset Pre-Inuit tip fluted their bifaces. Tip fluting is a process where the maker of the artifact removes at least two large flakes from the tip of the biface on one face. This leaves a ridge or keel of chert down the midline of the biface. The grey artifact is a piece of ground slate that was likely part of a Dorset Pre-Inuit endblade. The last artifact on the end is typical of the earlier Groswater Pre-Inuit.

Assorted artifacts

This photo shows several types of artifacts including two biface preforms (artifact one and four), part of a microblade core (artifact two), a microblade (artifact three) and utilized flakes (artifacts five and six). Biface preforms are incomplete bifaces, the manufacturer may have rejected them for some reason or they may have never been finished. A microblade is a long thin piece of stone, usually rectangular in shape, that is very sharp one on two sides. They are like the Swiss Army knife of the precontact period; they are often hafted in a wooden or bone handle. A microblade core is part of a stone that is used to produce microblades. Utilized flakes are flakes that show signs of wear. They may have been used for cutting or scraping various items.

Various pieces of soapstone pots
Various pieces of soapstone pots (same artifacts as above)

While not strictly culturally diagnostic, these soapstone pot fragments are likely Dorset based on the quantity of Dorset sites in the Port au Choix area and the style of the pots.

Thus far, most of the artifacts discussed are typical of what is found on Pre-Inuit sites throughout the province. One of the things that makes the Port au Choix area so special is the preservation of organic artifacts.

This next series of photos are an example of the kind of organic preservation at Port au Choix. I sent the next three photos of a bone artifact to a Dorset organics specialist and she believes the object was a ‘sled shoe rather than runner because other than having been covered by some ice or mud and ice mixed, they were in contact with the snow/ice, and the runner would have fit into the groove (visible in the second photo). The unfinished surface opposite the groove suggests it is a preform.’

Sled shoe preform
Sled shoe preform
The unfinished surface opposite the groove with a ridge running down the length of the bone

The next two shots are of a finished bone sled shoe with a visible gouged line hole for lashing the shoe to the runner.

This is a finished sled shoe with gouged line holes for lashing the shoe to the runner
Close up of the gouged line holes for lashing the shoe to the runner

The Dorset organics specialist I consulted thought the bone artifact below was a ‘preform (for a wedge?) or possibly an exhausted core from which some segment was cut.’

Wedge preform

One of the main reasons Port au Choix was so popular with the Dorset was the annual seal migration which passed right by the Port au Choix peninsula. And right at the end of the Port au Choix peninsula is Phillips Garden, likely one of the largest Pre-Inuit sites known, certainly the largest in the province. From the Parks Canada website:

“The site at Phillip’s Garden is very rich and one of the largest Dorset sites in the eastern Canadian Arctic. The site contains at least 50 house depressions and thousands of artifacts. Many of the bone artifacts were preserved in the alkaline soils thanks to Port au Choix’s limestone geology. Among these artifacts were many harp seal bones, indicating the importance of this resource to their survival. Unlike the Groswater Paleoeskimo, it is believed that the Dorset occupation was a much more permanent settlement.”

Seal skull from Phillips Garden, Port au Choix
Written on the bottom of the skull ‘1960 Phillips Garens Dorset cult Seal Skull’
Ramah chert biface fragment
Another view of the Ramah chert biface from the private collection

For me, the most interesting and exciting artifact in this Port au Choix collection is this large Ramah chert biface fragment. Because of its overall size, this is likely not a Pre-Inuit artifact; the Pre-Inuit are known for much smaller and much more carefully made artifacts. Another reason I think this piece is so interesting is because of the rarity of bifaces this size. On the island, there are only a few sites with bifaces of this size, including the Beaches in Bonavista Bay and the Change Islands cache. The bifaces at those sites were not made of Ramah chert. However, a site with large Ramah chert bifaces was found at Port au Choix. Elmer Harp described this site in his 1964 book ‘The Cultural Affinities of the Newfoundland Dorset Eskimo.’ Harp recorded that in 1946 Walter Billard dug a cache of 64 artifacts and flakes from his garden, all made from Ramah chert. Billard allowed Harp to have eight of the artifacts and Billard’s brother later gave Harp a ninth artifact. Most of the Harp specimens were of a similar size and shape as the biface above. Given that the artifact pictured above is from Port au Choix, the rarity of such large Ramah chert bifaces and the cache of large Ramah bifaces found in Port au Choix, the above biface is likely part of that original cache.

Ramah chert bifaces from the Billard cache. Harp 1964
Ramah chert bifaces from the Billard cache. Harp 1964

In two weeks I’ll discuss the historic artifacts found in this Northern Peninsula collection.

*Private archaeology collections in Newfoundland and Labrador can be (and should be) turned over to or loaned to the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) for study/photography/inventory. Usually, the PAO will return the collection to the collector. Private collectors should be aware that even though the collections are in their possession they still belong to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. While collecting artifacts is illegal the PAO does not usually confiscate a collection, they will, however, advise that the collector stop collecting artifacts.

3 thoughts on “Private Collection Part 1

  1. I am a filmmaker and I am in Newfoundland. I’d love to talk to you. I am only here for a week looking for TV show ideas and I’d love to ask you some questions. Please email me or call.


    Brigham Cottam

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