Archaeologists are, from time to time, involved in the excavation of human remains. On my first archaeology field trip, I was part of a team surveying a point of land just outside of a small town on Newfoundland’s east coast. We went into the general store to buy provisions for the day and started a conversation with the person working behind the counter. When he found out we were doing an archaeological survey one of the first things he pointed out to us was where the town cemetery was, thinking we’d want to dig there!
Generally, the excavation of human remains in this province is not done unless the remains are threatened. This was the case in 1997 in Greenspond.
During the preparation for a Come Home Year celebration the workers were removing topsoil from near the shoreline to cover a walking trail. On June 30th 1997, the workers found a long leather boot that would have extended from the knee to the foot. Inside the boot were human leg bones from the knee down.
With this discovery, the RCMP was contacted and they collected the remains and secured the site. During their investigation they learned that another boot and leg bone were recovered a couple of days before the June 30th discovery. All the material was sent to the Province’s Chief Medical Examiner who determined that the case was not criminal and that it was historic. The material was then handed over to the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).
The June 30th remains include a leg bone inside a stocking that is inside a leather military-style boot that comes up over the knee, another small bone, part of a boot sole, two gunflints, leather button and another mass of leather. The second boot is more open than the June 30th boot and the bone is white instead of the reddish brown colour of the June 30th bones.
In July, MUN’s Physical Anthropologist, an Archaeology Graduate Student and a member of the PAO spent a day and a half excavating the disturbed and eroding grave. Between the people of Greenspond collecting soil for their trail and the RCMP trying to determine if the remains were part of a criminal investigation the area was very disturbed when the archaeology team arrived. They spent the first half-day excavating disturbed sod and peat. They recovered two leather buttons, one bone (?) handle, one key fragment, one nail, one knife (?) blade fragment, numerous leather and textile fragments, two gunflints, one leather heel/sole, humerus and two vertebrae.
On the second day, they continued digging through the disturbed soil and found one rib bone, a few leather fragments and one leather button. Everything found during the excavation was in the sod at a depth of no more than 10 centimetres.
Once they finished digging through the disturbed soil, the archaeology team established a grid on the site and dug through the peat in the area of the original discovery. The walls of their excavation pits showed no signs of cultural layers or an excavation pit that would indicate a dug grave.
The archaeology team believes that the remains were not from a burial because there was no sign of a grave outline in their excavations; the recovered remains were found only 10 centimetres below sod; the artifacts recovered were valuable, for example leather boots and clothing; and a key which was used to open something.
Conservators and archaeologists have examined the artifacts, including the clothing, recovered with the remains in an effort to determine the age of the site. The recovered artifacts could not narrow down the date beyond the late 17th century or early 19th century.
The knee-high leather boot style was popular during the period from the 1620s to the 1690s. This boot style usually had boot-hose to protect the stockings. Within the Greenspond boot were two types of wool knit and tabby woven wool stockings. These could represent the boot-hose and wool stocking.
Unfortunately, the knee-high boot was also popular in the late 18th century to early 19th century. The style came from a growing interest in horse riding which led to the rise in the jockey boot. These had a turned-over top and cloth straps. They became popular again in the 1830s with little change in style but by this time they were only for a sporting fashion.
It’s unfortunate but we may never know who this person was, where he came from or how he ended up on the shoreline near Greenspond. We do know Greenspond was settled by the late 17th century, so perhaps he was from the area. It’s possible he was hunting and was killed somehow, he likely had a knife and the gunflints indicate the presence of a gun. Or perhaps he had a boating accident and he either washed ashore or made it to shore then perished. We will likely never know.
Mathias, Cathy 2008 Greenspond Boot.
Mercer, Delphina 1997 Greenspond Investigation, 1997.