The City of St. John’s claims and promotes itself as “Oldest City in North America“. So, it should come as no surprise that within the municipal boundaries of the city there are nearly 140 recorded archaeological sites. By far the majority of these sites (just over 90 of them) are found within a few hundred metres of the harbour. All of these sites, with the exception of three known sites, were based on a European occupation.
The City of St. John’s website goes on to describe itself as:
Oldest City in North America
For more than 500 years, St. John’s has been visited by European explorers, adventurers, soldiers and pirates. St. John’s, the provincial capital, is the economic and cultural centre of Newfoundland and Labrador. Discovered by John Cabot in 1497 and later claimed as the first permanent settlement in North America for the British Empire by Sir Humphrey Gilbert, St. John’s has a rich and colourful history.
Being an archaeologist with a specialty in precontact archaeology, statements are inherently untrue. How can someone discover a land that is already occupied? While there may not have been aboriginal people living in the area of St. John’s when it was “discovered” by Europeans, and given the level of destruction the land has seen in the 500 year European occupation, we may never be able to answer this question, there is evidence that aboriginal people made use of the area.
Perhaps the earliest aboriginal evidence in St. John’s that we know of comes from James P. Howley’s 1915 book The Beothucks Or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants Of Newfoundland. He wrote “No. 7 is a perfectly made lance head and is interesting from the fact that it was obtained at the mouth of the small river, flowing into the Harbour of St John’s. It was frequently stated that the Indians did not frequent this neighbourhood.” (p.341) Of course in 1915 Howley, was not aware of the full aboriginal history of the Province and he attributed the stemmed ground stone spearhead to the Beothuk. Today we know that similar spearheads have been found on numerous Maritime Archaic Indian sites throughout the Province. Given that the last known Maritime Archaic Indian site on the Island is about 3200 years old, then we can assume this spearhead is at least that age.
In the 1960s another precontact artifact was collected in St. John’s. We can’t be certain which culture made it because it is incomplete. However, we suspect it is from the Maritime Archaic culture. The artifact is a broken spearhead made of Ramah chert. More information on this artifact can be found in the Provincial Archaeology Office 2010 Archaeology Review March 2011 Volume 9.
Another precontact stone artifact was found just outside St. John’s on Thomas Pond in 1994, which is just past Paddy’s Pond. This time it was a complete biface (likely a spearhead) and it looks like it is from the early part of the Recent Indian period. On the Island this group is made up of the Cow Head complex, the unrelated (as far as we can tell) and contemporaneous Beaches complex and the Little Passage complex who are Beaches complex descendants. The Beaches-Little Passage complexes are the precontact ancestors of the Beothuk.
I’ll be the first to admit that three bifaces do not indicate intensive use of the area by precontact people. But, it does suggest they were here. We know for sure that the Beothuk were in Ferryland and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they were in St. John’s. There are reports that Dorset Palaeoeskimo artifacts (endblades) have been found in the city but we have not been able to confirm this yet. Nevertheless, precontact aboriginal groups did make use of the area.
So what other archaeological sites are known to exist inside of North America’s Oldest City? Thanks to two major projects we have a much better understanding of downtown St. John’s. The first project was carried out by Memorial University of Newfoundland Archaeology Professor Dr. Peter Pope. He conducted a multi-year survey and excavation project in Downtown St. John’s. The second project resulted from the impact assessment work conducted before and during the Harbour Interceptor Sewer Project that went through much of downtown St. John’s. This multi-year survey and excavation archaeology project was carried out by Gerald Penney and Associates.
Dr. Pope worked for nearly 10 years in downtown St. John’s and found 19 sites. The sites date from the 16th through to the 21st centuries and were all created by people of European descent. They were a variety of sites ranging from industrial to commercial and domestic sites. Dr. Pope’s 16th century date comes from… “The earliest artifact recovered, the decorated body sherd of a Totnes cook pot of c. 1500 to 1650 (see figure), fell out of the test wall and is, unfortunately, of uncertain provenience, though it comes from one of these events. Again, it probably reflects a redeposited artifact. Its age and provenance are reminders that the St. John’s waterfront was occupied by fishermen from the Dartmouth area by the end of the 16th century.” (Pope 1995) While a single artifact is slim evidence of the 16th century, Dr. Pope correctly points out that it is a reminder that this area was occupied by Europeans in the 16th century. In the same way the three single precontact artifacts are a reminder that aboriginal people used the area too.
Among the numerous other things that Dr. Pope’s work demonstrated was that the St. John’s Harbourfront has undergone a long and complex history. A great example of this complexity can be seen in the profile diagram below from one of his excavations on Temperance Street. The diagram shows that at more than two metres deep in Event 35 he found a layer that contained charcoal and iron fragments.
As successful as Dr. Pope’s work was downtown, the work conducted by Gerald Penney and Associates (GPA) for the Harbour Interceptor Sewer project more than doubled the number of sites found by Dr. Pope. GPA found just over 50 sites (and revisited numerous known sites) dating from the 18th century up to the 21st century. Once again the sites were European or their descendants and ranged from industrial to commercial and domestic sites. They include the base of the former Customs House which was found in the road below the War Memorial.
GPA also found numerous underground sewers and waste water drains.
GPA also discovered plenty of evidence of the great fires that swept thought downtown St. John’s in the 19th century.
Any city which bills itself as the oldest city anywhere likely also has had a long relationship with the Military and St. John’s is certainly no exception. There are numerous examples of military related sites in St. John’s, many of which have been investigated archaeologically. These sites date from the 17th century up to post World War II. For example:
- Cape Spear and the related Blackhead Dummy Batteries, Fort Amherst and nearby Fort Charles, (South) Castle Battery, and Frederick’s Battery.
- Signal Hill and the related Battery Waldegrave (built on the site of the old North Castle Battery), Chain Rock Battery, Queen’s Battery, Wallace’s Battery, Duke of York’s Battery, and Carronade Battery. Battery Waldegrave was later rebuilt and named Fort Waldegrave. Chain Rock Battery was also rebuilt and renamed Fort Chain Rock.
- Quidi Vidi Battery, Red Cliff Battery and Haye’s Battery.
- There were numerous other Forts in the city including Fort William, Fort St. George and Fort Townshend.
Also, there are at least two known military aircraft wrecks within the city limits that have been investigated archaeologically.
I have no doubt that this is not the complete list of military related sites in St. John’s but it does give you an idea of the impact the military has had on the City. Most of these places still have remains in place that are part of an archaeological site.
There are also several underwater sites in the Harbour itself or just at the entrance to the harbour.
Looking away from downtown there are still lots of sites such as O’Brien’s Farm which contains the remains of an early 19th century Irish farmstead. This site will be the focus of the MUN Archaeology Department Field School for this coming summer. There is also the site of North Bank on Long Pond which has a concrete foundation and other features of a 19th century estate farm belonging to Joseph Noad.
Being North America’s Oldest City means this city has had a long history which is certainly reflected in the remarkable amount of archaeology documented here. No doubt there is still more to be found and properly recorded.