When I first learned about the precontact history of Newfoundland and Labrador I was taught that there was no ceramic period in the province. In fact, when I was at Memorial University of Newfoundland learning this material, and if I recall correctly, I was told that the lack of ceramics here is one of the reasons we have different categories for our precontact past than the rest of the Maritime Provinces. For example, we do not have a Woodland period; ceramics are a culturally diagnostic element in Woodland collections.

In this week’s post, I’ll discuss the instances of aboriginal ceramics that have been found in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador; right now there are just eight such instances that I am aware of. It seems most of these are either directly related to Recent Period occupations or there are Recent Period occupations near where the ceramics were found. Is the evidence enough to suggest the Recent Period in Newfoundland and Labrador should have ceramics added to their diagnostic “tool kit”? A diagnostic “tool kit” is made up of typical tools that archaeologists use to identify an occupation as Recent Period as opposed to another precontact group. Before I get into the ceramics I will present a little background information.

The Recent Period Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador began approximately 2000 years ago on both sides of the Strait of Belle Isle. The connection between people of the Recent Period and earlier precontact Indigenous people of the province, such as the Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Period, is not completely understood if such a relationship existed at all.

Traditionally, the Recent Period on the Island was made up of the Cow Head (ca.1900-1000 B.P.), Beaches (early Newfoundland Recent Period ca.1900-800 B.P.) & Little Passage complexes (late Newfoundland Recent Period ca.800 B.P.-European Contact). The Cow Head complex appears on the Island around the start of the Recent Period. Research suggests they are not part of the Newfoundland Recent Period cultural continuum (Hartery 2001). The early & late Newfoundland Recent Period complexes form this cultural continuum where the culture of the early complex slowly becomes the late complex. The Beothuk are not part of the precontact Recent Period Tradition, but rather are descendants of the people of this tradition.

As on the Island of Newfoundland, the Recent Period Tradition in Labrador is divided into an early and late period. The culture of the early Labrador Recent Period (traditionally known as the Daniel Rattle complex ca. 2000 B.P. – 1000 B.P.) slowly becomes the culture of the late Labrador Recent Period (traditionally known as the Point Revenge complex ca. 1000 B.P. – 350 B.P.). Archaeologists believe that these precontact complexes form a two-thousand-year-old cultural continuum that represents the precontact Recent Period Tradition in Labrador. There is not a consensus amongst archaeologists as to whether the Innu who live in Labrador today are descendants of the people of this tradition.

The first instance of possible precontact ceramics being found in the province is recorded by Junius Bird in 1934 at Avertok (Hopedale), Labrador. Bird described the piece as: “Lying directly on the surface of the paving stones at the inner end of the entrance tunnel to House 4 was a small grit-tempered potsherd of Indian manufacture. It is from the rim of a straight-lipped vessel, decorated on the inner edge with short diagonal incised lines and on the outer surface with an irregular row of indentations directly above a stamped impression showing parallel rows of small sharp indentations (Fig. 13). In section, it diminishes from an approximate thickness of 1/2 to about 1/4 inch at the upper edge, the inner surface curving outward.”

Ceramic sherd found by Bird at Avertok. (Loring)
Ceramic sherd found by Bird at Avertok (Loring).

As far as we know, the Inuit culture in Labrador made no use of such ceramics. However, Stephen Loring who has seen the artifact noted that it was “…heavily encrusted (“saturated”) with what almost certainly is burned sea-mammal blubber –as is typically seen on steatite lamps and bowls.” (Loring, Pers. Comm.). Loring also speculates that a small precontact late Recent Period component near this site (just over 100 m away) was likely the source for the ceramic (Loring 1992:279-280). Given that just about every other piece of precontact ceramic in the province was found in or near a Recent Period component, as will be discussed below, Loring is probably correct in his speculation on the origin of this artifact.

In 1952, James Pendergast found several small grit-tempered ceramic sherds from a site he discovered near the airport at Terrington Basin in Goose Bay (Loring 1992:279). Unfortunately, nothing else is recorded about the site or the ceramics.

In 1975 near the community of Pinware, Labrador, James Tuck and Robert McGhee found “…a small sherd of dentate stamped pottery and two sherds of soapstone as well as small flakes of chert of a type characteristic of Dorset Eskimo assemblages.” (Tuck & McGhee 1975). Again, unfortunately, little else was written about the site or the ceramic. A nearby component of this site produced a hearth in association with flakes of Ramah chert, an end scraper, and charcoal. Based on current knowledge, it is possible this site was occupied by Labrador Recent Period people who relied heavily on Ramah chert.

During the excavation of the L’Anse à Flamme site in 1980, a member of Gerald Penney’s field crew, James Tillotson, found the rim sherd of a Point Peninsula pot. According to Penney 1981, this artifact was excavated in situ 35cm below the surface in a secure Dorset Pre-Inuit context (1981:171). Penney goes on to describe the sherd: “J.V. Wright confirmed James Tuck’s initial identification and he estimated a manufacture date of A.D. 500. The single Dorset date for L’Anse à Flamme is A.D. 615 (S-1977:1335 +/- 115 B.P.). Wright describes the sherd (Figure 2) as being decorated with a sloppy form of dentate stamp that approaches a pseudo-scallop shell impression even though it superficially looks like cord wrapped stick. It has an incipent collar with an exterior chevron motif (personal communication, 23 September 1980).” (1981:171). The L’Anse à Flamme site has Maritime Archaic, Pre-Inuit, Recent Period and European occupations.

L'Anse à Flamme post sherd. (G. Penney)
L’Anse à Flamme potsherd (G. Penney).

In 1982, Stephen Loring found ceramic fragments from a single pot while excavating Area II at the Recent Period site of Kamarsuk. He described the sherds as: “The sherds, all from a single vessel, include one that contains a part of the rim, one that is from the portion of the vessel where the straight sides curve towards the conical base, and the remainder which are from the upper portion of the vessel close to the rim. They appear to be part of a small conical pot with smooth straight walls. The maximum thickness of the body sherds is 140 mm; at the rim the vessel’s walls have thinned to 88 mm. This is the first incidence of prehistoric ceramics recovered from an undisturbed context in Labrador.” (1985:128).

Kamarsuk ceramics. (Loring)
Kamarsuk ceramics (Loring).
The site of Kamarsuk were located to the left of the peninsula on the gentle raised beach. (Loring)
The site of Kamarsuk was located to the left of the peninsula on the gently raised beach (Loring).

During the excavation of the extensive Basque site on Saddle Island in the 1980s, a member of James Tuck’s crew recovered a piece of aboriginal ceramic between the roof fall and drain of a Basque structure. Tuck described the piece as: “It is the castellation (or “peak” on the rim) and is decorated with a design that is known to Iroquoian archaeologists and a “corn ear” motif. It is quite unlike the poorly-fired ceramics rarely produced by Recent Indians in Labrador and hints strongly that somebody from up the St. Lawrence visited Red Bay in the early contact period.” (2005:17).

This piece of ceramic was examined in depth by Claude Chapdelaine and Gregory G. Kennedy. They established the chemical composition of the piece and compared it to local clay sources in Labrador and selected samples from Saint Lawrence Iroquoian sites of the Quebec City area. With regard to the style of the sherd they write, “The Red Bay rim sherd is undoubtedly of Late Woodland style and it looks more like a Saint Lawrence Iroquoian vessel than any other Iroquoian ceramic tradition. However, the results of the neutron activation analysis seem to support the possibility that the specimen from the Strait of Belle Isle may well be a very good Algonquian imitation of a distinct Iroquoian pottery style.”  However, with regard to the chemical composition of the piece they write, “The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians seem to have produced some pottery while away from their villages. Under these conditions, it is still possible that the rim sherd found at Red Bay was made by an Iroquoian potter during one of those journeys down the Saint Lawrence River.” (1990:42-43). So, the artifact was either made by an Algonquian potter imitating an Iroquoian style or an Iroquoian potter using unusual clay.

Saddle Island pot sherd.
Saddle Island potsherd.

Again on Saddle Island, but this time in 1987, James Tuck’s archaeology crew recovered more aboriginal ceramic fragments, this time in direct association with Recent Period hearths. Tuck describes the fragments as: “…tempered with coarse grit and appear to be underfired, for the thick walls are severely delaminated and friable. The sherds appear to pertain to small, thick vessels, possibly with conical bases. The more complete of the two has a castellated rim with exterior decoration consisting of three rows of horizontal impressed (?) lines on an incipient collar set off by from the neck by a horizontal row of oblique impressions. The neck is decorated by oblique plaits of cord-wrapped paddle (?) impressions (Figure 3). The second vessel has a row of oblique impressions below the rim, and oblique, cris-cross and horizontal incised lines on the neck.” (1987:7).

Tuck believed these pieces were similar to the material collected by Loring. “The underfired nature and thick paste of the vessels compare with ceramics reported by Loring (1985:128) from the central Labrador coast, although the central Labrador examples specimens lacked any trace of decoration. Whether these ceramics represent an incipient local tradition, or are imports from somewhere up the St. Lawrence, is not presently known.” (Tuck 1987:7-8).

Saddle Island has an extensive late Recent Period and contact period Indigenous occupation. In fact, several Indigenous hearths have European artifacts in them suggesting the potential of contact.

Saddle Island pot sherds.
Saddle Island potsherds.
Saddle Island pot sherds.
Saddle Island potsherds.

Based on information from Stephen Loring, Ponius Nuk from Sheshatshiu has found traces of a Recent Period site near his cabin at Shipiskan Lake, a tributary of the Kanairiktok River. A shallow ephemeral camp-spot to one side of the cabin produced an assemblage of plain grit-tempered ceramics associated with Ramah chert debitage (Loring 2013:31).

Cord-marked and dentate pottery from Shipiskan Lake (Loring).
View to the north looking past Ponius Nuk’s cabin to Shipiskan Lake. Grit-tempered ceramics and Ramah chert debitage have been recovered next to the small outbuilding on the left. (Loring)
View to the north looking past Ponius Nuk’s cabin to Shipiskan Lake. Grit-tempered ceramics and Ramah chert debitage have been recovered next to the small outbuilding on the left (Loring).

At the Recent Period component of the Gould site in 1999, then graduate student Mike Teal found 290 pottery sherds estimated to be from seven different pots in two areas; near a charcoal concentration and near a large depression. This is the largest concentration of ceramics found, thus far, in the province. Teal writes: “All the pottery is composed of a grit tempered clay that varies in condition from highly deteriorated and crumbly, to quite solid; most pottery sherds fall somewhere between these two extremes. Also, several sherds are encrusted with a hard black substance which is presumably related to food preparation. Sixty-one of the 290 sherds could be identified to sherd type, and these pieces constitute the sample that will be described and analysed in this section. They include: 15 rim sherds, 10 neck sherds, and 36 body sherds.” (2001:54).

He goes on to describe the shape of the vessel forms: “There are five different rim shapes or forms: squared, rounded, in sloping, concave, and collared (Figure 3.1). Four of the rim sherds are squared, three are rounded, two are in sloping, two are concaved, two are collared, and two have undeterminable rim forms…Ten of the fifteen rim sherds are decorated with at least one of three types of decoration: dentate stamping, dentate rocker-stamping, and incised linear lines…Sixteen of the 36 body fragments were decorated with dentate rocker stamping.” (Teal 2001:57-59).

Gould site ceramics. (Teal)
Gould site ceramics (Teal 2001).

The most recent discovery of aboriginal ceramics in the province comes from the archaeology work done by Fred Schwarz on the south side of Muskrat Falls. These ceramics were found at sites with radiocarbon dates that place their occupations in the very early part of the Recent Period, possibly even ancestral to the Cow Head complex Recent Period. Ceramic fragments, a total of 34 pieces plus 23g of crumbled clay fragments, were found at three different sites. The sherds were described as “…a low‐fired, thick‐walled grit‐tempered ware. Many sherds do not show a complete cross‐section and have only interior or exterior surfaces. Where clear interior surfaces are evident, these are often blackened. Exterior surfaces show no evidence of surface decoration.” (Stantec 2013:98).

Muskrat Falls ceramics. (Schwarz)
Muskrat Falls ceramics. The picture shows the interior surfaces (top) and exterior surfaces (bottom) of the same two sherds (Stantec 2013).
Muskrat Falls ceramics. Picture shows the interior surfaces (top) and exterior surfaces (bottom) of the same two sherds. (Schwarz)
Muskrat Falls ceramics (Stantec 2013).

Considering all of this information, should ceramics be added to the Recent Period tool kit? In 2005, James Tuck, the man who played a major role in defining Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology seemed to suggest that the Labrador Recent Period people occasionally made ceramics when he wrote of the ceramics found at Saddle Island: “It is quite unlike the poorly-fired ceramics rarely produced by Recent Indians in Labrador …” (2005:17). In fact, Mike Teal went so far as to suggest that ceramics should be added, at least to the Cow Head complex tool kit. In the abstract to his 2001 thesis, he writes: “New artifacts, including contracting stemmed projectile points and ceramic vessels are introduced as elements of the Cow Head assemblage…” (2001:ii).

If we don’t add ceramics to the Recent Period tool kit then in the very least researchers working on precontact sites in the province, particularly Recent Period and Dorset sites need to be aware of, as I was warned in 1998, “…little clumps of mud that will not go through your screen, they may be ceramic.” (Loring, pers. comm.). This is how these ceramics were described to me when I was excavating a Recent Period site on the Northern Peninsula in 1998.

This post was inspired by my reading of two articles in the 2013 volume of the Arctic Studies Newsletter. The first was by Kora Stapelfeldt entitled Pottery in Motion: Towards Cultural Interaction Studies in Newfoundland and Labrador. The second was by Stephen Loring entitled Pottery from the North: Addendum to Stapelfeldt.
Bird, Junius B. 1945 Archaeology of the Hopedale Area, Labrador. Volume 39: Part 2 Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, New York.
Chapdelaine, Claude & Gregory G. Kennedy 1990 The Origin of the Iroquoian Rim Sherd from Red Bay. Man in the Northeast, 40 (Fall):41-43.
Hartery, Latonia 2001 The Cow Head complex. MA, University of Calgary.
Loring, Stephen 1985 Archaeological Investigations into the Nature of the Late Prehistoric Indian Occupation in Labrador: A Report of the 1984 Field Season. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1984, Annual Report Number 5. Jane Sproull Thomson and Callum Thomson ed. Historic Resources Division, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, pp 122-153.
1992 Princes and Princesses of Ragged Fame: Innu Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Labrador. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Massachusetts.
2013 Pottery from the North: Addendum to Stapelfeldt. Arctic Studies Newsletter.
Penney, Gerald 1981 A Point Peninsula Rim Sherd from L’Anse a Flamme, Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 5: 171‑173.
Teal, Michael 2001 An Archaeological Investigation of the Gould Site (EeBi-42) in Port au Choix, Northwestern Newfoundland: New Insight into the Recent Period Cow Head Complex. MA, MUN.
Tuck, James A. 2005 Archaeology at Red Bay, Labrador: 1978-1992.
Tuck, James A. & Robert McGhee 1975 Belle Isle Archaeological Project, 1975.
Stantec 2013 2012 Historic Resources Assessment and Recovery Field Program.
Stapelfeldt, Kora 2013 Pottery in Motion: Towards Cultural Interaction Studies in Newfoundland and Labrador. Arctic Studies Newsletter.

6 thoughts on “Potsherds

  1. Occasional ceramics of local clay in typically non-ceramic contexts, like the St. Lawrence Iroquoian-style sherd from Saddle Island, could represent movement of the potters rather than trade. For example, intermarriage or abduction might have introduced an Iroquois woman familiar with pottery production into a Recent Indian context, where she might have made foreign-looking pots out the clay at hand.

    1. Oh most definitely! I think that some sourcing work would be excellent in this context. There are so many ways to follow pottery/people across Eastern Canada. I found the Saddle Island vessels fascinating

      1. Yeah, some of these pot fragments looked like they were made by experienced hands and some of them looked like they were made by ‘rookies’, for lack of a better term.

  2. As always another wonderfully illuminating and insightful essay and a great compilation of some esoteric and frequently overlooked references. Thank-you! These essays are widely read not just by students of archaeology but by a much broader audience that includes an interested public and by the province’s indigenous First Nations and Inuit peoples. As an archaeologist working in the province I have been humbled by the privilege of exploring aspects of the lives and cultures of the ancestors of the Inuit and Innu in Labrador and have long felt that there was a need and a responsibility to make the results of our research accessible and available to descendant community members. In this respect I am deeply troubled by your comment, “There is not a consensus amongst archaeologists as to whether the Innu who live in Labrador today are descendants of the people of this tradition.” In my opinion there is no doubt that OF COURSE THEY ARE! In fact I would go much further and argue continuity back to the original Maritime Archaic pioneers arriving over 7000 years ago but thats a debate for another time. It is ridiculous (to me!) to think that the Innu didn’t exisit until European fishermen, explorers, missionaries and colonial administrators arrived to “observe” them. There are “Ancestral Innu” (the term that my colleagues and I have adopted instead of “Recent Indians” and the Pt.Revenge-Daniel’s Rattle nomenclature of archaeology) sites from both outer Hamilton Inlet and from the Quebec North Shore with radiocarbon dates extending into the post-contact period. It seems completely inappropriate and morally questionable that having deprived the Innu (for the most part) of their traditional lands that we deprive them of their history as well.

    Perhaps in a subsequent blog we might explore this matter more fully with a discussion of how archaeological data is interpreted and how “history” is derived. Thank-you for the opportunity to share my opinion. Keep up the good work.

    1. This blog has become much more popular than I thought it would and I am very happy that it is widely read. I think we have an obligation to share what we have learned with everyone; sometimes what we think we understand isn’t going to jive with what people believe. In that respect, I stand by my statement “There is not a consensus amongst archaeologists as to whether the Innu who live in Labrador today are descendants of the people of this tradition.” I would go further and argue that there is no consensus as to the relationship between the Maritime Archaic people, or the later Intermediate Period or the later Recent Period. Unlike on the Island where the evidence is archaeologically clear (the last of the late Newfoundland Recent Period people are the Beothuk) because of several transitional sites, that clarity does not exist in Labrador. There are no clear transitional sites for hundreds of kilometres from what was the late Labrador Recent Period homeland, central coastal Labrador. By transitional sites, I am referring to sites with late Labrador Recent Period material culture transitioning to and mixing with early European material culture. The sites you refer to as “Ancestral Innu” in Hamilton Inlet do contain radiocarbon dates extending into the post-contact period but there is no evidence that these people ever contacted Europeans or transitioned to Innu. In fact there is still a gap of at least 100 if not 150 years, if we accept those radiocarbon dates, before an Innu site is recognized in Labrador’s archaeological record. And the sites along the Quebec North Shore, most of those were found in a windblown sand disturbed environment.

      I would not argue that the Innu didn’t exist until Europeans observed them. I would suggest that the evidence could be interpreted like this; the last of the late Labrador Recent Period people left the archaeological record around the time of European arrival. Their departure, either a withdrawal or extinction, allowed the Innu to move from the west to the east during those 100 to 150 years.

      If and when this gap is filled with the transitional site(s) I’ll be the first one to stand up and shout that the last late Labrador Recent Period people were the Innu, but until that time I don’t think we should gloss over the gap and lack of transitional sites. I think that it is completely inappropriate and morally questionable to ignore these problems and tell the Innu that archaeology supports their belief that they have lived in Labrador since the glaciers.

      I have discussed these ideas here:


      Your suggestion sounds a good idea for a future blog.

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