The Beothuk and a Zodiac Trip on Notre Dame Bay

Back in May I briefly told you about a day long zodiac trip I took on Notre Dame Bay with Grant Cudmore of Ocean Quest Close Encounters Twillingate. Our intention was to revisit several known sites and check on a possible new site.

Notre Dame Bay zodiac trip. Red line is the route, yellow dots are the known sites in the area.
Notre Dame Bay zodiac trip. Red line is the route, yellow dots are the known sites in the area

We left from Twillingate and were immediately treated to beautiful views and numerous icebergs.

This is a view of a lighthouse not everyone gets to see anymore.
This is a view of a lighthouse not everyone gets to see anymore
Just one of the numerous icebergs we saw.
Just one of the numerous icebergs we saw

We have known there were archaeology sites in this area of the bay since the late 19th century, dating back to the work done by James P. Howley. Howley was a geologist who amassed a collection of mostly Beothuk material culture and a large quantity of documentation on the Beothuk including interviews with people who had seen and contacted the Beothuk. He published much of this written material in his book The Beothucks, or Red Indians: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland, published in 1915 which is still used as a reference on the Beothuk today.

The first site we planned to revisit was on Little Black Island. The site was recorded by Howley in his diary as ‘…Beothuk skeletal remains in a ravine…’ It is not much of a description to go on in order to relocate the site. The last attempt to visit the site was in 1973 by Ingeborg Marshall, who was unable to relocate the site. We spent less than an hour looking into and crawling over several crevices and ravines. Not surprisingly we were also unsuccessful in relocating the site.

View of a small portion of Little Black Island.
View of a small portion of Little Black Island

We were more successful with our attempt to find the Swan Island site.

As I wrote in my Teaser post, the site was originally visited by Howley in 1886 and it was looted at that early date. The site was revisited by archaeologists Helen Devereux and Ingeborg Marshall in 1965 and 1973 respectively. Unfortunately, like most Beothuk burial sites in Notre Dame Bay, the site was completely looted.

Fortunately, interpreters from the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove accompanied me on my trip. I say fortunately because thanks to the keen eye and sharp memory of interpreter Desond Canning we were able to relocate the site. Desmond remembered the second photo below Howley’s book and from that we relocated the site.

Unfortunately, as I’ve already stated, the site was looted long ago. Today it is little more than a rock over-hang full of boulders. Regardless it is still a place of reverence and respect, afterall human remains were buried here.

Swan Island burial location today.
Swan Island burial location today
View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915.
View of the Swan Island burial taken from Howley 1915

The Beothuk people are well known for their use of red ochre. Howley described the use of this material:

Many theories have been advanced to account for this curious custom
of using red ochre, a mixture of red earth, oxide of iron and oil or grease,
called by the Beothucks Odemet. It appears to have been their universal
practice to smear everything they possessed with this pigment. Not only
their clothing, implements, ornaments, canoes, bows and arrows, drinking
cups, even their own bodies were so treated. Small packages of this
material, tied up in birch bark, are found buried with their dead, and
there is evidence even that long after the flesh had decomposed and fallen
away, they must have visited the sepulchres and rubbed ochre over the
skeletons of their departed kin. At least one such now in the local
museum was certainly so treated. Howley 1915: 262.

Exactly where the Beothuk got this material is not clear. One place that has been suggested was Ochre Pit Island, though at this location the ‘ochre’ is more orange than red when compared to the Beothuk material culture I have seen in museum collections.

Ochre Pit Island.
Ochre Pit Island

Ochre Pit Island was also reported by archaeologist Helen Devereux in 1965. She recorded four beach pits as being intruded into the cobble beach and that on average they were ‘…with birch bark in bottom of some – ~2 feet deep and 5 feet wide.’

Close up of one of the the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits.
Close up of one of the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits
Showing the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits (inside red circles).
Showing the four Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits (inside red circles)

While the exact function or purpose of these pits may never be known archaeologist Marianne Stopp wrote an interesting paper in 1994 in which she details her study of 38 sites in the Province that have cobble beach pits. She concluded that these pits are usually either prehistoric food storage pits, habitation features, or historic fish drying platforms. Considering the attributes she gives for each of those possible purposes, it seems as though the Ochre Pit Island cobble beach pits could have functioned as food storage pits.

Devereux also reported that locals told her that burials were removed from the island about 20 years before. Unfortunately, she found no evidence of the burials or evidence that anything was removed.

Interestingly, of those 38 cobble beach pit sites studied by Stopp, most of them are found in Labrador. On the island of Newfoundland the cobble beach pit sites are only found in Notre Dame Bay.

We made one more brief stop on Yellow Fox Island after leaving Ochre Pit Island. Yellow Fox Island also contained a Beothuk burial which was visited by Howley in 1886. No one has found that site since. The purpose of our visit to the island was to check on a small cobble beach pit that had previously been found by Grant Cudmore. The cobble beach pit was similar to those on Ochre Pit Island but it was smaller, little more than a metre in diameter.

Yellow Fox island cobble beach pit.
Yellow Fox island cobble beach pit

Like the beach pits on Ochre Pit Island this pit did not appear to have any artifacts associated with it. This lack of artifacts is not an uncommon feature according to Stopp’s article and it is one of the things that makes understanding who constructed these pits so difficult.

In the end we were able to revisit several sites that had not been seen by an archaeologist in decades and confirm the discovery of a new cobble beach pit site. I love my job.aIMG_1051


DEVEREUX, Helen 1965 A Preliminary Report upon an Archaeological Survey of Newfoundland July-August, 1965.

HOWLEY, James, P. 1915 The Beothucks or Red Indians, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland.

STOPP, Marianne 1994 Cultural Utility of the Cobble Beach Formation in Coastal Newfoundland and Labrador.  Northeast Anthropology, 48; 69-90

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4 thoughts on “The Beothuk and a Zodiac Trip on Notre Dame Bay

  1. Great to read about your work, and also envyous of your trip. I have read Marshalls book on the Beothuk, and from a swedish prespective am generally interested in New Foundland history.

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