Archaeology in the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador: The L’Anse Amour burial mound

During the summers of 1973 and 1974 Dr. Robert McGhee and Dr. James Tuck, both then professors at Memorial University of Newfoundland surveyed a large portion of the southern Labrador coast from the Quebec/Labrador border up to Red Bay. They found or relocated 13 sites including a number of important archaeological sites such as the L’Anse Amour burial mound and the oldest known site in the province at Pinware Hill. At L’Anse Amour they found or relocated another 14 discrete scatters of flakes, fire-cracked cobbles, and occasional artifacts and the L’Anse Amour burial mound, all of which they saw as a single site. Today we would treat these as separate sites. I say relocated because part of the area had been surveyed and several of the sites had been found 25 years earlier by Dr. Elmer Harp.

The data from this survey formed the basis of McGhee & Tuck’s 1975 Mercury Series volume An Archaic Sequence from the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador. For the most part the cultural sequence laid out in this volume still stands.

ABSTRACT
This report presents the results of archaeological survey and test excavation undertaken on the southern coast of Labrador during the summers of 1973 and 1974. Preliminary reports summarize our work at 14 sites, all but one of which relate to Archaic occupations. These components are placed in chronological sequence using evidence from seriation, comparison of collections, relative site elevations, and radiocarbon dating. The resulting sequence is used as the basis for postulating the development of a local variant of the Maritime Archaic tradition from a late Palaeo-Indian immigration to the area at approximately 8000-9000 years ago. We postulate continuity in the local occupation and adaptation from that time to approximately 3000-2000 years ago, when we suggest that the local tradition was interrupted by a possible environmental change and the immigration of Dorset Eskimos. The prehistory of the last 2000 years is unclear, and we suspect that occupation of this region was sparse and perhaps sporadic during the late prehistoric period. (McGhee & Tuck 1975)
 

The last 2000 years of the sequence was later filled in by people with a culture that archaeologists refer to as Recent Indian.

The field crew for McGhee & Tuck’s surveys included Marcie Madden and Priscilla Renouf. Both of these women produced influential Master’s theses based on sites found or relocated during the McGhee & Tuck survey. Both of them also continued on and earned PhD’s. Dr. Renouf became a professor at Memorial University and ran the very successful Port au Choix Archaeology Project from the mid-1980s up to her passing last year.

While cleaning out Dr. Renouf’s office someone came across an envelope of photos marked L’Anse Amour burial mound. The photos were taken during the excavation of the burial.

Archaeological work at L’Anse Amour took place during the summers of 1973 & 74. McGhee and Tuck noted the presence of the mound in 1973 “…and ignored it in favour of the pleasure of surface collecting in the extensive blowouts closer to the coast.” (McGhee & Tuck 1975:85) They walked over and around the mound for the rest of the summer. It wasn’t until 1974 that they sent several crew members to clear the bushes and sand off the mound.

The burial mound at L'Anse-Amour restored to its original form after the excavation (McGhee 1976: 13)
The burial mound at L’Anse-Amour restored to its original form after the excavation (McGhee 1976: 13)
Clearing the mound in 1974 (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Clearing the mound in 1974 (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
The positions of the boulders were mapped, the structure was divided into quadrants, and the boulders removed from the southwestern quadrant. The rocks averaged some 30 cm in diameter, weighed perhaps 10 kg on the average, and were piled closely together. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:86)
 
Excavation of the burial mound (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Excavation of the burial mound (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)

Several layers of boulders were removed which totaled nearly 1 metre in depth.

These were mapped and removed, revealing the upper edges of three large slab-like boulders which were set upright in a line, apparently forming the edge of a cist-like structure. Traces of red ochre were found in two places along the line of upright boulders. In order to locate the remainder of the cist, the boulders of the northwest quadrant were removed, and the excavation enlarged to include a two metre strip of the eastern segment of the mound. We duly located the other edge of the cist, a parallel line of two boulders one metre north of the first line but beginning and ending 60 cm farther east than the boulders of the first line. The upper edges of these boulders were encountered at approximately 45 cm below the top of the mound, and they extended to a maximum depth of 100 cm beneath the original surface. At this point we began to have trouble with our excavation, as the sand dried and we began to get cave-ins and threatened cave-ins. Accordingly, we enlarged our excavation to a square pit seven metres on a side and centred on the original centre of the mound. This removed all of the heavy concentration of piled beach boulders in the central area, an irregular concentration some four metres in diameter. The floor of the excavation was now entirely composed of sand, save for the two parallel lines of upright boulders forming the cist within which we expected to find a burial. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:86-87)

 

Photographing the cist-like structure (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Photographing the cist-like structure (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Photographing the excavation (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Photographing the excavation (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Early on in the excavation, large boulders can been seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use ply-wood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Early on in the excavation, large boulders can be seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use plywood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Photographing the excavation, large boulders can been seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use ply-wood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Photographing the excavation, large boulders can be seen under foot. It appears as though the archaeologists are trying to use plywood to hold back the collapsing walls (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
We were to be disappointed in this, as excavation revealed only a few traces of a black substance which might be decayed organic material and a small patch of charcoal containing a few burned but badly deteriorated fish bones; the size of the bones suggests that they came from a fish about the size of a cod or salmon. Having excavated and removed the boulders of the cist, we were faced with a square pit with sand walls and a blank, apparently sterile, floor of sand. Rather discouraged, we nevertheless continued the excavation, and after a couple of hours of removing sterile sand we encountered a small stain of red ochre at a depth of 30 cm below the base of the cist, and 130 cm below the original surface of the mound. This ochre stain proved to derive from the back of a human skull, and a few more hours of excavation revealed the entire skeleton. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:87)
 
Excavation of the burial (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
Excavation of the burial (Renouf collection, courtesy of MUN)
The body had been buried in an extended position, directly beneath the cist-like arrangement of stones some half-metre above. It lay on its stomach, the hands at the sides, the head pointing west and turned so that the face looked to the north. A walrus tusk lay directly in front of the face, and 30 cm to the west of the head there was a pile of artifacts including four stone projectile points or knives, three socketed bone points, and a stemmed bone point. Two more stone projectile points or knives lay directly above and below the left shoulder, and a stone biface was found between the legs. A large slab of rock lay across the lumbar region of the back. More artifacts were revealed when we began to remove the skeleton. At the left side, at about the waist, were found two nodules of graphite stained with red ochre, apparently paint-stones, and a decorated antler artifact which may have been used as a paint-grinder or applicator. Beneath the upper chest area there was a small bone pendant, a bone whistle or flute, a few small fragments of bird bone, and a toggling harpoon-head. Beneath the sacral region lay a decorated ivory toggle. On either side of the skeleton there was a scatter of charcoal extending over an irregular area over one metre in diameter and one boulder lay at a distance of two metres to the northeast of the body. A badly decayed piece of antler, probably caribou antler, was found some two metres to the southeast of the body, and a few small chunks of white quartzite were scattered in the same area. The charcoal scatter indicates that the original burial pit, the walls of which we could not trace in the homogeneous sand marked with stains percolating from the boulders above, was at least five metres in diameter. (McGhee & Tuck 1975:87-88)
 
 
Top photo: A cache of grave goods found above the head, consisting of bone and stone projectile points and a stone knife. Bottom photo: Chipped stone spearpoints and knives, found with the body. (McGhee 1976: 20)
Top photo: A cache of grave goods found above the head, consisting of bone and stone projectile points and a stone knife.
Bottom photo: Chipped stone spearpoints and knives, found with the body. (McGhee 1976: 20)
Objects found in the grave. On the left is a socketed bone projectile point; in the centre, a harpoon head and a barbed bone point; and on the right, a decorated ivory object that may have been a hand toggle for a harpoon line. (McGhee 1976: 21)
Objects found in the grave. On the left is a socketed bone projectile point; in the centre, a harpoon head and a barbed bone point; and on the right, a decorated ivory object that may have been a hand toggle for a harpoon line. (McGhee 1976: 21)
A bird-bone flute and a pendant were found underneath the chest. The paint stones and pestle were on the left side of the body. (McGhee 1976: 24)
A bird-bone flute and a pendant were found underneath the chest. The paint stones and pestle were on the left side of the body. (McGhee 1976: 24)

We learned a tremendous amount about this early culture from this one excavation. For example, the burial clearly demonstrates the sophistication of their Maritime adaption. “The toggling harpoon, an ingenious device for taking sea mammals, is the oldest such weapon in the world.” “Other evidence includes a walrus tusk, the bones of fish and an ivory handle which may have been attached to the end of a skin line opposite the harpoon.” (Tuck 1993: 2-3)

Construction of the mound itself shows a very different society than archaeologists would expect from a hunter-gatherer group. “The construction of burial mounds is traditionally associated with stable, agriculturally-based societies, generally found in more temperate areas of the world. The discovery of such an ancient burial mound, perhaps the oldest such structure in the world, came as a surprise to many archaeologists.” (Tuck 1993: 3)

The dating of the L’Anse Amour burial mound makes it one of the oldest known sites in Labrador and it was far older than expected. The two oldest radiocarbon dates from the site, 8042+87/-110 and 8363 + 66/-324 years ago, suggest the site was constructed more than 8000 years ago. (Tuck 1993: 5)

The excavation of the burial mound took place 40 years ago and archaeology and attitudes towards the excavation of burials has changed since then. Archaeologists would not excavate a burial like this today unless it was under threat of destruction.


McGhee, Robert 1976  The Burial at L’Anse Amour.

McGhee, Robert & James A. Tuck 1975  An Archaic Sequence from the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador. National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Paper No. 34, Ottawa.

Tuck, James 1993   Interpreting L’Anse Amour and Southern Labrador Prehistory. Unpublished internal report submitted to Department of Tourism and Culture.

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5 thoughts on “Archaeology in the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador: The L’Anse Amour burial mound

  1. Thank you for this article, I’ve learned a lot about this site just from reading here. I am from Labrador and have family all along the coastline. I frequently visit L’Anse Amour and love to sit by the beach there and wonder what life must have been like back then for this young person. It strikes me everytime I stand on the platform and view the burial mound that it is not protected in some manner.. someone could easily run over it on an ATV or snowmobile and not know it is there. I am assuming this is not the case as mostly locals frequent the area at the times of year where this would be a danger and they know of its existence.

    I have a great respect for archaeologists and their work, I sometimes wish I had followed my dreams to work in the field when I thought about it in high school. But I greatly appreciate the work of Tuck and all who worked on preserving the history here and in Red Bay.

  2. I feel obliged to inform your readers that only a kilometer or two from this “ancient burial mound, perhaps the oldest such structure in the world”, an industrial development is planned which may, or may not, have negative effects on this site. To supply the rock for berms in the underwater section of the Labrador Island Transmission Link (Nalcor) an independent company (and a separate environmental assessment – I might add) will build a wharf with a 10,000 sq meter surface area and an associated 6 hectare laydown area for the quarried rock. The quantity of rock required will be one million tonnes, yes one million, to be taken from the quarry, perhaps at its northern extent, less than one kilometer from this burial mound.
    Will it have an effect?
    Should the company doing this work be responsible to ensure the integrity of this site?
    To sit on that beach in five years time and look at this mysterious burial mound with a huge rock quarry as a backdrop. Progress.
    I fear to imagine the progress human kind has made in eight thousand years.
    Greg Mitchell

  3. Thank you for this information! I research flutes and believe that the flute I cite on this page on my Flutopedia site – http://www.flutopedia.com/dev_flutes_northamerica.htm – is the same flute you show on this “The L’Anse Amour burial mound” page. Is that correct?

    Would love more information on this artifact … and also if you have access to the reference McGhee, Robert 1976 The Burial at L’Anse Amour … and could provide a pointer to that, it would be most helpful.

    Thanks!

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