When I tell folks I am an archaeologist I usually hear the same questions ‘What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?’ I thought for this blog post I could try to answer these questions. I also sent the questions to several of my colleagues. Below are our answers.
A colleague told me a story of when she was working on the Basque sites on Saddle Island, Red Bay Labrador. She had become upset with her crew chief and had stormed off the site up to one of the rocks. She recalls that it was raining and she just sat there on a rock picking at the moss between the bedrock. As she picked at the moss she found what she thought was a nail and pulled it out, but she learned it was much larger than a nail and it just kept coming out. When she had the object exposed she realized it was a Basque flensing knife. She immediately put her crookedness aside and headed back on site with her exciting find.
The same colleague has had great luck in finding other unique artifacts such as a Beothuk bone pendant, a Basque barrel scribe and a mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend.
The mended Dorset Palaeoeskimo soapstone pot with the chert butterfly mend actually has a second piece. Believe it or not, my colleague found the soapstone fragment one season and the butterfly mending piece the next season.
Another colleague sent me this story about his most interesting artifact find: a Dorset Palaeoeskimo Ladle from Fleur de Lys.
“My crew chief Brent Murphy was responsible for finding and carefully excavating the ladle. It was unearthed in 1998 at approximately 1.5 meters below the present day ground surface. It is carved from a single piece of spruce by Dorset Palaeoeskimos approximately AD 430.
Although organic artifacts such as this are generally not preserved in the acidic soils of Newfoundland, this specimen remained intact for over 1600 years due to a cold wet anaerobic burial environment. Since there are few preserved organic Palaeoeskimo remains in Newfoundland, this specimen provides a rare glimpse of Dorset woodworking skills. The ladle measures 18.5cm long, 3.0cm wide, 0.5cm thick and weighs 65.3 grams – and was beautifully conserved by Canadian Conservation Institute staff.
As for its function, I think it actually served as a drinking ladle, and it’s deposition at the base of the soapstone quarry was like a bucket at the bottom of a well.
It is a delicate piece with wear in the vicinity of the “spout” which would be in keeping with such a function. We also have good evidence that the natural spring – which flooded our excavation at the quarry wall – was present at the time the Dorset were excavating the soil in front of the quarry face to access unweathered soapstone.
Incidentally the partial remains of the second ladle are almost identical in size and shape to the complete specimen.”
As interesting as that artifact is, the same colleague also found a glass eye while excavating in the United States. I think that wins for the most unique and interesting artifact find.
Another colleague passed on the story of how he and another archaeologist found a Beothuk summer wigwam site. Such sites are exceedingly rare and several other archaeologists had searched this particular area for the remains of the site. My colleague said he and the other archaeologist drove to the area and parked their car just off the road. They briefly searched the area and found a small biface which led them to believe they were in the right area. Then they located a shallow depression that was partly eroded into the nearby brook. A quick search of the eroded depression and they realized they had found the Beothuk summer wigwam and it was right next to where they had parked their car.
Another colleague told me the story of how he had been doing a canoe based survey along the beaches of the Fraser River near Lillooet, B.C. He pulled his canoe up on a beach, got out of the boat and walked about 50 metres, bent over and picked up a ground and pecked stone pestle/maul. He said ‘Somehow I knew that’s the direction and place I should go’. This is incredible when you consider that the whole beach was a jumble of rocks.
Finally, yet another colleague told me the story of her most interesting find which came from the bottom of her excavation unit on the very last day of the excavation. She had been working on a large Dorset Palaeoeskimo site in Trinity Bay. The precontact sites in the area, and this site in particular, are known for their vast quantities of chalky white chert that archaeologists refer to as ‘Trinity Bay chert’. During her excavation she had found numerous flakes and artifacts made from Trinity Bay chert until she got to the bottom of her unit. In the corner of her unit she vividly recalls finding a tiny Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblade made from quartz crystal. She said this endblade sticks out in her mind because there was so much Trinity Bay chert in the unit and to find this beautiful little quartz crystal endblade was a shock to her.
Personally, a few discoveries stick out in my mind. I still recall finding my first artifact. We were shovel testing a site on the west coast of Newfoundland near Cox’s Cove. We didn’t know for sure at the time but the site had both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo components and a Beothuk component. I can still recall turning over the shovel full of dirt and seeing the chocolate brown coloured artifact. If I remember correctly the artifact was part of a scraper, I was so excited because I found my first artifact and, more importantly, I knew enough to recognize what it was!
I think one of the most interesting artifacts I ever found was on the same site near Cox’s Cove. We had been excavating a Groswater house pit and I had been finding a lot of seal bone. One of the small pieces of bone I pulled out of the ground turned out to be a bone sewing needle, or at least part of a needle.
Every archaeologist has stories about field work and their …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact they ever found. If you have an interesting story and want to share please comment on this post, I’d love to hear it.