Religion in the Archaeological Record

Religion and its associated rituals is a very personal thing to most people but it is an important thing for archaeologists to understand. Religion guides people and entire cultures through numerous aspects of everyday life from how they handle death to how they relate to the natural world. While being mostly intangible, religion can be hard to recognize archaeologically. However, there are times when it is plainly obvious. The following are just a few examples of religion and its associated rituals from the archaeological record of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roman Catholic or Anglican Ornate Iron Cross This cross is made of iron and some yellow metal with traces of gold gilt work.
Roman Catholic or Anglican cross from Ferryland is made of iron and yellow metal with traces of gold gilt work

The cross shown above was found at Ferryland in the forge. It is made mostly of iron and lined with brass with traces of gold on the surface indicating that it was once gilt. There are areas of the cross that appear to be where gems may have been. The forge building was destroyed in the mid-17th century meaning the cross is from the early part of occupation at the Colony. Since its discovery the cross has been examined by several experts and they cannot say for certain if it was used in the Roman Catholic or Anglican church. This is not surprising given that the idea of religious tolerance was written into the Charter of Avalon and the later Charter of Maryland by the founder of both colonies, Lord Baltimore (Colony of Avalon & Heritage NL).

In 2014 a small (2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms) copper crucifix was found at Ferryland. While the top of the crucifix is broken it depicts a simple representation of Christ on the front and the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on the back. Unlike the iron cross discussed above this artifact is clearly Catholic in origin.

Crucifix front
Crucifix front
Crucifix back
Crucifix back

Dr. Peter Pope spent several years surveying the French Shore of the Northern Peninsula for early historic French fishing sites. He found several historic graveyards and sites that contained a calvary or calvaire in French, which is a type of monumental public crucifix, sometimes encased in an open shrine. In fact they recovered so much data on religious items and sites that Melissa Burns was able to write her 2008 Master’s thesis on this data entitled Symbols of the French Presence in Newfoundland: Breton Crosses and Calvaries – 1680 to Today.

North Bay 2, EjAu-41, Area B, Feature 5, anomalous vegetation shadow of grass on heath at a local summit, a likely cross or calvaire site (Pope 2010:45).
North Bay 2, EjAu-41, Area B, Feature 5, anomalous vegetation shadow of grass on
heath at a local summit, a likely cross or calvaire site (Pope 2010:45).
(Burns 2008: 88)
Dr. Pope and his crew were able to confirm the local tradition that this cross was built by the French navy in the 1930s, replacing an earlier cross much closer to the water (Burns 2008: 88)

Religion and its associated cultural rituals tend to be harder to see in the archaeological record the further we go into the past. Fortunately, in some instances, we can draw analogies between current practices and the archaeological record. Of course there is always the standard note of caution when drawing direct analogies between current practices and the past; just because something has meaning today does not mean it had the same meaning in the past.

A good example of a ritual that has been potentially recognized in the archaeological record is the ritual of the mukushan practiced by the Innu of Quebec and Labrador. The mukushan is an important communal meal held in honor of the spirit of the caribou after a successful hunt in which the caribou long bones are split and ground up. The remaining bones have to be properly disposed. Anthony Jenkinson in Volume 13 of the PAO Review states that there are “…uniform Innu rules which dictate the procedures for treatment of caribou leg bones. They are in summary: the major long bones, (humerus, radio-ulna, tibia and femur) are subject to strict rules governing their ritual treatment and disposal. The listed long leg bones must be scraped clean of meat and underlying membranes, until they are almost whitened. The oil bearing nubs (epiphyses) from these bones are broken off crushed into a paste and boiled in water to extract oil. The bone mash fragments are drained and put into the fire” (Jenkinson 2014: 95).

Penute Pukue Jr preparing caribou long bones for mukushan, Border Beacon 2008 (Jenkinson 2014).
Penute Pukue Jr preparing caribou long bones for mukushan, Border Beacon 2008 (Jenkinson 2014).

Large long bone mash deposits, similar to those produced at recent mukushan  feasts have been found in several archaeological sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. Jenkinson has found a large deposit at the site called Unkueiu at Kamestastin Lake which was radiocarbon dated to 710 +/-30 BP. Long bone mash deposits have also been found at Winter Cove-4 and Daniel Rattle-1 in Labrador. On the Island they have been found at the Bank site in Terra Nova National Park, Deer Lake Beach, Boyd’s Cove and most recently at Birchy Island Tickle and Birchy Lake 9. All of these sites date to the late Amerindian period of the province’s past. While it is not certain the precontact occupants of those sites were ritually disposing of the bones as would happen as at mukushan feasts today, they are similar deposits.

It appears as though the Beothuk may have participated in a mukushan-like feast based on the presence of long bone mash deposits at Boyd’s Cove. As well, in 1811 Lieut. Buchan noted several Beothuk wigwams on Red Indian Lake had a collection of nearly 300 caribou long bones stored, likely in preparation for a similar feast (Howley 1915: 79). We also know the Beothuk had rituals regarding red ochre. They covered their faces and entire body, as well as their clothes, weapons, utensils and canoes, with red ochre. The ochre was considered to be a mark of tribal identity, and the first coat was applied in infancy as a sign of initiation and a major ochring ceremony was held once a year.

A new aspect of Beothuk religion and ritual was recently postulated by Kristensen & Holly in their 2013 paper entitled Birds, Burials and Sacred Cosmology of the Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland, Canada. Simply put they suggest that the pendants found at many Beothuk sites and burial sites represent parts of Arctic Terns such as their wing and tail feathers and feet. These birds and the pendants that represent them form a bird cosmology that was central to Beothuk religion. “…the bone pendant, which depicts avian anatomy, movement and skeletal motifs suggestive of a transformative state between life and death. Pendants and bird parts are associated with burials, which we suggest connects birds to a belief in soul flight. The distribution of Beothuk burial sites on small coastal islands — places strongly associated with seabirds — further link the dead to birds. We conclude that birds were spiritual messengers enlisted to bring the dead to the Beothuk ‘happy island’ afterlife” (2013: 50).Kristensen & Holly 3(Kristensen & Holly 2013) Kristensen & Holly 1(Kristensen & Holly 2013) Kristensen & Holly 2(Kristensen & Holly 2013)

How societies deal with their dead is heavily dependent upon religion and ritual. I have written previously of the L’Anse Amour burial mound that was found in the mid 1970s in the Labrador Straits and excavated by Drs. Robert McGhee and James Tuck. That single excavation allowed us to learn a tremendous amount about the Maritime Archaic Indians such as how sophisticated their Maritime adaption was and how the construction of the mound itself showed a very different society than archaeologists would expect from a hunter-gatherer group.

I also wrote recently about several European family burial plots in Conception Bay South and how these family plots were common occurrences prior to the establishment of a formal church cemetery in an area.

This is a brief survey of just a few sites that allow us to see religion in the archaeological record, an aspect of culture which is mostly intangible. As archaeologists we have to use the tangible to see the intangible.

POSTSCRIPT
Of course the possibility that the Beothuk practiced a mukushan-like feast, extensively used red ochre and may have practiced a form of bird cosmology are certainly not the sum total Beothuk belief related practices. In fact other archaeologists have previously postulated alternate explanations for the pendants. In April, I received a comment from another archaeologist regarding Beothuk belief related practices and the Beothuk pendants. See the italicized text below.

Kristensen and Holly’s contention that the Beothuk brought their dead to islands as departure terminals for the soul and that birds ferried their spirits from the islands does not correspond to the facts. Only two Beothuk burials out of a recorded 25 contained one or more bird skulls and only one included bird legs tied to the burial shroud. The burial with the bird legs also included three small replicas of birch  bark canoes and a Mi’kmaw shaman has explained that it is the spirit  of the miniature artifacts that accompanies the spirit of the dead  (artifacts in burials are often broken to release their spirit). If the individual in this burial was to use a canoe spirit to get to the “happy island” he is unlikely to have been taken by a bird.

The pendants have previously been interpreted as representing mammals with a central vertebrae and shoulder and hip joints (Marshall, 1996, pgs.387-391). Three-dimensional pendants in the shape of bear (?) claws with two of them prominently displaying joints would support this idea. There is evidence that the Beothuk celebrated mokashan – a meal in honour of the caribou spirit – the caribou having been their most important source of food. But other mammals were likely to be honoured as well, including the bear which played an important role in other native cultures.

Considering that it was mammals who provided most of the Beothuk’s sustenance as well as clothing and other useful materials, such as bone and sinews, it is suggested that most of the pendants were representing these animals rather than birds and their feathers, though the short 2, 3, or 4 pronged pendants which are very much in the minority may have been symbols of birds.


 

Burns, Mélissa
2008 Symbols of the French Presence in Newfoundland – Breton Crosses and Calvaries – 1680 to Today. MUN, MA.

Howley, James
1915  The Beothucks or Red Indians, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. Cambridge University Press.

Jenkinson, Anthony & Jean-Pierre Ashini
2014  Tshikapisk Archaeological Activities at Kamestastin, Spring 2014. In PAO Review, Volume 13.

Kristensen, Todd J. & Donald H. Holly Jr.
2013  Birds, Burials and Sacred Cosmology of the Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland, Canada. Cambridge Archaeological Journal , 23 (01), pp 41 53.

Marshall, Ingeborg
1996  A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Quebec.

Pope, Peter
2008  The Archaeology of France’s Migratory Fishery on Newfoundland’s Petit Nord. In Christian Roy and Hélène Côté, eds, Rêves d’Amériques: Regard sur l’archéologie de la Nouvelle France, 38-54. Montréal:  Archéologiques, Collection hors série 2.

2010 An Archaeology of the Petit Nord – Summer 2009 Preliminary Report.  09.12.

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