An Archaeological Identity for the Beothuck of the Island Of Newfoundland

Helen E. Devereux passed away in 2019 at the age of 96. I learned of her passing from a colleague who was told by her family in an email ‘Per her wishes there was no notice in the paper; no funeral service; memorial; or, burial service.’ Helen may have wished to die in obscurity but her archaeological legacy in Newfoundland and Labrador will live on.

The title of this post was the working title of Helen’s Ph.D. thesis which was based on the work she did on the island of Newfoundland for the National Museum of Canada from 1964-1969. As far as I know, she was the first woman to lead a full-scale archaeological excavation in the Province. Most people will not be familiar with her or her work; there are a couple of reasons for this

  • It was done quite some time ago and it only spanned six years
  • She never published a paper on her work
  • She never finished her doctoral thesis

Helen did some excellent work on some important sites, particularly Beothuk sites before they were heavily disturbed. Thankfully, she also wrote some excellent reports on her work which we have copies of and we also have a draft copy of her thesis. Unfortunately, it’s in complete disorder. However, between the two we learned that her main goal was to define an archaeological identity for the Beothuk of the Island of Newfoundland. Her goal was to examine who the Beothuk were, where they were from, and when they originated. Her plan was to do enough archaeology to compare those results to all the anthropological and historical data collected by people like James P. Howley, much of which he published in the 1915 book The Beothucks or Red Indians, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. At the time she was doing this, in the mid-1960s, there were almost no positively identified Beothuk sites. Interestingly, she knew that her study would provide ‘an’ archaeological identity for Beothuk and that in the future, further expressions of Beothuk archaeological identity will be constructed.  She wrote: When a representative sample of all expressions is available, one may then speak of ‘the’ archaeological identity of Beothuk. In the end, she did provide us with a pretty clear archaeological identity that forms the basis of the Beothuk we know today.

Over the course of the six years working here, she found 23 sites, some of them are well known and very important to our understanding of the Indigenous history of this island. While she didn’t discover the Beaches site in Bonavista Bay she was the first archaeologist to excavate there. She surveyed much of the site, discovering Maritime Archaic; Pre-Inuit; and Beothuk ancestor layers, and she excavated part of a Beothuk house pit.

Helen worked at the North Angle site on the Exploits River which was found by local amateur archaeologist Don Locke in 1967. This is a large multi-cultural site that has Archaic and Dorset Pre-Inuit components as well as a Beothuk occupation that may have had as many as 30 features, most of which Helen believed were houses. Based on the recovery of mostly European derived artifacts she believed the Beothuk used this site late in their existence. Logging associated activities have reduced this site to just six or seven housepits.

Raymond LeBlanc excavation of a Beothuk house pit at North Angle early 1970s.

Pope’s Point is another large multi-cultural site that Helen worked at. Like the Beaches site, the Beothuk occupation at Pope’s Point has been known since the late 19th century or early 20th century. The Beothuk component consisted of several house pits, one of which Helen excavated in 1964 and described as being 15 feet in diameter and one foot deep. Unfortunately, what was left of this site after logging buildings were constructed on it in the 1970s was destroyed when an RV Park was built.

Excavation photo from Devereux’s 1965 report on Pope’s Point (Devereux)

Indian Point, Red Indian Lake was probably the last archaeological site on the Island that Helen excavated. She had field seasons here in 1969 and 1970 during which time she mapped several Beothuk features and excavated Beothuk house pits. Unfortunately, much of this site was destroyed by a local heritage organization, ironically in an effort to build a Beothuk interpretation centre in the early 1980s.

Devereux’s B5 hexagonal Beothuk housepit at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake 1970.

One of the main things Helen was trying to do at Indian Point was identify who occupied it and what the differences were between the Beothuk and Beothuk ancestor occupations. In her 1970 report, she listed several characteristics that identified each. Amongst the Beothuk ancestor artifact characteristics she listed was the presence of

  • small, corner-notched, flaked chert projectiles &
  • small, stemmed, flaked chert projectiles or knives

    Don Locke line drawings of artifacts from Indian Point. Most of these seem to be what archaeologists call Beothuk ancestors. Numbers 15 & 18 are good examples of corner-notched and stemmed points (Locke 1975).

Any archaeologist familiar with Beothuk ancestor archaeology will recognize those points as being diagnostic of the Beothuk ancestors.

Despite not finishing her thesis we know she was well on her way to completing her goal of an archaeology identity for the Beothuk. In a 1969 report, she laid out typical characteristics that would be found at late Beothuk sites such as

  • Total dependence upon iron as a replacement for stone tools
  • Modification of European iron tools
  • Clusters of house pits
  • Dependence upon caribou hunting

She listed typical characteristics that would be found at early Beothuk sites such as

  • A partial dependence on tools made of European iron, you would still see some stone tools
  • Dependence on seals for at least part of the year
  • There would be still some stone tool use including small triangular stemmed or corner-notched points

That is a great list, in fact, if I was in University today and the Prof asked “what are the typical characteristics of a Beothuk archaeological identity” I would get a solid B maybe a B+ if I gave them this list. The only thing she missed was the recognition that the small triangular stemmed or corner-notched points extend into the Beothuk ancestor period. She didn’t realize she had found the Beothuk ancestors. Today we know this Beothuk ancestor group as the Little Passage complex thanks to Gerald Penney who was the first to recognize them for what they were and named them.

Today if you asked a group of archaeologists and historians who has played an important role in our understanding of the Beothuk. They would probably list

  • James P. Howley – Wrote the first book on Beothuk
  • Ingeborg Marshall – Wrote another book on Beothuk, updating much of what Howley wrote and several important articles
  • Ralph Pastore – Found and excavated Inspector Island and Boyd’s Cove (2 of the most important Beothuk sites) wrote numerous important articles
  • Gerald Penney – Named the Little Passage complex
  • Certainly, honourable mention should be extended to Laurie McLean and Ken Reynolds for their role in revitalizing interest in Beothuk archaeology

I sincerely believe Helen E. Devereux should be added to that list.

After I posted this a colleague pointed out that Anne Stine Ingstad would have been the first woman to lead a full-scale archaeological excavation in the Province at the Norse site in L’Anse aux Meadows from 1961-1968. 


Many thanks to Matt Betts for his assistance with this post.

11 thoughts on “An Archaeological Identity for the Beothuck of the Island Of Newfoundland

  1. A nice tribute Steve, well-deserved and over due. Thank-you for being the archaeologist of the archaeologists.

  2. Thank you for both the news of Helen’s passing and the summary of what looks like very good work/reporting. You have my vote for adding her to the list. Farewell, Helen.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

  3. Living in Buchans most of my life, it has always been interesting learning different things about the beothucks , sitting on the beach of Red Indian Lake looking out over the water and seeing across to Millertown, (Indian Point) it’s amazing to think that the beothuck walked there years ago, the lake was a river back then (pre Millertown damn) but now there is a little island, Buchans island, and its thought to be haunted by some, but imagine if there was a way to survey the land in and around.

    1. Thanks Natasha. I along with several colleagues have for years looked for and still hope to find a map of the lake before it was flooded. I find it hard to believe that Lewis Miller set up a whole town and saw mill operation without knowing accurately the boundaries of the lake at that time. It would be a fascinating thing to see.
      If you are interested I wrote four more posts about Red Indian Lake and Indian Point back in 2016.

  4. Thank you Steve for the information of Helen Devereux’s passing and the commentary on her. Although she did not publish, her work was important, and she did leave rather detailed reports. She was very generous with her information, and when I contacted her with some questions, she sent me her whole thesis ms. Yes, she belongs on the list.

    1. Hi
      Unfortunaltey this last year or so hasn’t been a good one for archaeology/history in NL in terms of mentor’s passing away. Of course you know of Gerry’s passing and Helen Devereux, but Jim Tuck passed away about a year ago and earlier this year Selma Barkham passed away. Jim’s passing was acknowledged in the latest issue of the PAO Review (see the pinned post on the PAO FB page) and the passing of Gerry and Selma was also acknowledged on the PAO FB page.

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