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.

Beyond Indian Point: History and Archaeology of the Northeast Arm of Red Indian Lake, Part 3

In the previous two posts (part 1 is here and part 2 is here) we looked at Indian Point on Red Indian Lake. This time we turn our attention to other sites and historic occurrences at various other locations on the northeast arm of Red Indian Lake. This post was written by a colleague who is much more familiar with the history and archaeology of this area than I am.

Historically, the northeast arm was a narrow, linear stretch of the lake beginning at the outflow of the Exploits River which, prior to flooding in 1925, extended to the northeastward for approximately 6.5km; its pre-flood width is difficult to estimate. The lake ended at the inflow of Mary March Brook, now the location of Millertown. The north shore of the arm extended from this locale to what is today known as Miller’s Point, which lies directly across from the mouth of the Exploits. First in 1900 and again in 1925 dams were constructed across the outflow of the Exploits River. Pictures of Millertown prior to 1925 show little change in the water level of the lake. However, once the 1925 dam was constructed the lake’s shoreline changed dramatically. In fact the entire town of Millertown had to be moved from the shoreline and along Mary March Point to a much higher location on the shoreline.

Millertown in 1900-1901 prior to heavy flooding. On the left foreground is the stack associated with the lumber mill, the point of land beyond that is likely Indian Point. The houses extend well out into the lake and were built on Mary March Point. All of the buildings had to be moved up the shoreline above the mill prior to flooding in 1925. (virtualmuseum.ca)
Millertown in 1900-1901 prior to heavy flooding. On the left foreground is the stack associated with the lumber mill, the point of land beyond that is likely Indian Point. The houses extend well out into the lake and were built on Mary March Point. All of the buildings had to be moved up the shoreline above the mill prior to flooding in 1925 (virtualmuseum.ca).
Looking in the opposite direction from the previous photo. Showing Mary March Point covered in houses, the photo show just how narrow the lake was historically.
Looking in the opposite direction from the previous photo. Showing Mary March Point covered in houses, the photo show just how narrow the lake was historically (virtualmuseum.ca).
1901.5
Looking at the lumber mill with Mary March Point directly behind the photographer. All of the buildings along the shoreline shown in the previous photos were move higher on the shoreline, likely to near the level of the white building on the left of this photo. Looking down Red Indian Lake, the point of land in the background is likely Indian Point (virtualmuseum.ca).
Water wheel from the lumber mill shown at low water in 2005.
Water wheel from the lumber mill shown at low water in 2005. Notice how far back from the water all the houses are located (virtualmuseum.ca).

The English History of the Northeast Arm from 1768 to 1820
Historic documentation derived from various sources including Lieutenant John Cartwright’s expedition up the Exploits River to the lake in 1768, Lieutenant, then Captain, David Buchan’s two expeditions in the 19th century and John Peyton Junior’s ill-fated 1819 trip demonstrate the Beothuk use of the arm. Their documents, along with some of Shanawdithit’s sketches of the northeast arm, shed some light on the importance of this locale to the Beothuk.

John Cartwright’s Visit in 1768
As far as we know the first European visitor to the lake was John Cartwright. He set off from the mouth of the Exploits River in August of 1768 with 14 companions to ascertain the feasibility of traveling overland from the east coast of the island to the west coast via the Exploits River and Red Indian Lake. Cartwright also wanted to acquire a better understanding of the Beothuk and, if possible, meet with them with the intention of establishing friendly relations.

On the evening of the sixth day of travel Cartwright reached the lake, which he named Lieutenant’s Lake after his rank. At that time he recorded two points of land which he named Tacamahacca Point, after the Balsam Popular which was growing there, and Sabbath Point. Their locations are shown on a second sketch that Cartwright submitted in 1773 (see below), reproduced in Marshall 1996 A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. The first sketch drawn for his report in 1768 also the names these points, but the actual points are not shown. The 1768 sketch was reproduced in Howley’s Beothuk or Red Indians.

Tacamahacca Point was located on the east side of the outflow of the Exploits, while Sabbath Point was a couple of hundred metres further to the east. The image below shows what remains of the two points today and the small cove that they created. Cartwright recorded at least two conical wigwams at Tacamahacca Point and a rectangular house at Sabbath Point. Unfortunately these structures are probably long gone due to the industrial activity along the lake’s shoreline.

Showing Tacamahacca Point and Sabbath Point as they appear today.
Showing Tacamahacca Point and Sabbath Point as they appear today.

Cartwright’s main task during the half day that he was on the lake was to discover the location of the settlement where the Beothuk captive, Tom June, had told Cartwright his father dwelt. Cartwright shows this location on both sketches. The 1768 map shows June’s Cove on the south side of the northeast arm situated at the bottom of a small cove with a view up the lake to the west. The 1773 sketch also places June’s Cove at the bottom of the arm. However, he shows the brook (now called Mary March Brook) entering the lake on the south shore instead of the northeast end of the lake, which would indicate either that the mouth of the brook migrated northward from 1768 or Cartwright never reached the end of the arm and drew it based on what Tom June had told him. Neither of his sketches shows Indian Point nor do they show Mary March Point. Cartwright’s maps only show the northeast arm of the lake because he did not explore the rest of the lake and while he was there the lake was heavily shrouded in fog making it impossible to see the southwest end of the lake.

Cartwrights sketch showing Point and Sabbath Point, June's Cove and what we believe is meant to be Mary March Brook.
Cartwrights 1773 sketch showing Tacamahacca Point and Sabbath Point, June’s Cove and what we believe is meant to be Mary March Brook.

David Buchan’s First Visit in 1811
Lieutenant David Buchan, accompanied by 23 men and one boy from the HMS Adonis and three furriers working as guides traveled up the Exploits River in January of 1811 to attempt to open communication with the Beothuk. After 11 days of travel he and some of his crew surprised a group of Beothuk living in three wigwams (mamateeks) on the south shore of the northeast arm. Unfortunately neither Buchan’s narrative nor his plan of the lake (shown in Marshall, 1996) contains much geographical information on the location of this small village other than it was on the south shore and not far from the outlet of the Exploits River. His 1811 plan doesn’t show the end of the northeast arm. Buchan did state that two of the wigwams were found close together while the third was about a hundred yards away. What we do know is that the three wigwams could be seen from the lake and that they were only a short distance inland from the beach on top of a bank overlooking the lake. The Three Wigwam site is mentioned again later by Buchan and sketched by Shanawdithit (See sketch 2 below). Buchan also mentions an old wigwam across the lake from where he found the Beothuk.

The Peyton Visit in 1819 and The Kidnapping of Demasduit
The third expedition to the lake was carried out by the settler John Peyton Jr., his father and eight of his servants, of which at least one, Thomas Taylor, had accompanied Buchan in 1811. With the permission of Governor Hamilton, they traveled to the lake in an attempt to regain their goods that had been stolen by the Beothuk and if possible capture one of them. Unlike the two previous trips to the lake, Peyton and his men left the Exploits River well below its outfall into Red Indian Lake and instead took an overland route to the lake. Peyton told James Howley during an interview in 1871 that he had surmised that this route would take him near the head of the northeast arm where he believed the Beothuk were camped.

At this time Demasduit was captured and her husband Nonosabasut was killed . Their baby died a few days later (Shanawdithit later claimed that Nonosabasut’s brother was killed as well). Shanawdithit’s sketches show these events, sketch 2 in particular (See below).

Little is known about the whereabouts of this camp site other than it was on the north side of the lake and nearly directly across from the three wigwams which Buchan captured in 1811.

Buchan’s Second Trip 1820
After only 10 months living among the English, Demasduit died in January of 1820. This led Captain David Buchan and 49 men, including John Peyton Jr. and some of his servants, to once again journey up the Exploits River to Red Indian Lake (which Buchan named Lake Bathurst) to return Demasduit’s corpse to the camp site where she had been captured by Peyton the year before.

Upon reaching the lake Buchan described seeing the frames of two wigwams while the third had been converted by the Beothuk into a burial hut containing Nonosabasut’s body. Buchan described the two wigwam frames and burial hut as being “…situated on the North-West side four or five miles from the North-Eastern extremity of the pond by which Mr. Peyton formerly entered and nearly opposite to where I found the natives” (Howley pg. 124). Buchan’s statement that the hut was four to five miles from the end of the pond is clearly an overestimation as the length of the northeast arm in Buchan’s day was slightly more than four miles.

The 1820 expedition supplied a superior map of the lake, including landmarks, to that of the 1811 expedition. From the reproduction in Marshall’s 1996 A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk the northeast arm is fairly well shown with certain geographical features evident. Buchan’s 1811 Lookout Point located at the eastern side of the outfall of the Exploits River is likely Cartwright’s Sabbath Point. Further to the northeast Indian Point can be identified but the name given to this point by Buchan is indecipherable. From here a dotted line crosses the arm to the northeast to the location of the 1819 Beothuk encampment. Back on the south side and further eastward of Indian Point, Buchan shows the location of the three Beothuk wigwams surprised in 1811. They are nearly opposite the 1819 camp site. Slightly past the Three Wigwam site the map shows a cove a little west of the end of the lake. This cove no longer exists though it is possible that its location can still be inferred (see air photo below). Buchan named the brook running into the lake at the northeast end Indian Brook. One of the things we can confirm based on Buchan’s map is that the Three Wigwam site was located between Indian Point and the above mentioned cove.

Aerial image of the northeast arm of Red Indian Lake (Bing).
Aerial image of the northeast arm of Red Indian Lake (Bing).

On the north side of the lake west of Indian Brook, Warford’s Brook can be clearly seen, followed by a point and a slight cove where Demasduit’s camp and burial site were located. Further westward was another small point, which along with the previous mentioned point, formed the cove where the Beothuk had wintered. This point is likely Anderson’s Point. The last landmark in the northeast arm is Miller’s Point directly opposite the outflow of the Exploits. According to Buchan’s map Demasduit’s and Nonosabasut’s 1819 camp site was in the eastern edge of a cove just slightly west of Warford’s Brook. See the see air photo above for a possible location for this camp ground.

Captain Buchan's 1820 map from Marshall 1996.
Captain Buchan’s 1820 map from Marshall 1996.

Shanawdithit’s Sketches relating to Red Indian Lake
Shanawdithit, the last known Beothuk drew three sketches of the lake which recorded her perspective of the expeditions mentioned above.

Sketch #1
This sketch deals exclusively with Buchan’s expedition of 1811. On the east side of the lake at the outflow of the Exploits River, Shanawdithit shows both points named by Cartwright, Tacamahacca and Sabbath Point. Further to the east she has drawn Indian Point and between it and Mary March Point she shows the three wigwams captured by Buchan. Shanawdithit was living in the most westerly of these structures. Nearly directly across the lake and to the west of Warford’s Brook, Demasduit’s cemetery is shown.

Shanawdithit sketch 1 (Howley 1915)
Shanawdithit sketch 1 (Howley 1915)

Sketch #2
This sketch deals with the events of 1811 and 1819. Again Indian Point is clearly shown as are the three wigwams captured in 1811 by Buchan. The three wigwams on the north shore of the lake are also shown, these became the burial huts for Nonosabasut and Demasduit, however in this sketch they are shown more to the westward than in sketch #1 and they align more with the cove and shoreline directly east of Indian Point.

Shanawdithit sketch 2 (Howley 1915)
Shanawdithit sketch 2 (Howley 1915)

Sketch #3
Shanawdithit’s final drawing of the lake shows much of Red Indian Lake. It details Buchan’s 1820 expedition to return Demasduit’s body and his subsequent exploration of the lake. In this sketch Shanawdithit shows three wigwams located at the outflow of the river, likely at Cartwright’s Tacamahacca Point. Further east at Indian Point, she drew one wigwam at the base of the cove formed by the point and nearly directly across to the northeast she shows Nonosabasut and Demasduit’s cemetery. The wigwam at Indian Point is the first drawn at this location. Shanawdithit drew a line from this house to the west end of the lake. This was the site of the encampment of all the tribe after being discovered by Buchan in 1811. This line leads to the conjecture that the location of Shanawdithit’s wigwam, the most westerly of the three, was situated somewhere in the cove formed by Indian Point and not further to the east as shown in her previous two sketches.

Shanawdithit sketch 3 (Howley 1915)
Shanawdithit sketch 3 (Howley 1915)

In the next blog post we’ll explain how all this documentation has been used to record several archaeology sites in the northeast arm.


References

Howley, James P.
1980 The Beothuk or Red Indians.

Marshall, Ingeborg
1997 A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk.

Archaeology and the Beothuk at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake: Part 2

This post is part two of ‘Archaeology and the Beothuk at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake’ continued from two weeks ago. The previous post can be seen here.

In 1980 the Historic Resources Division, Department of Culture, Recreation and Youth began a multi-year project simply entitled the Beothuk Project. The purpose of the early phase of the project was to locate, test, delimit and document Beothuk (and other) archaeological sites. To my knowledge, other than issuing permits to previous archaeologists who worked at Indian Point, this is the first time the Provincial Government is directly involved with Indian Point.

As part of the Beothuk Project, Jane Sproull-Thomson directed an investigation of Indian Point in 1980 and 1981. In 1980 her intention was to ‘…assess recent damage to the site by both human and natural agencies, and to estimate the potential for future archaeological excavation‘ (Sproull-Thomson 1980). Over the course of two days Sproull-Thomson and her crew excavated five one metre square units and completed a new survey map of the site.

Like Marshall, Sproull-Thomson noted a lot of ongoing erosion and destruction of the site. ‘Erosion has removed part of the bank on the northern side of the site, Marshall’s camp area (the sand beach) is partly underwater and forms in part a sandbar, the road is washed away at the point by the pond and the low point is under approximately 20 cm. of water. As well, the bulldozed section of the site seems to have been expanded.’ Her plan for the two days of work was to ‘…locate the cultural areas of the site reported by Locke and Devereux, and to identify Devereux’s excavations.’ To her surprise she found a lot of surface material which to her suggested intact levels below. She was able to test Devereux’s A4 locality and found an intact hearth in the area with burned bone and precontact artifacts. Testing in Devereux’s A3 south locality revealed intact occupation levels and precontact artifacts. She also thought she had located a midden ~18 metres SW of Devereux’s B5 locality. She concluded her report stating ‘The Indian Point Site, although severely damaged by logging and related activity, artifact hunting and erosion, still contains significant archaeological material of probably contact period Beothuck origin. In view of this, it remains a highly important site and one which may offer considerable insight into the Beothuck problem‘ (Sproull-Thomson 1980).

Sproull-Thomson returned to the site July 1 – July 18, 1981 with the intention of assessing the potential of the site then excavate it. She opened eight one metre squares; the sole diagnostic artifact recovered was a corner-notched projectile point. Despite this, she did make some interesting observations. To her it seemed the portions of the site nearest the water appear to be mostly precontact, and those farthest back in the woods were historic Beothuk. She speculated that this was a reasonable expectation considering most Beothuk people wanted to remain hidden from Europeans (Sproull-Thomson 1981).

Despite finding few precontact artifacts she did locate a new historic housepit south of Devereux’s B5 locality. The housepit had a distinct circular hearth and a possible sleeping hollow. Charcoal collected from the hearth produced a date of 150±70 B.P. (Beta-3677). Test excavations through the hearth and wall comprising four one metre squares yielded two artifacts, an iron pot fragment and a nail (Sproull-Thomson 1981).

Testing of new housepit. Wall of the housepit can be seen in the photo (Sproull-Thomson).
Testing of new housepit. Wall of the housepit can be seen in the photo (Sproull-Thomson).

One of the concluding paragraphs of her reports states the following: ‘Our conversations with concerned people and an illustrated talk given in Millertown led the Red Indian Lake Development Association to seek help from Historic Resources in applying for a federal grant to begin development of the Indian Point site as an interpretive park. At this writing, funds have been awarded and work has begun on cleanup of the site and repairs to the access road. It will be an enormous satisfaction to see this aboriginal settlement take its rightful place in the Province’s history(Sproull-Thomson 1981).

View to the SW in 1981. The main areas of Devereux's work localities A3, A3 South, A4 and B4 were located to the right in the photo among the trees and bushes on the small hills. Marshall had camped on the opposite side of those bushes in 1978 on the exposed lake side of the point (Sproull-Thomson 1981)
View to the SW in 1981. The main areas of Devereux’s work, localities A3, A3 South, A4 and B4 were located to the right in the photo among the trees and bushes on the small hills. Marshall had camped on the opposite side of those bushes in 1978 on the exposed lake side of the point (Sproull-Thomson 1981).
Jane Sproull-Thomson's map of Indian Point showing, Locke's features and Devereux's features. The previous photo was take with the photographers back to the cove looking down the site to the SW. (Sproull-Thomson 1981)
Jane Sproull-Thomson’s map of Indian Point showing Locke’s features and Devereux’s features. The previous photo was taken with the photographers back to the cove looking down the site to the SW (Sproull-Thomson 1981).

From this point on, no more in depth archaeological work occurs at Indian Point and the site has periodic visits by various archaeologists. In 1982 Callum Thomson conducted an archaeological survey from Red Indian Lake to Grand Falls along the Exploits River from May 29 to June 19. Before they started the survey they stopped at Indian Point where the Red Indian Lake Development Association was preparing the site for its future use as a park and interpretation centre. Thomson noted, in particular, that ‘We were relieved to note that the few intact parts of the historic and prehistoric site had not been endangered in the clean-up process.‘ On June 19th they returned to Indian Point, ‘Here we were devastated by the new appearance of the Indian Point site. One or more members of the Red Indian Lake Development Association had authorized bulldozer stripping and leveling of parts of the remaining cultural deposits, resulting in the partial destruction of habitation structures, middens, hearths and the scattering of artifacts, animal bones and charcoal, with a consequent loss of archaeological context and information. This grossly negligent act underlines the absolute necessity for developments of this kind to be approached slowly and carefully, under the constant supervision of a professional archaeologist. While ultimate responsibility for this type of destruction is accepted by the Historic Resources Division, which approved the original plans, it will continue until more staff and resources are made available for the immense volume of work generated by the Historic Sites and Objects Act‘ (Thomson 1982).

Six photos stitched together showing Indian Point in 1985 after the leveling of the site in 1982. This photo is taken from the same general area as the Sproull-Thomson photo in 1981. Completely gone are the small bushes, trees and small hills on the right side that held Devereux's various site localities (Thomson 1985).
Six photos stitched together showing Indian Point in 1985 after the leveling of the site in 1982. This photo is taken from the same general area as the Sproull-Thomson photo in 1981. Completely gone are the small bushes, trees and small hills on the right side of the photo that held Devereux’s various site localities (Thomson 1985).

Callum Thomson and Don Locke conducted another survey of Red Indian Lake and Exploits River in 1987 to inspect several archaeological sites that were known to Locke. Once again they started at Indian Point noting the location of disturbed and eroded habitation areas. Despite this Thomson notes ‘There are still, however, several known areas of intact deposits and probably some unknown areas.‘ He does not state where these areas are located. They also inspected the area east of the main site at Indian Point which Locke had found in the 1960s. More archaeological material was found here. In fact it appears as though Indian Point would have extended over most of the point and well into the cove to the east. Unfortunately, most of this portion of the site has eroded (Thomson 1987).

Cove to the east of Indian Point (right side of photo) showing erosion of the shoreline (Thomson).
Cove to the east of Indian Point (right side of photo) showing erosion of the shoreline (Thomson).

In 1992 Fred Schwarz conducted a major archaeological survey of the Exploits Basin from where the Exploits River empties into the Bay of Exploits back to Red Indian Lake. While he did visit the site he did no actual work there (Schwarz 1992).

Charles Burke, representing Parks Canada’s Atlantic Service Centre, visited Indian Point in 2002 in order to assess the extent of purported damage to the site. Parks had learned that a parking area had been constructed in the area of Helen Devereaux’s excavations, essentially bisecting the site. Burke also observed damage due to shoreline erosion.

In 2009 archaeologist Laurie McLean was hired to conduct an impact assessment at Indian Point for the installation of a Hydro-Meteorological (Hydromet) Station. A total of 27 test pits were dug where the station was to be installed and three more were dug in a line on the beach, following the route for a buried cable which was to run from the station to Red Indian Lake. The test pits on the beach were sterile while five of the 27 test pits dug on the level terrace above the beach contained badly waterworn stone artifacts.

Finally, Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) staff has made several visits to Indian Point over the years. Mostly these were brief visits to check on the site’s condition. In 2012 PAO staff made a visit to the site while in the area on other business. While we did not find in situ remains, we did find plenty of fire-cracked rock on the surface and reason to believe the site may yet have in situ deposits.

Fire-cracked rock seen at Indian Point in 2012.
Fire-cracked rock seen at Indian Point in 2012.

There is also a local group called the Red Indian Lake Heritage Society who try to monitor the site. In 2009 they had a series of interpretive panels installed on the point (the PAO tested the location of the panels prior to their installation). The panels tell the story of the Beothuk who inhabited the Red Indian Lake region. The society did such a good job with the panels that they were awarded the Manning Award by the Historic Sites Association in both the National Category and the Overall Winner for 2011.

Interpretive panel at Indian Point.
Interpretive panel at Indian Point.

In the end what have we learned from Indian Point?  In the very least we learned that the site was used in the precontact period and the historic period by both the Beothuk and their precontact ancestors. While living at the site in mamateeks (or wigwams) they had been processing caribou and making tools from stone and iron. It also appears that they may have been applying ochre to a canoe. These are all good things to know, however, Indian Point has much more to teach us. To paraphrase an archaeologist who helped me with the post, the history of this site is nearly allegorical, symbolizing all over again the end of the Beothuk, and, once again, our helplessness in the face of forces that no one could control (1829 all over again). What can we take away from the story of Indian Point? Is there a lesson-learned component to it? Has it led to any particular action by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador? These are open questions that we can all try to answer. I know the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) now consists  of four people who collectively have more than 100 years of archaeology experience, this places the PAO much farther ahead of the Culture and Heritage Division in 1982 when Callum Thomson was asking for more staff. I know since 2003 the PAO has reviewed more than 1500 Land Use Referrals per year, in the last four years that number has risen to more 2500 per year on average. So a land use referral for something like an interpretive park, such as was proposed for Indian Point in 1980, would be closely scrutinized by PAO staff. I also know that when a development, such as an interpretive park, is proposed in an area with archaeological potential or a known archaeological site the PAO will implement mitigative measures whether it be require an archaeological assessment, monitor construction, require buffers, etc. While these improvements are not a direct result of Indian Point, hopefully they will prevent another Indian Point.

Have we learned the lessons of Indian Point? I hope so.


McLean, Laurie
2009 Preliminary Report for Permit 09.48 a Stage 1 HRIA at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake.

Schwarz, Fred
1992 Archaeological Investigations in the Exploits Basin: Report on the 1992 Field Survey.

Sproull-Thomson, Jane
1980  Red Indian Lake ‑ Indian Point Site Survey ‑ June 20‑21, 1980.

1982  Investigations at Red Indian Lake. Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1981, Annual Report No. 2. Edited by Thomson, J.S. and C. Thomson; Historic Resources Division, Government of Newfoundland, pp 174-189.

Thomson, Callum
1982  An Archaeological Survey of the Exploits River from Red Indian Lake to Grand Falls   May 29- June 19, 1982.

1987  Archaeological survey of Red Indian Lake and Exploits River with D. Locke 1987 10 27-29.

Archaeology and the Beothuk at Indian Point, Red Indian Lake: Part 1

The history of Red Indian Lake is intimately tied to the aboriginal occupation of the Island of Newfoundland. Based on artifacts recovered we know the site was used by Archaic, Palaeoeskimo and Recent Indian period peoples. As well, there is plenty of evidence for Beothuk and Mi’kmaq use of the lake in the historic period. Evidence for most, if not all of these peoples was found at or near Indian Point on the northeast arm of the lake, just southwest of the town of Millertown. In fact the Beothuk occupation was thought to be so significant that in 1978 the site was designated a National Historic site by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

Initially I planned to write a single post on just the Beothuk occupation of the point, but the more I looked at it the more I realized what a long relationship the point has had with archaeology. The post became more of a history of research at Indian Point than about just the Beothuk occupation. What follows is the first half of this history, the second half will be posted in two weeks.

Unofficially, archaeology began at the point with Frank Speck in 1914. I say unofficially for two reasons. First Speck was actually an American ethnographer, not an archaeologist, who, in his own words, made a ‘…pilgrimage, to Red Indian Lake and Exploits river, the country of the Beothuk, in the hope of resurrecting some traditional or material traces of their existence.‘ Because of his focus on ethnological work, Speck spent very little time at Indian Point. He did record seeing at least seven, what he called, ‘…wigwam-pits…’ at the point. The second reason I wrote that archaeology unofficially began with Speck is because he recorded that the Mi’kmaq told him they would ‘…frequently dig in these Red Indian wigwam-pits and find curious iron implements – knives, axes, traps, and the like…‘ (Speck 1922).

By 1914 the site was probably already damaged by logging and the construction of a dam at the head of the lake on the Exploits River. Both of these activities were initiated by Louis Miller, the founder of Millertown (Taylor n.d.).

Lookout Tree.
The Lookout Tree. According to Speck the Beothuk used the large tree in the middle of the photo as a look out point, to watch for approaching caribou. This story must have been told to him by locals or the Mi’kmaq. Cut logs from the Millertown logging operation can already be seen on the beach near the tree (Speck 1922).

In 1925, eleven years after Speck’s visit, the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company finished the construction of a much larger dam at the junction of Red Indian Lake and the Exploits River. In the late 1960s, archaeologist Helen Devereux interviewed several of the older residents of Millertown. None of them could recall the look-out tree referred to in the photo above. The dam had altered the water level of the lake so that the tree and portions of Indian Point were flooded and eroded (Devereux 1970).

In 1962 the site was rediscovered by local avocational archaeologist Don Locke.  Locke was knowledgeable and genuinely cared about understanding the Beothuk. He did his ‘testing and excavation’ with the best of intentions, including the building of a replica Beothuk village and interpretation centre. Without Locke’s early work our knowledge of Indian Point would be considerably less than it currently is. His first investigation of the point came in 1967; he excavated parts of the point over three summers. During his work he recovered thousands of lithic pieces (mostly flakes) and numerous historic artifacts. He also identified what he thought were five long houses, 11 housepits and two rock fire beds (I believe these were fireplace middens). He thought the site was much larger but had been heavily impacted by erosion and heavy equipment that had been on the point to build landing skids for tug boats that had been on the lake. He also found cultural material east of the pond/road on the map below.

Locke's map of Indian Point features (1975).
Locke’s map of Indian Point features (1975).

J. Garth Taylor, an anthropologist and ethnologist, surveyed parts of Red Indian Lake and the Exploit’s River for the National Museum of Canada in July and August of 1964. The focus of this project was the archaeological identification of the Beothuk. The project was under the direction of Miss Helen Devereux of the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto (Taylor 1064).

Taylor interviewed Mr. James Beaton of Badger about the change in the water level of Red Indian Lake. Mr. Beaton was more than eighty years old at the time of the interview and had traveled the lakes and streams of the region for the better part of his life. He felt very strongly that any Beothuk encampments that may have been on the shore of Red Indian Lake could not possibly have survived the construction of the Exploits Dam. Unfortunately, I think Taylor allowed the opinion of Mr. Beaton to influence his opinion on what remained of Beothuk sites in the area (Taylor 1064).

In reading Taylor’s report he seems to have put very little effort in to looking for Beothuk sites. During a visit to Indian Point in July of 1964 Taylor writes the visit ‘…confirmed everything that Mr. Beaton said. Only a gravel shoal remains to remind the observer of what was formerly an important Beothuk campsite. Nothing suggestive of former occupation could be found, either on the exposed portion of the shoal, or in the seven test-pits dug along the top of the bank which was once the base of the Point‘ (Taylor 1964). Compare this with the fact that two year prior Don Locke found a massive site with several house features and middens.

With Don Locke showing her the location of the site, Helen Devereux became the first archaeologist to conduct work at Indian Point in 1969. She returned to the site for full scale excavation from June 26 to August 27, 1970. Her work focused on the origins and relationships of the Beothuk. One of the first things she noticed was the level of destruction that had taken place from construction, erosion and looting, stating ‘…artifact collectors have visited the site and dug for artifacts for the last 50 years‘ (Devereux 1970).

Devereux seems to have done an excellent job of assessing and excavating portions of the site. Just as importantly her report is very well written with a lot of detail. Part of her goal was to identify who occupied the site and when it was used (i.e. precontact period, historic period or both). In the end she does clearly identify that the site had both a precontact Beothuk ancestor occupation and an historic Beothuk occupation. In fact she recovers enough charcoal from locality A3 to produce an early historic period Beothuk date of 1595±100 AD (I-6562). She goes to great lengths to explain her excavation methodology and explains in detail her reasoning for why she felt some features were precontact while others were historic. Fortunately for us, most of her work was concentrated in the now eroded north end of the site, this area of the occupation is now totally gone. What follows are some of the more important features investigated.

devereux
Map showing the location of Devereux’s various localities at Indian Point (1970).

Area A3 contained an historic Beothuk hearth feature which was seven feet long and two feet wide and contained a concentration of fire cracked rock, charcoal and bone mash, all of which was about three inches deep. They recovered a piece of iron, perhaps part of a trap in the hearth (Devereux 1970).

Area A3 also contained precontact features including two hearths and three dense concentrations of fire-cracked rock, one fire-cracked rock concentration and one unburned bone concentration. One of the two hearths contained two small corner-notched projectiles, two chert flakes and one hammerstone. Other features in this level also contained other precontact artifacts (Devereux 1970). Today, corner-notched projectile points are diagnostic of the archaeologically recognized Little Passage complex, the people of that cultural complex are the direct precontact ancestors of the Beothuk.

A3 South contained an incomplete circular embankment, the outside diameter of which was about 26 feet. Unfortunately, the south and east sides of the embankment were not discernible. Either it was originally incomplete or had been more recently removed. Devereux recorded that the embankment itself is smoothly rounded, about five feet across, and has a maximum elevation of about 18 inches above the surrounding natural surface. In the centre of the feature were a number of definite lumps and hollows. Unfortunately she did not have a lot of time to thoroughly investigate the feature. The interior had fire-cracked rocks, flakes and bone. Devereux speculated the feature was the remains of a precontact circular housepit or perhaps subsurface storage pits (Devereux 1970).

Locality A4 contained an historic Beothuk hearth, which was about four feet in diameter and contained fire-cracked rocks, charcoal, bone fragments and several metal artifacts. A small plain brass button was also recovered in this locality (Devereux 1970).

Locality A4 also contained precontact features including one small hearth, two concentrations of fire-cracked rock, of which one was disturbed, a diffuse midden of fire-cracked rock with calcined bone, and a concentration of broken rock with a chert core and flakes (Devereux 1970).

a4
Map showing the location of Devereux’s various localities at Indian Point (1970).

One of the precontact concentrations of fire-cracked rock consisted of a compact tightly interlocked fire-cracked rock crust with chert flakes. Below the fire-cracked rock lay a three inch layer of black humic soil containing fire-cracked rock, chert flakes, and burned bone. According to Devereux, the distribution of materials in this feature indicates that burned bone and chert are distributed concentrically and exclusively, except in a limited transition area. Burned bone occurs centrally and chert peripherally in the feature and beyond it. Based on the description it seems the bone was dumped in the fire while flint-knapping (chert tool making) occurred on the outer edges of the fire (Devereux 1970).

Devereux’s B5 feature was an historic Beothuk hexagonal housepit which measured 25 feet by 20 feet with the long axis oriented east-west. The pit portion of the house had a maximum depth of 1.5 feet below the surrounding surface. She describes the pit as: ‘The side walls lie below the natural level of the ground and are represented by smooth slopes 9 in. in height. Their top edge is flush with the natural surface of the ground: there seems to be no mounding up or fill around the perimeter of the depression. The walls slope downward and inward so that the perimeter of the depression is greater at the top edges of the walls than at the base. The wall slope is less discernible in the area of what is probably the doorway.‘ Inside the house she found a large central hearth with fire-cracked rock and burned bone concentrations. She also recovered one piece of iron, and identified a red ochre patch inside, and identified several exterior concentrations of fire-cracked rock and caribou bone (Devereux 1970).

Devereux's B5 hexagonal Beothuk housepit (1970).
Devereux’s B5 hexagonal Beothuk housepit (1970).

The B5 locality also had a precontact occupation as indicated by the presence of a dense concentration of fire-cracked rock covering an area eight feet long and six feet wide. This deposit also contained flakes and burned bone (Devereux 1970).

B4 was another precontact feature consisting of an extensive deposit of fire-cracked rock with a lower red ochre deposit. According to Devereux the whole feature was the richest source of artifacts on the site which was dug by an artifact collector several years previously. The collector recovered projectiles, knives, scrapers, stone hammers, chert flakes and cores. The red ochre deposit consisted of two parallel but irregular lines oriented northeast-southwest. ‘The eastern line of red ochre stain was longer and more intense in colour than the west line. It was 22 feet long and about 16 inches wide. Two feet to the west, the west line measured about eight feet long and 18 inches wide.’ Devereux speculated the ochre stain ‘…would be congruent with the plan of an upturned canoe‘ (Devereux 1970).

In locality D4 there was a feature containing a large concentration of fire-cracked rock (more than 4000 pieces) as well as stone tools and flakes. The whole feature measured approximately 10 feet in either direction and was roughly triangular in shape (Devereux 1970).

In 1978 Ingeborg Marshall made a brief stop at Indian Point ‘…to see previously excavated sites and get an idea of the terrain.’ She noted a lot of destruction and looting to the site including that the Price (Nfld.) Pulp and Paper company was using the small lagoon at the north end of the point ‘…to tie up company boats. An access road to the lake and a launching pad have been bulldozed across the site.’ Further she noted that the various dams built at the head of the lake had raised the water level which had continued to erode the shoreline by as much as 30-60 metres inland. ‘Also the use of Red Indian Lake for transportation of logs destined for the paper mill has led to the accumulation of stray logs on the shores. When the water level rises, such as happens in spring, the logs pound against the banks of the shore and cause them to collapse.‘ Marshall also found that the site was still suffering from looting. Despite all the erosion and looting Marshall still found a stone point and several small flakes (Marshall 1978).

Photos from Marshall 1978 showing ongoing erosion at the site.
Photos from Marshall 1978 showing ongoing erosion at the site.
Pulp logs on the shore of Red Indian Lake the constant movement of which helped destroy large areas of the site. (Sproull-Thomson)
Pulp logs on the shore of Red Indian Lake the constant movement of which helped destroy large areas of the site (Sproull-Thomson).

Artifacts found at Indian Point over the years.

In 1980 the Historic Resources Division, Department of Culture, Recreation and Youth began a multi-year project simply entitled the Beothuk Project. The purpose of the early phase of the project was to locate, test, delimit and document Beothuk (and other) archaeological sites. The rest of the Indian Point story will be told in the next post in two weeks.


Devereux, Helen
1970  A Preliminary Report on the Indian Point Site, Newfoundland ‑ A Stratified Beothuck Site.

Locke, Donald
1975  Historic and Prehistoric Site ‑ Indian Point Site #1.

Speck, Frank G.
1922 Beothuk and Micmac. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York.

Taylor, Albert
n.d.  Indian Point.

Taylor, J. Garth
1964 An Archaeological Survey of Red Indian Lake and the Exploits River.

Fieldwork 2015

I had another great year writing posts about Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeology. But, now it’s time for me to do what most archaeologists love to do. Go out into the field and excavate or find more sites. This blog will be on hiatus until September, 2015. Thanks for your interest.

Standing in a Beothuk housepit on Two Mile Island
Archaeologist in his natural element. Standing in a Beothuk housepit on Two Mile Island taking notes.

Canadian Archaeological Association: 47th Annual Meeting

The 47th annual meeting of the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) was held in St. John’s last week. The CAA was founded in 1968. Membership includes professional, avocational and student archaeologists, as well as individuals of the general public of any country, who are interested in furthering the objectives of the Association. These objectives are:

  • To promote the increase and the dissemination of archaeological knowledge in Canada;
  • To promote active discourse and cooperation among archaeological societies and agencies and encourage archaeological research and conservation efforts;
  • To foster cooperative endeavours with aboriginal groups and agencies concerned with First Peoples’ heritage of Canada;
  • To serve as the national association capable of promoting activities advantageous to archaeology and discouraging activities detrimental to archaeology;
  • To publish archaeological literature, and;
  • To stimulate the interest of the general public in archaeology. (CAA 2015)

This year’s conference was organized by the Department of Archaeology at Memorial University and in my opinion the conference was excellent and went off without the slightest problem. I had the privilege of attending sessions on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The best thing about these conferences is being able to sit in a room with peers and colleagues and learn from them. You get to learn from the people who are in the field and doing the work, bringing the past alive through archaeology. I saw a lot of great presentations. What follows, in no particular order, is a brief description of what were some of the more interesting topics to me.

William Gilbert did a presentation entitled “Dwelling There Still”: Historical Archaeology in Cupids, Newfoundland. I’ve attended presentations by Bill a few times and I always enjoy them. He knows his topic so well that his presentations are more like him telling stories off the top of his head. This presentation was about the true significance of the founding of Cupids in 1610 and the role the Newfoundland Company, who funded and founded the Cupids colony, played in establishing other early Newfoundland colonies.

Excavations at Cupids showing the ghost structure above the original colony
Excavations at Cupids showing the ghost structure above the original colony (Gilbert)

After Bill presented, Barry Gaulton did a presentation on archaeology at Ferryland entitled How much can a big hole in the ground tell you?: Preliminary investigations into the 1620s builder’s trench associated with Lord Baltimore’s Mansion House at Ferryland, Newfoundland. This presentation focused on Sir George Calvert’s Mansion House at Ferryland; its size, the nature of its construction or how this building functioned within the physical and social confines of seventeenth-century Ferryland. In 2013-2014, investigations directly south of the Mansion House’s stone hall revealed a deep and wide builder’s trench infilled with approximately 6 feet of compacted, sterile clay and rock. At the very bottom of the trench was a thin layer of refuse associated with the construction of the stone hall and, more importantly, the activities of the ordinary colonists and craftsmen who built it. Barry then went in to a discussion of what was found in this trench and how those discoveries allow us to better understand the builders and how they lived.

Builder’s trench located south of the Mansion House hall (foreground). Field crew with range poles delineate the eastern and western parameters of the trench, as well as the varied depths at each end (Gaulton)
Builder’s trench located south of the Mansion House hall (foreground). Field crew with range poles delineate the eastern and western parameters of the trench, as well as the varied depths at each end (Gaulton)

Another interesting presentation was by John Erwin which was titled Large-Scale Systematic Study of Prehistoric Soapstone Vessel Metrics from Newfoundland and Labrador. This study was based upon the measurement of over 3600 soapstone vessel fragments and it resulted in some interesting conclusions. Some of those conclusions include, there seems to be more soapstone vessels on the Island than in Labrador; Regional distinctions between Labrador and the Island of Newfoundland can be seen in rim finishes; and with few exceptions, almost every vessel in the province could have been manufactured at the Fleur de Lys Quarry.

Quantity of soapstone vessel fragments at Palaeoeskimo sites in Newfoundland and Labrador
Quantity of soapstone vessel fragments at Palaeoeskimo sites in Newfoundland and Labrador (Erwin)

Laurie McLean gave an interesting presentation titled Observations on the Morphologies and Distribution of Beothuk Housepits. Laurie took Beothuk housepit data from excavated sites and data that he has gathered from work he has done at the Beaches site and along the Exploits River and found patterns in the data. Those patterns include that the Beothuk initially modified their traditional conical wigwam template into similar-sized more substantial housepits and that those housepits became larger through time. The data, according to Laurie, indicate that early Beothuk housepits were easy to see and had a diverse toolkit indicating a productive economy that included trade with Europeans. This preceded a breakdown in Beothuk-European relations, resulting in a whole scale Beothuk shift to the Exploits Valley. Larger, multi-family houses became the norm in the interior with the most recent structures placed among tree cover and further from the river to avoid discovery by Europeans.

Red Indian Falls 2 (DfBb-04), Housepit 2 (McLean)
Red Indian Falls 2 (DfBb-04), Housepit 2 (McLean)

There was also an interesting presentation by Blair Temple called Urban Archaeology as an Archaeology of Governance: Examples from 19th Century St. John’s, Newfoundland. His presentation examined the impact and role that the various applications of governance have had on the creation of the archaeological record in St. John’s. He focused specifically on major fires in St. John’s past arguing that they were possibly the most prominent event providing impetus for government action and regulation.

Looking east along Water Street from Prescott Street, prior to the Great Fire of 1892. Not only were all the buildings you see here destroyed by the fire, but the course of Water Street in this area was changed after the fire, to straighten out this curve – which, incidentally followed the historic shoreline. (Penney)
Looking east along Water Street from Prescott Street, prior to the Great Fire of 1892. The course of Water Street in this area was changed after the fire (per government regulation), to straighten out this curve – which incidentally followed the historic shoreline. (Penney)
Fire-fused ceramics, from J.H. Martins crockery shop, predecessors of S. O. Steele. (Penney)
Fire-fused ceramics, from J.H. Martins crockery shop, predecessors of S. O. Steele. (Penney)

I also sat in on a session called How we talk about the past. Differences in seeing, learning, knowing and telling about indigenous heritage and history as viewed from Nitassinan and Mi’kma’ki which was hosted by Stephen Loring and Chelsee Arbour. I didn’t see all the presentations in the session but I did get to take in three and an Innu film by Christine Poker. One of the presentations in this session was by Richard Nuna entitled Reflections on Innu History. Richard spoke about how to reconcile aboriginal knowledge and country-based experiences with scientific knowledge, principles and practice.

Unfortunately there were lots of sessions and presentations that I was unable to attend because they were running back to back with other sessions. Despite this it was a great conference and a great learning experience.


2015 Canadian Archaeological Association Conference Program and Abstracts

Erwin, John
2015 A Large-Scale Systematic Study of Prehistoric Soapstone Vessel Metrics
from Newfoundland and Labrador. April, 2015, Canadian Archaeological Association Annual Meeting

McLean, Laurie
2015 Observations Concerning Beothuk Housepits. April, 2015, Canadian Archaeological Association Annual Meeting

Penney, Gerald
2010 “Under the Street:” Archaeology and the Harbour Interceptor Sewer Project.
An illustrated talk delivered at The Rooms, 24 February 2010

What is the …most interesting …oldest …nicest …weirdest artifact you ever found?

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.

Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd's Cove (Pastore)
Beothuk bone pendant from Boyd’s Cove (Pastore)
Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)
Basque barrel scribe Saddle Island, Red Bay. I believe this was used by the Basque to inscribe information onto barrels
Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay  (Mercer)
Dorset soapstone pot with chert butterfly mend, Saddle Island, Red Bay

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.

Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (Tuck)
Full piece of soapstone with butterfly mend from Saddle Island, Red Bay (right side) (Tuck)

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.”

Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)
Fleur de Lys Dorset Palaeoeskimo wooden ladle (Erwin)

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.

Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook
Beothuk summer wigwam being eroded by the brook (Reynolds)

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.

Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert
Typical Dorset Palaeoeskimo endblades made of Trinity Bay chert

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!

Parke's Beach, Middle Arm, 1997
Parke’s Beach, Middle Arm, 1997

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.