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.

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).

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.

Indiana Jones and the Public Perception of Archaeology

I love the Indiana Jones movies, they are a lot of fun and I really like Harrison Ford as an actor but I have to say, he has ruined the public perception of what archaeology really is about. For example, I do not own a felt Fedora, a bullwhip or a pistol. However, I do own an excellent Tilley hat, a nice Marshalltown trowel and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been in a fist fight; none of those fights were with other archaeologists or Nazis. Archaeologists do not follow maps to buried treasure (It is an artifact, not treasure!), we would not search an entire site for just one artifact, and X never marks the spot.

X never marks the spot, unless you're in a movie.
X never marks the spot, unless you’re in a movie.

As an example of just how wrong Indiana has portrayed archaeology lets just look at survey work. So if X never marks the spot, how do we actually find archaeology sites? Very often members of the public tell us about artifacts they have found. This has led to the discovery of sites such as the Norse occupation at L’Anse aux Meadows and the Maritime Archaic cemetery at Port au Choix (In nearly 20 years of doing archaeology I have never been told about gold artifacts – sorry Indiana). Many archaeology sites are found as part of an archaeology survey that come in two main forms; a survey geared toward finding sites of a particular culture or a survey to find any archaeological sites. The two are not mutually exclusive; even on a survey searching for a particular culture, all the sites that are found are recorded. Surveys are usually undertaken in areas where archaeological work has not been done before. I am pretty sure Indiana Jones would never take part in an archaeology survey unless he knew a site existed in the area.

The Cross of Coronado from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The Cross of Coronado from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
A much cooler cross. While it may not have featured in a movie this cross was actually found in an archaeology site; Ferryland.
A much cooler cross. While it was not featured in a movie, this cross was actually found on an archaeology site, Ferryland.

Usually surveys that are geared toward finding sites of a particular culture are often run by academics with specific research questions. For example, I worked on a project where the director was mainly interested in finding precontact aboriginal sites on the Baie Verte Peninsula; in particular, he was mostly interested in Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites. During the survey we made sure to search places where Dorset sites are typically found such as outer exposed coastal areas because the Dorset were a marine oriented people. Luckily enough we did find some Palaeoeskimo material, but we also found several sites from other cultures such as Recent Indian and European. We ended up excavating a nice Recent Indian site that summer, despite the fact that the focus of the work was on Palaeoeskimo material.

This is the only scene from the Indiana Jones movies where he did anything that approximated an archaeological survey, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This is the only scene from the Indiana Jones movies where he did anything that approximated an archaeological survey, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Dorset end blades - the one on the left has been tip fluted.
Dorset end blades – the one on the left has been tip fluted (Rast).

I’ve discussed another survey that was geared toward finding sites of a particular culture in my previous post on the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq. That survey was geared toward looking for Mi’kmaq sites; unfortunately, it was not as successful from a Mi’kmaq perspective as was the survey I participated in looking for Dorset sites. However, the Mi’kmaq survey did result in the discovery of 18 new archaeology sites.

The second type of survey work, when the goal is to find all archaeological sites, is often undertaken in areas where little archaeological work had previously occurred or in an area that is slated for development and has to be archaeologically assessed. I have also participated in this type of survey. In 1997, I helped to survey the area around the community of Bird Cove on the Northern Peninsula. The area had never been assessed archaeologically and we ended up finding 15 sites that year which contained everything from 4500-year-old Maritime Archaic material to recent European material.

Graveyard style biface from the Maritime Archaic Caines site at Bird Cove.
Graveyard style biface from the Maritime Archaic Caines site at Bird Cove (Rast).
Ground slate biface from the Maritime Archaic Big Droke site at Bird Cove.
Ground slate biface from the Maritime Archaic Big Droke site at Bird Cove (Rast).

In terms of archaeology surveys prior to development, an example in this province would be the huge multi-year archaeological survey undertaken in the area around Voisey’s Bay just before the mine and processing plant were slated to be built. In just the mine area, more than 50 sites were located. They included everything from Maritime Archaic and Intermediate Indian to more recent Innu, Inuit and European sites.

Regardless of the form of survey, prior to any ground disturbance the archaeologist must apply to the appropriate permitting authority (Provincial Archaeology Office, Nunatsiavut archaeology Office or Parks Canada, depending upon where the survey is to occur) for an archaeology permit before survey work can occur. In the case of the Provincial Archaeology Office that authority comes from the Historic Resources Act. Each permit application is reviewed and if an application is found to be lacking information (which rarely happens), the correct permitting authority will notify the archaeologist of what needs to be corrected. All archaeological resources that are found during survey work are recorded and that information is passed on to the appropriate permitting authority. If the permitting authority is assured that historic resources will not be impacted, the project can proceed. Of course, this is a very simplistic explanation, but it is the bare bones of the process.

On the ground, regardless of the survey form, a team of archaeologists or people trained by archaeologists usually undertakes archaeology surveys. Depending on the area to be surveyed, the team may spread out in a line with a few metres between each member and they will dig a test pit with a shovel and trowel. Usually the test pits are 30-50 centimetres square and the team member will be looking for artifacts or maybe soil changes that may indicate a buried occupation horizon. If nothing is found the team member will pick up his/her gear, move ahead a few metres depending on the archaeologist’s discretion, and dig another test pit. However, if the team member finds an artifact or a soil deposit that may relate to a site the archaeologist is notified and the team may dig extra test pits around the find spot in an effort to delineate the potential size of the site. The site may be comprised of just that single find in the test pit or the team could find themselves on the edge of a site that is thousands of metres square in size. All of this methodology is typical and is usually defined in the archaeologists permit application. Survey work can be slow, tedious and backbreaking if you find nothing; I somehow doubt Indiana would have enjoyed survey work.

Surveying the Fisherman Cove site outside Bird Cove.
Surveying the Fisherman Cove site outside Bird Cove. Looking over a series of test pits. One test pit is covered in the foreground, a second is located where the team member is lying down, a third is seen where Reader & Caines are kneeling. Caines has just found the Caribou hoof amulet seen below.
Caribou hoof amulet from Fisherman Cove 2 (Hartery)
Caribou hoof amulet from Fisherman Cove 2 (Hartery)

This method also resulted in the discovery of North Cove, the Recent Indian and Dorset Palaeoeskimo site that I excavated as part of my Masters Thesis near Bird Cove. Unlike Indiana Jones, I didn’t have to shoot anyone or get into a fist fight with any Nazis to find the site and everything I found was properly recorded and documented.

1998 excavation at North Cove.
1998 excavation at North Cove.
Part of a hearth (fireplace) uncovered at North Cove.
Part of a hearth (fireplace) uncovered at North Cove.

As much fun as the movies were, as an archaeologist I have to ask, did Indiana Jones do anything to help archaeology? Yes, a little. The movies and character certainly popularized the discipline and made people realize the importance of properly displaying artifacts in a museum for everyone to see. Yet, he did so much else that makes archaeologists everywhere cringe. I can’t really see Indiana applying for a permit to do survey work, nor can I see him recording everything that he found. Indiana would not go through this process, he’d just shoot someone.


Enthusiast of a different kind – Metal detectors

As an archaeologist people who have found artifacts such as old pieces of ceramic, square nails or various stone tools while they are out on a walk or building a new fence on their property contact me on a regular basis. I think these people show us their artifacts because they are history enthusiasts. They are genuinely interested in knowing about our past. Increasingly, we are hearing about another type of enthusiast, the metal detector enthusiast. We are not sure exactly how prevalent this activity is in Newfoundland and Labrador but we are sure it is becoming more popular. I informally polled the Provincial Archaeology Offices across Canada and discovered that this activity is occurring right across the country. Using and owning a metal detector is legal, however, it becomes illegal when these tools are used to find archaeology sites and dig up artifacts.

In this Province, I get the impression that most metal detector enthusiasts are searching public areas such as parks, beaches and popular walking trails looking for things such as recently lost coins or jewellery. As an archaeologist, this type of activity makes me very nervous, but for the most part, it will not harm an archaeological site. However, there are also people who use metal detectors in places such as National Historic Sites and archaeological sites. These areas cause us the most concern with regard to archaeological resources being disturbed or destroyed.

Signal Hill, National Historic Site.
Signal Hill, National Historic Site.

If someone is using a metal detector on a National Historic Sites or an archaeological site it is more likely they are looking for archaeological artifacts. Chances are these people are collecting artifacts to add to their own personal collection or to make a profit by selling them. According to the Historic Resources Act Section 11(1), all artifacts are the property of the Crown and Section 11(2) indicates that it is illegal to sell or buy artifacts. All archaeological artifacts in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador belong to the Crown and it is illegal to look for such artifacts without an archaeological permit. If a person does discover an archaeological object he/she is obligated to report it to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation via the Provincial Archaeology Office as outlined in Section 10 (1) of the Historic Resources Act.

Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.
Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.

Metal detector users may argue that they are not harming anything by collecting. Not surprisingly, I would argue otherwise. In reality, they could potentially be destroying an archaeology site, a part of our collective history. Every archaeology site and every single artifact tells a story. Once the site is disturbed, that story can never be told again. It goes beyond the artifact to something called context, where the artifact was found, for example, was it associated with a fireplace, stonewalls or inside a tent ring? These are things that metal detector users are not seeing when they take artifacts out of context. Each artifact and its location is part of a story. Taking artifacts out of context is essentially the same as walking into a library and ripping pages from books. Those pages out of context are just sheets of paper and what is left behind are incomplete stories.

Ripping pages from books.
Ripping pages from books.

Some people may say it’s just a handful of artifacts, how much damage can that do to an archaeology site. Any amount of disturbance and the removal of only one artifact is too much damage. Let me give you an example. The very first archaeology site I worked on was on the west coast of Newfoundland. We knew the site contained both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo tent rings. These people lived on the Island from around 2800 years ago to just under 1000 years ago. During the excavation of one of the tent rings, we found a beautiful Little Passage culture stone arrowhead. Archaeologists have recognized the people of the Little Passage culture as the direct ancestors to the Beothuk. I distinctly recall sitting around our campfire that night and talking about this little point and its implications. Up to the time of our excavations, Little Passage sites were only known from a few places on that coast. The next day we found several pieces of what we think were worked pieces of iron nails in the same tent ring as the Little Passage stone arrowhead. The pre-European contact aboriginal people of Newfoundland did not have iron; therefore, we realized that we were not in a Little Passage tent ring but a Beothuk tent ring. We ended up finding 24 pieces of iron in that tent ring. This site is one of just two Beothuk sites known to exist on this coast. If a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered or disturbed the context of that iron, we would have never known that site had a Beothuk component. One of just two Beothuk sites on that coast would have been gone. For that matter, let’s flip this scenario around. Lets say a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered the iron; they never would have known they were in a Beothuk site. In addition, if they had brought the iron to an archaeologist asking for help to identify what they had found, the archaeologist would never have known the iron was from a Beothuk site. Context is as important as the artifact itself.

Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.
Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.

Fortunately, we have reached some people and they now understand the problems caused by using metal detectors to find and dig up metal objects beyond recently lost coins or jewellery. In some cases, this has lead to the discovery of sites in places like O’Donnells, Hant’s Harbour and Trinity. Once it was explained to the metal detector users the concerns we had with the use of metal detectors we believe that these people discontinued to look for archaeological artifacts that they could dig up. Now when they find concentrations of metal hits they let the Provincial Archaeology Office know. I also know that the staff of the Provincial Archaeology Office would be happy to sit down with anyone and discuss this issue.

Newfoundland Mi’kmaq

The Mi’kmaq on the island of Newfoundland seem to be going through something of a cultural revival; more and more people are recognizing their ancestral roots and learning about their past. The Mi’kmaq are perhaps best known in the province of Nova Scotia, but they have a long history of occupation on the island of Newfoundland according to documentary and oral history evidence.

      “The earliest account of Mi’kmaq travel to Newfoundland dates from 1602. In the spring of that year, an English explorer named Bartholomew Gosnold encountered a Basque shallop manned by eight Indians somewhere off the New England coast. These Indians “…with a piece of Chalke described the Coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of the New-found-land…” Gosnold does not identify the Indians, but it is likely that they were Mi’kmaqs, since no other mainland tribe (south of Labrador) lived so near to Newfoundland. If these Indians were not Mi’kmaqs, the argument for early Mi’kmaq knowledge of Newfoundland is in fact strengthened, since it is inconceivable that a more distant tribe would know of the island while the Mi’kmaqs remained in ignorance of it. A few years later, the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, observed that Indians from the mainland sometimes came over to the island to trade with European fishermen. In this instance, as well, the Indians in question were probably Mi’kmaqs, but cannot be identified as such with absolute confidence. However, in 1612, one Father Pierre Biard, a Jesuit missionary to the Mi’kmaqs, recorded that they had given the name “Presentic” to the island of Newfoundland. His account is the clearest indication yet found of Mi’kmaq familiarity with the island at the beginning of the 17th century” (Pastore 1978).

(Incidentally, Bartholomew Gosnold was instrumental in founding the Virginia Company of London, and Jamestown in colonial America. In 2003, archaeologists at Jamestown announced that they had uncovered a skeleton that they thought was Gosnold.

Mi'kmaq woman weaving baskets, ca. 1845 (Watercolour by Mary R. McKie.
Mi’kmaq woman weaving baskets, ca. 1845
(Watercolour by Mary R. McKie.

In 1989, Charles Martijn suggested that Cape Breton Island, southern Newfoundland, the Magdalen archipelago and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were a single post-contact period territorial range for the eastern Canadian Mi’kmaq. While there is no definitive proof that this situation existed in the pre-contact period, the Mi’kmaq believe that they did inhabit the Island of Newfoundland at least before the 18th century, referring to the early inhabitants as the Say’ewedjkik or Ancients (Martijn 1989:210-11 & Martijn 2003).

Mi'kmaq domain of islands as suggested by Martijn.
Mi’kmaq domain of islands as suggested by Martijn.

So, there is historic documentation and oral history evidence for the antiquity of the Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland, archaeologically, support for the historic and oral history evidence has yet to be found. Currently there are 21 known Mi’kmaq archaeology sites on the island. Most date to the early 19th century and there are a few from the 20th century. Despite several surveys on the south and west coasts of the island, earlier sites have not been found.

Red dots are known Mi'kmaq sites.
Red dots are known Mi’kmaq sites.

Two of the four surveys along the south and west coasts of the island were part of the work required for Masters Degrees, one was by Penney and the other was by Rast. Part of the express purpose for the Penney thesis was to look for Mi’kmaq sites. This thesis survey resulted in the discovery of 18 archaeology sites. Three of these sites had Mi’kmaq components, all were from the late historic period.

 The Rast thesis resulted in the discovery of 26 new archaeological sites and the revisit of 11 previously known sites, several of which were found by Penney. None of the sites found or relocated by Rast contained Mi’kmaq evidence.

 In 1993 and 1994, Penny carried out an archaeological survey of the south west coast of the island called the Katalisk Archaeological Survey. The survey had three objectives;

  • to identify prehistoric and historic sites in Grand Codroy and Little Codroy river valleys;
  • to instruct native post-secondary students in archaeological field survey methods; and,
  • to raise community awareness of archaeology and Canada’s cultural heritage.
    The Katalisk survey area (Penney 1994).
    The Katalisk survey area (Penney 1994).

    The Katalisk survey resulted in the discovery of 18 new archaeological sites, none of which were Mi’kmaq.

    According to Speck, in the early 1900s he found both Beothuk and Mi’kmaq historic material culture at Wigwam Point in Badger.

    A Mi'kmaq wigwam used by hunters and trappers early in the 20th century.From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 16.
    A Mi’kmaq wigwam used by hunters and trappers early in the 20th century.
    From J. G. Millais, Newfoundland and its Untrodden Ways (London: Longmans, Green, 1907) facing 16.

    In 2011, the author visited a reported unmarked Mi’kmaq cemetery near Kippens that was given a Borden number. The cemetery reportedly contained just over 30 burials and was next to impossible to distinguish. This cemetery was known locally but it is not known who is buried there beyond that the people were Mi’kmaq. There was little to no physical trace of the burials. In several places, we walked over small undulations in the ground. According to a former Mi’kmaq Band chief in the area, the Mi’kmaq did not bury their dead very deep and the burials were actually the rises under our feet and not the typical dips of settled burials. Despite it being hard to distinguish the burials, we were certain we were in the right location because of information provided by several informants including that the cemetery was fenced in during the 1970s and 80s. We were able to find traces of the fence.

    Parts of the fence from the Mi'maq cemetery next to a steak we place in the ground
    Parts of the fence from the Mi’maq cemetery next to a steak we place in the ground.

    Burnt Knaps is perhaps the best-known Mi’kmaq archaeological site on the island. It is an interior caribou hunting site, that was occupied by Conne River Mi’kmaqs during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the first Mi’kmaq site excavated in Newfoundland, and provides information concerning traditional dwellings, diet, and lifestyles.

    Showing the excavation at Burnt Knaps (Penney & Nicol 1984).
    Showing the excavation at Burnt Knaps (Penney & Nicol 1984).

    Penney also conducted and archaeological survey of King George IV Lake:

    “A survey of the shorelines and hinterlands surrounding King George IV Lake resulted in discovery of two Mi’kmaq sites. A partial excavation of one site (DbBl-l) revealed two fireplace features (hearths) and associated stone and European (iron) artifacts. These features represent separate Recent Indian and Mi’kmaq occupations. Their temporal separation is uncertain, with the Mi’kmaq occupation dating to the first quarter of the 20th century. The Recent Indian feature possibly dates to the late prehistoric period.

    A second site (DbBl-2) is a collapsed tmoqta’wi’kn (or square wigwam) used by Mi’kmaq hunters from Bay St. George in the 1940’s. From limited testing, site function appears as butchering and salting moose in barrels during the winter months” (Penney 1987).

    Documentary and oral history evidence suggest the Mi’kmaq have been on the island for several centuries, perhaps going back to the precontact period. However, despite several archaeological surveys, the archaeological evidence does not support the documentary and oral history evidence. Obviously, further investigation is required to shed light on this matter.


Martijn, C. 1989  An Eastern Micmac Domain of Islands. In Actes Du Vingtiéme Congrés
des Algonquinistes, edited by W. Cowan, pp. 208-231. Carelton University,

2003  Early Mi’kmaq Presence in Southern Newfoundland: An Ethnological Perspective, c.1500-1763. Newfoundland Studies, 19(1): 44-101.

Pastore, Ralph 1978 Newfoundland Micmacs: A History of their Traditional Life. Newfoundland Historical Society Pamphlet No. 4.

Penney, Gerald 1985  The Prehistory of the Southwest Coast of Newfoundland. MA, MUN.

1994  Preliminary Report Katalisk Archaeological Survey 1993. 

1995  Preliminary Report Katalisk Archaeological Survey 1994. 

Penney, Gerald & Heather Nicol 1984  Burnt Knaps: A Micmac Site in Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 8(1): 57‑69, Ottawa.

Rast, Tim 1999  Investigating Palaeo-Eskimo and Indian Settlement Patterns Along a Submerging Coast at Burgeo, Newfoundland.  MA, MUN.

Beothuk facts?

Many people in Newfoundland and Labrador believe they have a good understanding of the Beothuk. Yet there is still a great deal of misinformation about them. In this post, I’ll try to  shed some light on some of these misconceptions and give you a few facts about the Beothuk.

I have heard statements that 1) the Beothuk were the earliest aboriginal group on the island. Related to this misconception, 2) that they were the only aboriginal group to have inhabited the island. If you have followed this blog at all, you know that there were several groups of precontact aboriginal people here long before the Beothuk. The first were the Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI) around 5500 years ago. The MAI were on the island up to about 3200 years ago. Right now, it does not appear as though the MAI were related to the Beothuk.

Yellow dots are all of the known precontact archaeology sites on the island. The Beothuk sites are red dots.

There were two groups of Palaeoeskimo here. The first group, known to archaeologists as Groswater Palaeoeskimo were here around 2800 to around 1900 years ago. Then there were the Dorset Palaeoeskimo who were on the island from around 2000 to 800 years ago. We know these groups are not related to the Beothuk though they shared the island with the ancestors of the Beothuk for a few hundred years. However, the Groswater and Dorset  were related to each other – both were Palaeoeskimo.

The Intermediate Indians are probably the least understood of all the precontact groups in the province. Archaeologically they are best known from the approximately 200 archaeology sites in Labrador with Intermediate Indian components. In the last 10 to 12 years artifacts have been recognized on the island as likely being from Intermediate Indian occupations. It is highly unlikely they related to the Beothuk.

The most recent of the precontact groups on the island, the Recent Indians, were made up of three cultures archaeologists have termed the Cow Head complex (~2000-1000 years ago), the Beaches complex (~2000-1000 years ago) and the Little Passage complex (1000 years ago to European contact). It can be shown archaeologically that the culture of the Beaches complex became the Little Passage complex, which became known as the Beothuk in the historic period. Most archaeologists do not think the people of the Cow Head complex were part of this relationship.

Perhaps one of the best places to see this Recent Indian – Beothuk relationship is at the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd’s Cove. This is a great interpretation centre where you’ll learn about the Beothuk and their relationship to their earlier Recent Indian ancestors.

During the historic period there were also Mi’kmaq on Newfoundland’s southwest coast and, occasionally,  Inuit people on the Northern Peninsula. So, by no means were the Beothuk the first or the only aboriginal people on the island.

The Recent Indian-Beothuk site at Boyd’s Cove. Each red numbered plastic marker sits in a Beothuk housepit.

Many people have seen this image and believe it depicts Shanawdithit. In reality this image shows Demasduit (Mary March), Shanawdithit’s aunt. The image was painted in 1819 by Lady Hamilton, the wife of Newfoundland’s Governor.


One thing that many people agree on is that the Beothuk are gone. People usually cite various reasons for this extinction but most popular reason given is that Europeans & or Mi’kmaq killed them. While both groups played a role in the end of the Beothuk, their demise can not be explained by simply stating they were “hunted” to extinction. The demise of the Beothuk was a process that took place over a long period of time as a result of several factors.

The evidence for the Mi’kmaq hunting the Beothuk is actually weak to nonexistent and whether they played a direct role in the extinguishing of the Beothuk is debatable. One archaeologist-anthropologist has suggested there may be some truth to this idea while another archaeologist-anthropologist has argued there is no truth to the idea (See footnote 54).

The island of Newfoundland is not a resource rich place when it comes to food resources. In terms of major game food, we have caribou and sea mammals; neither is particularly dependable. If you were Beothuk and you missed either migration due to weather or any other reason you were going to be hungry. When Europeans came to the island, we set up establishments on the coast, which cut the Beothuk off from half of their food source along large tracts of coastal land. When the Mikmaq came to the island in the historic period they cut off large parts of the west and south coast from Beothuk access. European furriers would go inland in the Fall & Winter hunting fur bearing animals putting further land use pressure on the Beothuk. Altogether, this meant less hunting area for the Beothuk, less area from which to gather food.

The presence of fur traders and missionaries on the mainland of North America meant most aboriginal groups in that area fared better than the Beothuk. It’s sad to say but because the Beothuk did not participate in a fur trade on the island they served no purpose to Europeans unlike the aboriginal groups on the mainland who participated in a fur trade. On the island the fur trade was carried out by European furriers who would go inland to hunt in the Fall and Winter. In addition, the lack of missionaries on the island meant the Beothuk did not have that group of people arguing for their survival, unlike the aboriginal groups on the mainland of North America.

The population of the Beothuk at the time of contact with Europeans was likely in the 500-1000 people range. This is based on a few facts. The posited population numbers are also based on how few known Beothuk sites there are. There are only 61 known Little Passage complex sites (direct Beothuk ancestors) on the island. There are just over 100 known Beothuk sites on the island (nearly 30 of which denote Beothuk burial sites). Therefore, we are looking at around 70 possible Beothuk habitation sites. These sites span the period from European contact ~ 1500 ad to 1829 ad – just over 300 years. These are small numbers signifying a small population.

European epidemic disease has also been suggested as contributing to the demise of the Beothuk. While there is no doubt that diseases played a role in the death of some Beothuk, for example Shanawadithit died of tuberculosis in 1829, diseases alone were not responsible for wiping out the Beothuk. Epidemic diseases tend to work best on large populations, if they don’t have large host populations epidemic disease outbreaks tend to peter out quickly. It is well known that the Beothuk tended to avoid contact with outsiders. This means their chance of contracting something foreign was slim. If we accept that the Beothuk population was small, scattered and for most of the year isolated we can see that the chances of European epidemic diseases playing a major role in killing large numbers of Beothuk was probably very slim.

The author standing on the edge of a Beothuk housepit.

Therefore, the combination of losing access to coastal food resources, the lack of a fur trade and the absence of missionaries meant that the small population of Beothuk on the island could be easily wiped out with a little pressure. Add to that the number Beothuk who were killed by Europeans and diseases and you have a better understanding of how the Beothuk people became extinct. In reality, it is a more complex process than what is described here. If you want to learn more about this process, you can read these articles. Both links open PDFs. Collapse of the Beothuk World or Archaeology, History, and the Beothuks.

Many people have argued that they are descendants of the Beothuk. Are they really extinct? There is a possibility they are not totally gone. Although there are no known living Beothuk descendants, Shanawadithit, the last known Beothuk who died in 1829, told John Peyton in the 1820s that Beothuk traditions were descended from those of the Indians from Labrador. She also told Peyton that her people were friendly with an Indian group whom they called the Shaunamunc and that the two groups traded and mutually visited each other. The Shaunamunc are thought to be the Montagnais – Naskapi, or the modern day Innu of Quebec and Labrador. Further, there is also a Mi’kmaq oral tradition which suggests that the last of the Beothuk went back to Labrador (Howley 1915:257).

The Beothuk were thieves and stealing is and act often attributed to tha Beothuk actions. The Beothuk culture was based on sharing resources, as were most Algonquian based cultures in Northeastern North America. Our understanding is that no one really had possessions, rather if you had something you shared it; if you weren’t using something it could be used by someone else within the group. When they found abandoned European buildings, boats, sails or other goods they believed they could just take them and use them. Europeans mistook this as stealing.

To paraphrase Dr. Ralph Pastore in Shanawdithit’s people: The archaeology of the Beothuks: the extinction of the Beothuk is a tragedy and we owe it to the Beothuk to better understand their culture and not accept the old stories about hunting them to extinction as fact but rather understanding who they really were and what really happened to them.

If you want to learn more about the Beothuk I would recommend the following books:

Howley, James 1915 The Beothucks or Red Indians: the aboriginal inhabitants of Newfoundland (PDF of book)

Marshall, Ingeborg 1998 A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk

Pastore, Ralph 1992 Shanawdithit’s people: The archaeology of the Beothuks

The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website has an excellent section dealing with the Beothuk.

You could also visit Boyd’s Cove, Mary March Museum,  Indian Point, Red Indian Lake outside of Millertown or Beaches, Bonavista Bay.

At the same time: Part 2

This is the continuation of  post I started two weeks ago.

5000-4000 years ago

This millennium saw the rise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and the start of construction of the Egyptian pyramids; they would remain the tallest and largest human constructions for thousands of years. Also in Egypt, pharaohs began to posture themselves as living gods made of an essence different from that of other human beings. This period saw the first evidence of gold being used and is considered the high point of Ur in Mesopotamia. This period saw the completion of first phase of the Stonehenge monument in England. In the Americas, the oldest known medicine wheel is constructed.

Recent research in Africa has revealed amazing 5,000-year-old skeletons lain on beds of flowers found in the Sahara showing how the desert was once green and lush.

In Newfoundland and Labrador we see the start of occupation at sites like Aillik West 1 which is a Maritime Archaic habitation site with rectangular structures, boulder pits, fox trap-like structures, and a small stone chamber with lintel doorway. Also occupied are Nukasusutok 5 and Windy Tickle 1 both large Maritime Archaic habitation sites with longhouses. We also start to see increased Archaic occupation in the Saglek Bay area.

Looking northwest over Area 1 and Area 2 at Nukasusutok Island 5. (Brake)
Nulliak Cove longhouse. The figure is standing in the longhouse outlined by the light coloured stones. (Hutchings)
Labrador coastline 4000 years ago. The longhouse is in the background. (CMC)

On the island, the Archaic occupation of the Northern Peninsula and Bonavista Bay is well underway as evidenced by sites at Big Brook, Bird Cove, Cow Head, Beaches and Cape Cove.

At the end of this period, we see an ethnically different people enter the province from the north, the early Palaeoeskimo.

4000-3000 years ago

During this millennium, we see the beginnings of Judaism, the beginning of the Iron Age, the development of the alphabet and the founding of Athens.

Recent research revealed the first temple in Peru during this period. Using a clump of hair preserved in permafrost in Greenland, geneticists identified Asia and not North America as the ancestral home to the Palaeoeskimos and their descendants.

It is during this period that the Maritime Archaic cemetery at Port au Choix is first used. The Maritime Archaic on the island are still focused on the Northern Peninsula and Bonavista Bay but they are also starting to spread farther over the island including the south coast as seen at L’Anse a Flamme.

In Labrador, this period is tumultuous in terms of culture change. A new group of early Palaeoeskimo are recognized, the Groswater. One of the more important Groswater sites is occupied during this period, the Postville Pentecostal Site. The Groswater are known for making some of the most skilfully crafted bifaces in the archaeological record. Their workmanship has a jewel-like quality.

Groswater bifaces (endblades) (Renouf)
Groswater bifaces (sideblades - these were mounted into the sides of harpoons to increase cutting area) (Renouf)

New groups of Indian people, known as the Intermediate Indians, start to move into central and southern Labrador. By the end of this period the Archaic are no longer archaeologically visible on the Island or in Labrador.

Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen PAO Review 2011)
Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen PAO Review 2010)

3000-2000 years ago

In this millennium, we see a rapid development of the cultures in Central America and South America including the rise of Teotihuacán in Mexico, spreading of the Olmec culture as La Venta replaces San Lorenzo as the Olmec capital, ball courts appear in Olmec centres and the first Mayan hieroglyphics. In North America, Northwest Coast native populations flourish and we see the start of mound building in eastern North America and the rise of Adena culture in Ohio.

Recent research indicates Native Americans first tamed Turkeys 2,000 years ago

In Europe first Olympiad is held, Rome is founded and the Roman Republic established.

In the province, this millennium sees the end of the Groswater Palaeoeskimo in Labrador and the introduction of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo to the whole province. Intermediate Indians start to flourish in Labrador.

Dorset end blades - the one on the left has been tip fluted (Rast)

2000-1000 years ago

This millennium sees the spread of both Christianity and Islam. This period also sees the construction of Hadrians Wall by the Romans, the florescence of the Norse culture and the settlement of the first Norse colony in Greenland. In the Americas, this period sees the start of construction on the Pyramid of the Sun, the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá is built, as is the Great Serpent Mound.

In this period of the province’s history the Groswater become archaeologically invisible on the island and the people who are the likely ancestors of the Beothuk and Innu, the Recent Indians, are first seen in the archaeological record. This is also the high point of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo culture in the whole province. In this period, the massive Phillips Garden Dorset Palaeoeskimo habitation site reaches its pinnacle.

Artist's conception of a Dorset house with whale ribs and poles and covered with seal skins. (Renouf)

1000-0 years ago

The first millennium sees the establishment of Cahokia and the founding of Cuzco.  During this millennium the magnetic compass is first used at sea, coffee is brewed for the first time, the Crusades occur, Norsemen abandon Greenland, the Black Plague ravages Europe, Europeans meet North Americans at L’Anse aux Meadows and a few centuries later they settle here.

This millennium in the province sees the end of the most populous of precontact cultures, the Dorset Palaeoeskimo. The millennium will also see the end of the descendants of the Recent Indians on the island, the Beothuk. However, not before their occupation of sites throughout Notre Dame Bay, along the Exploits River and the Red Indian Lake area. One of their best known sites is Boyd’s Cove, which is now a Provincial Historic Site.  Boyd’s Cove contained 11 Beothuk housepits and a Recent Indian occupation as well.

Excavation of several Beothuk housepits at Boyd's Cove.

This time period also see the introduction of the Thule in the precontact period (who we recognize today as the Inuit). We also see the arrival of the Innu and the Mi’kmaq.

Archaeological sites from this period also include the National Historic site at L’Anse aux Meadows, the only recognized Norse settlement in North America, the National Historic site at Red Bay and the first English settlement in Canada at the Provincial Historic site at Cupids.

Dead Cameras, Live wires and Mi’kmaq Cemeteries

I worked this past weekend which is unusual for me.  I had to check on the location of a cemetery in Gambo and a cemetery in Kippens.  Usually my road trips are somewhat uneventful, this one had several small surprises in store.

While I was in Gambo I had the opportunity to check on a known site that hasn’t had an archaeological visit in more than 20 years.  Doloman’s Point was first visited and tested in 1987 with a revisit in 1988.  At that time the archaeologist who found the site recorded that it had a mid to early nineteenth-century European occupation.  Since then we’ve learned that the first settlers on Doloman’s Point were a family named Pritchett who arrived in 1834 to carry out a salmon fishery in three nearby rivers.  When they arrived they noted there were clearings on the point which they attributed to previous Beothuk and Mi’kmaq settlements.  No trace of either culture were found on the site when it was tested in 1987-88.  By the late 1800s the quantity of salmon in the rivers were in decline and the Pritchetts and their employees turned their attention to sawmill operations.

Location of Doloman's Point and the Mi'kmaq cemetery in Gambo

There seems to be no trace of the houses, wharves, sheds etc. that would have been constructed by the people living on Doloman’s Point for nearly 70 years, but there is one clear remnant, their cemetery is still visible.  All except one of the headstones have fallen and are badly broken.  The earliest known burial on the point is John Madgwick who died in 1777.

Headstone of John Madgwick (Ray Goulding)
Broken Doloman's Point headstones

After taking several pictures of the cemetery I had my first surprise of my little trip.  I turned my camera off and put it in my pocket.  I walked to where the settlement of Doloman’s Point was and tried to turn on my camera and it wouldn’t work.  So I was an archaeologist in the field, standing on a site no archaeologist has been on in 20 years and I didn’t have a camera.   I left Doloman’s Point and went to a late nineteenth-century-early twentieth-century Mi’kmaq cemetery for which I needed to collect the coordinates.  I took pictures of the cemetery with my cell phone, but they were not of the best quality.  After leaving Gambo I drove to and spent the night in Corner Brook where I decided I had to get a new camera.  An unexpected surprise expense added to my short trip.

The next morning I drove to Kippens where I had planned to meet up with a local resident who was to show me the location of another, but earlier, Mi’kmaq cemetery.  I met up with my local informant in the parking lot of a convenience store.  As we were chatting about our plans we heard a very loud snap, crackle and pop with flashes of light.  I got out of my car to see where the noise and light were coming from and saw that a power line right above my car had caught fire!  My informant proceeded to call the fire department and the power company and we stand there speculating on the cause of the fire.  At which point he suggests I move my car which I did and less than 2 minutes later the wire does another loud snap, crackle and pop with flashes of light and breaks in two right across where my car was parked.  This is a little more exciting than your typical Saturday morning for downtown Kippens.  And its definitely more exciting than my typical archaeology trips!

Fire truck in Kippens extinguishing the electrical wire fire

After the fire trucks showed up to extinguish the electrical fire we drove out to find the Mi’kmaq cemetery (now there’s a statement I never  thought I would write in an archaeology report).  This cemetery is known locally to have existed but it is not known who is buried there beyond that the people were Mi’kmaq.  There was little physical trace of the burials but we were certain we were in the right location because of information provided by several informants including that the cemetery was fenced in during the 1970s and 80s.  We were able to find traces of the fence.

Parts of the fence from the Mi'kmaq cemetery next to a stake we placed in the ground

After wrapping up my work in Kippens I drove to Gander and spent the night.  The next morning I drove back to St. John’s.

The moral of my trip is always bring a spare camera on archaeological trips and don’t park under power lines in Kippens!