Scratching the surface
An archaeological dig is underway on Carbonear Island, with noted archaeologist Roy Skanes leading a team of five in search of evidence of the island’s military history.
Its grassy meadows and rocky shores may not hide any buried treasure. But who knows what lies beneath the soil of Carbonear Island?
The people who are heading up the Carbonear Island project are about to find out. An archaeological dig is taking place on the island this summer. Although it has long been recognized for its historic significance, this marks the first time such an archaeological dig will have taken place on the island at the mouth of Carbonear harbour.
While the island has been the subject of research over the years, “I’m not aware of any other archaeological dig,” says Ches Ash, who heads up the Carbonear Island resource committee.
Ash who also serves as deputy mayor points out there was a garrison of soldiers on the island and several houses. That leads the committee to believe the finds should be of military and residential significance.
Except for the waves crashing at its steep, craggy shores and the seagull cries overhead, Carbonear Island has been relatively quiet for quite some time. Indeed the island saw more action in the late seventeenth, throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries than it did in the twentieth century.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s the cannon balls’ roar could be heard around the island as area residents made their way there to seek refuge from attacks by the French invader Pierre Le Moyne D’Iberville.
The archaeological team will be looking for evidence of the 1697 and 1705 occupation of the island during the French-English conflicts of that period. The garrison Ash referred to was stationed on the island from 1743-58. That’s the period of time along with the lighthouse era (1878-1927) and the seasonal fishery, which the team is also interested in exploring.
Well-known archaeologist Roy Skanes is heading up the five-member team, which includes one cataloguer and three field workers.
Working out of the old post office building at the foot of Musgrave Street, the team will use space in the basement of the historic building to wash and clean whatever artefacts they find.
Phase 2 of the Carbonear Island Project — the preliminary archaeological dig will run 12 weeks and cost approximately $63,000, including $40,000 from the province and $23,000 from the Gill-Ratcliff Foundation.
The committee feels “ very fortunate” to have someone of Roy Skanes’ skill, experience and expertise in the field.
The Carbonear town council is providing about $1,000 towards the labour component of the project, according to the deputy mayor.
The steep, rugged cliffs, which in some places plunge straight down into the sea, made Carbonear Island a formidable challenge for those early French invaders, and a safe refuge for local inhabitants. Access to the island is no easier today than it was more than three centuries ago.
Ches Ash found it ironic that the same obstacles that made access a challenge for the earlier settlers continue to present challenges for twenty-first century explorers and archaeologists. There are plans to set up a floating dock for the dig team to provide them with temporary access to the island. National historic significance Whether or not next year will see another dig on the island will depend on funding, and what the dig team unearth this summer.
A plaque was unveiled in the Carbonear Memorial Park designating Carbonear Island as a place of national historic significance in 1981.