Digging up the past
Baccalieu Trail archaeologist hopeful about additional discoveries
Accompanying Bill Gilbert on a tour of the Cupids Cove plantation archaeological site is a virtual lesson in history and interpretation.
Stooping down, he picks up two artifacts that were recently unearthed by a field worker. Glancing at them, Gilbert says, “A piece of pottery and a tobacco pipe bowl fragment. Both from the seventeenth century.” As simple as that.
There’s no doubt he knows his stuff. Not surprisingly, he’s deeply in love with history, a subject that has always captured his interest.
Gilbert grew up in Blaketown, where he went to school, as well as in New Harbour.
He earned an undergraduate degree in North Atlantic history from Memorial University. He also took some archaeology courses, including a hands-on course in field techniques.
“I soon realized I loved fieldwork and wanted to continue at it, if I could,” he says.
He stayed on at MUN and earned a graduate degree in archaeology/anthropology. He then accepted a job at a dig in Labrador. “Things just took off from there,” he states. A professional archaeologist since 1980, the 55-year-old has worked at several significant provincial sites, including the Beaches, Boyd’s Cove, Ferryland, Red Bay and Signal Hill.
Since 1994, he has been the chief archaeologist for the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation.
“For a long time, I’ve had a sense that (the Baccalieu Trail) was a special place with a lot of important history,” he indicates. He grew up hearing stories about John Guy and Peter Easton.
Gilbert’s work led to the excavation of the Russell’s Point site and the discovery and excavation of several other key sites in the region, including a 1,200-year-old Indian site on Dildo Island and the Hefford Plantation in New Perlican, established in 1675.
Gilbert and his crew also conducted survey work and/or excavations at Anderson’s Cove, Heart’s Delight, Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, Winterton, Hant’s Harbour, Old Perlican, Bay de Verde and Harbour Grace.
The crown jewel of Gilbert’s career is his work at the original 1610 colony at Cupids, the birthplace of English Canada.
On June 15, 1995, after seven days of testing, Gilbert and his team discovered a substantial seventeenth-century site in the Conception Bay town.
Early on, Gilbert realized this work was “important from an historical and scientific point of view,” he says. “If properly developed and interpreted, it could have great cultural and economic benefits for the entire region.”
What he thought would be a one-year job has turned into 16 years of research, excavation and interpretation. His work is a lasting contribution to the heritage, history and economy of the region. This year, the Cupids Cove plantation archaeology site is a beehive of activity, with visits from thousands of tourists from around the world.
Archaeology is a slow and tedious discipline, Gilbert suggests, made up of two levels of discovery.
The first is the survey process itself: “ You are actually looking for a site.”
In the absence of historic documents, “ you have to base your survey strategy on other factors, such as the lay of the land and potential access to resources,” Gilbert explains.
Admittedly, surveying can be frustrating. “ You may spend days, weeks or months testing various locations and finding nothing,” he says.
The second level is the actual discovery of artifacts, which more than compensates for the gruelling surveys.
“ When you finally do find what you’re looking for, it can be extremely exciting and rewarding,” Gilbert adds.
Some discoveries garner greater excitement than others.
“There is always that sense of excitement and direct connection with the past that you get from knowing you are the first person to uncover and pick up an object that was dropped by someone hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago,” he comments.
At Cupids, more than 135,000 artifacts have been uncovered since 1995. Ceramic, glass, tobacco pipes, cannon balls and wrought-iron nails, among other objects, have been brought to the surface. The oldest English coin ever found in Canada came to light at Cupids.
Excavations since August have uncovered the remains of an early seventeenth-century gun platform for mounting a cannon.
One of the main projects at the Cupids Cove Plantation this summer has been the creation of a volumetric reconstruction, or ‘ghost structure,’ over the site of the original dwelling house and storehouse built by John Guy and his men in the autumn of 1610.
As recently as Dec. 2, 2009, Gilbert “was truly amazed” when an amateur genealogist from Ontario, searching for documents related to the north side of Conception Bay, found on the British National Archives website a will dated 1674.
“It is the last will and testament of ‘Master James Hill inhabitant of Cupits Cove,’ written at Cupids on March 4, 1674,” Gilbert explains. “It is brief, but at the same time provides us with some vital new information.”
Unfortunately, the excitement associated with such discoveries is sometimes muted by other frustrations that detract from the work being done. One is responding to accusations that Cupids is not the original site of Guy’s colony.
“I have better things to do with my time than respond to such things,” he says. Still, he patiently takes the time and effort to address the issue in newspapers.
Today, Gilbert spends less time in archaeological survey and excavation. Since 2001, he has lived in his family home in Blaketown, where he spends most of his time researching, interpreting and writing.
“Just writing notes and keeping track of it all is almost a full-time job,” he says.
His articles, often about Cupids, appear in such publications as Newfoundland Studies, Avalon Chronicles and Riddle Fence. He’s the author of the booklet, Journeys Through Time: Ten Years of Archaeology on the Baccalieu Trail. He’s planning to write a book about his archaeological pursuits.
Gilbert is personally committed to Baccalieu Trail archaeology, and credits ongoing funding from the provincial and federal governments for being able to continue the work.
“ The work we’re doing to interpret our early history is going to be ongoing for a long time, and I’m looking forward to doing it,” he says.
Since 1994, Bill Gilbert has worked as the chief archaeologist for the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation.
Since 1994, Bill Gilbert has worked as the chief archaeologist for the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation. Note the artifacts in his hand.
Field worker Tyler French screens soil for small artifacts that may have been missed.