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.

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