Dig­ging into the past

Arche­ol­o­gists look for signs of early set­tle­ment in Car­bon­ear


Car­bon­ear is one of the old­est towns in New­found­land and Labrador. Yet, its early days of set­tle­ment re­main wrapped in mys­tery.

A team from Me­mo­rial Univer­sity’s Depart­ment of Arche­ol­ogy are cur­rently sur­vey­ing the town, “ look­ing for traces of early Euro­pean ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing es­pe­cially the cod fish­ery and set­tle­ment,” ac­cord­ing to Ron How­ell, pres­i­dent of the Car­bon­ear Her­itage So­ci­ety.

The arche­ol­ogy team is headed by Dr. Peter Pope, a re­search pro­fes­sor at Me­mo­rial, who has pre­vi­ously worked on early sites on the North­ern Penin­sula and in down­town St John’s.

The Car­bon­ear project got un­der­way ear­lier this month and the team has been dig­ging test holes out­side the Rorke Stores and sev­eral other lo­ca­tions around town in their search for clues of early set­tle­ment.

“If they find any­thing sig­nif­i­cant dur­ing this sur­vey, that would lead to a full-fledged dig,” How­ell ex­plained.

He noted the town missed out on pre­vi­ous re­gional arche­o­log­i­cal sur­veys be­cause they usu­ally ran out of fund­ing be­fore get­ting around to Car­bon­ear. How­ever, arche­ol­o­gist Roy Skanes and his team have been work­ing to un­cover the traces of the de­fence of Car­bon­ear Is­land, in 1697.

“Dr. Pope hopes that a sur­vey of the town it­self will also pro­duce in­ter­est­ing re­sults,” the Her­itage So­ci­ety spokesman said.

Car­bon­ear al­ready had its name by the early 1600s — so it must have been used in the mi­gra­tory fish­ery, but few records sur­vive of that pe­riod. The de­vel­op­ment of set­tle­ment be­fore the town was first mapped, in the 1680s, is not known and there are big gaps in the his­toric record, par­tic­u­larly be­fore 1760.

Re­cently, pro­fes­sor Evan Jones, an his­to­rian at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol, Eng­land high­lighted a doc­u­men­tary hint of an early colony in the area, spon­sored by Ital­ian fri­ars, in 1499, two years af­ter John Cabot is said to have dis­cov­ered the is­land.

Pro­fes­sor Pope says he wishes there was clearer ev­i­dence for such an early set­tle­ment, but he is con­fi­dant Car­bon­ear has had a long his­tory and hopes to pin­point some of the ar­eas used by early fish­er­men and set­tlers.

These “planters,” as they were called, were among the first fam­i­lies to over-win­ter in New­found­land.

The three-year arche­ol­ogy sur­vey of Car­bon­ear is be­ing funded through a do­na­tion from Gretchen Bauta to Me­mo­rial Univer­sity.

Arche­ol­o­gist Roy Skanes shows an old axe found on Car­bon­ear Is­land to Ron How­ell, pres­i­dent of the Car­bon­ear Her­itage So­ci­ety. The axe is among the thou­sands of ar­ti­facts that have been dis­cov­ered on the is­land this sum­mer and last, most from the late 17th and early 18th cen­turies.

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