Bagloads of artifacts
Carbonear Island yielding up its colourful past
An archeological team is digging up good physical evidence to tell the story of Carbonear Island and the people who lived there over 300 years ago.
Archeologist Roy Skanes is heading up the team, which began the work last year with a survey of the island at the mouth of Carbonear harbour.
Last year’s survey was designed “to test some of the stuff we already knew from archival information; test other areas that looked like areas where somebody could have lived and look for various stages of occupation,” Skanes explained.
Last year was basically an assessment to see what parts of the island held good information ... “So we didn’t dig any area in particular in any detail. We focused on finding areas on the island that weren’t really shown on maps or discussed in the archival information,” he said.
Although the history of the island has been well documented, this is the first archeological dig ever to take place there.
The results of the 2010 survey were “extremely rewarding,” Skanes said, adding, “we came up with 1,200 artifacts distributed pretty much along the western end of island.” That’s the side of the island facing Carbonear.
Most of the artifacts found last year were from the eighteenth century, while some were from the nineteenth.
Based on their findings, the team returned to the island this summer to take a closer look at some of those areas.
“ We knew a lot about the 1740s and 50s,” Skanes said. “ We knew the British military had come out there and built a series of buildings: barracks, storehouse, magazine, batteries etc. However, there wasn’t much information on the early civilian period of occupation, which started in the 1600s, when there was basically no military presence in Newfoundland during the winter.
“And people who lived in places like Carbonear pretty much had to take care of themselves. Civilians would go out to these islands — build crude accommodations and defence and stay out there for the winter taking care of themselves. These islands were considered to be places of retreat. In the event of attack during a war all residents of ... Harbour Grace, Carbonear and Mosquito (now Bristol’s Hope), would go to places like Carbonear Island.”
In the winter of 1696-97, the French invader Pierre LeMoyne D’Iberville led a party of troops from Placentia to St. John’s, destroying every settlement en route. After burning St. John’s, they rowed cross Conception Bay from Portugal Cove to Carbonear Island.
“ They stayed in this area for about six weeks but were never able to get ashore on the island,” Skanes said.
Carbonear Island is perhaps best known historically for its successful defence against that and later attempts at invasion.
“ There are really good records from the 1690s telling what kind of facility could be on the island, and how many people, etc.,” Skanes said.
For example, Father Bowdoin, a monk who travelled with D’Iberville, kept a journal, which provided a pretty good record of the entire campaign.
One of the things he recorded was that there were four six-pound cannons on the island.
Skanes said this summer they found what appears to be one of those cannon. Only about a foot of the barrel is visible sticking out between the rocks, and the bore measures 3.5 inches, which was a typical size for a six-pound cannon. The cannon ball used actually weighed six pounds, while the cannon itself probably weighs closer to between 800 and 1,000 pounds, according to Skanes.
It’s the largest and perhaps the most exciting artifact to be found so far because it dates back to the late seventeenth century.
Describing the cannon as “interesting and unique,” Skanes thinks it would be good to retrieve it for research, conservation and permanent exhibit at the Railway Station Museum.
In fact, the artifacts that have been unearthed this year, in the thousands, all appear to be from the 1690s-1713 period. That’s precisely the time from which the archeological team were hoping to find evidence of the 1697 and 1705 occupation of the island during the FrenchEnglish conflicts.
Building remains found
Another exciting find were the remains of at least four buildings from the last decade of the seventeenth century. Skanes believes the wooden structures were not used much after that period and were eventually burned, judging by the large numbers of nails found in the area.
While it will take some more investigation to say for certain, the archeologist believes at least two of the structures had stone/mortar chimneys while another had a brick lined hearth, suggesting winter occupation. They also had cellars.
Meanwhile, the team has been hauling artifacts off the island by the bagful. They include a lot of clay smoking pipes, earthenware, stoneware, North Devonware from the south of England, wine bottle glass, Portuguese tin glaze, axes, knives, shot and parts of muskets.
A lab has been set up in the old post office building, where the artifacts are cleaned and catalogued.
In fact, the artifacts have been coming in faster than they can be catalogued, and the Town of Carbonear, which is sponsoring the project, has applied for funding to allow the cataloguers to continue their work until Dec. 2.
He said they will be conserved and analyzed and the information gained can be used to supplement the new Carbonear Island Exhibit, which opened this summer at the
Remains of early stone chimneys found on Carbonear Island.
town’s historic Railway Station.
Skanes said he will write another report on this year’s findings for the provincial archaeology office, and there will likely be another proposal to return to the island and continue the archeological dig next year.
Skanes said he would like to select one or two of the buildings discovered and open them up for public viewing.
Eventually, it will be decided if the island is suitable for walking tours.
Meanwhile, based on his work, Skanes said he would like to publish a small text — a summary of the history of the island, which could be used in an interpretation centre and in schools.
Supported by the Carbonear Heritage Society and sponsored by the Town of Carbonear, the Carbonear Island Project is funded by grants from the provincial government and the Gill-Ratcliff Foundation.