Digging up the past

Digging up the past

Archaeological digs are enabling the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to learn more about their history and themselves
July 1, 2005
That’s exactly what Dr. Priscilla Renouf of Memorial University of Newfoundland found. Renouf has spent the past 20 years studying the various cultural groups that have inhabited the northwest coast of Newfoundland over the past 5,500 years—the Maritime Archaic Indians, Groswater Palaeoeskimos, Dorset Palaeoeskimos, as well as more recent Indians and early European groups. What was the common element she found? She found that, similar to communities in the area today, they depended on marine life for industry and their livelihood. Her two most recent archaeological excavations, within the Port au Choix historic area in Newfoundland and Labrador are cases in point.

In Phillip's Garden, a Dorset Palaeoeskimo site dated 1950-1170 Before Present she and her crew re-investigated two dwellings partially excavated in 1962 by Elmer Harp. They found the houses to be much larger than earlier suspected (with a footprint of about 94 square metres) indicating that they may have been inhabited by many families, much like the dwellings of the Inuit and Alaskan Eskimos. The bone material found in associated garbage pits were almost entirely harp seal. From this, archeologists surmised that the inhabitation was seasonal, suggesting large-scale hunting expeditions by the Dorset Palaeoeskimo people.

At Barbace Cove, the site of eighteenth and nineteenth century French fishing rooms (a set of fishing premises), the stone base, or plinth, of a large bread oven has been dug up. The oven dates to the late nineteenth century. The footprint of the oven that originally sat on the stone plinth was two square metres, suggesting a commercial rather than domestic scale. This oven likely supported a fishing and processing venture that used one to three ships and employed 50 to 150 workers. On a recent visit to the excavation site, a Port au Choix resident—whose father came over from France as a young boy to work on the French fishing boats—speculated that he might have eaten the bread and other meals that would have been cooked in the very oven.

Archaeologists have already amassed about 50,000 artifacts from the Phillip's Garden site and a lesser number from Barbace Cove. Beside the discarded food bones they have found tools, weapons, old glass, shards of ceramic, pipes, hand-wrought nails, and stone fish-drying platforms. Each of these pieces is a precious trace of past cultures. Fortunately, Renouf and her colleagues are now able to record and catalogue them with new state-of-the-art computer equipment.

Computerization has also helped them to look at the changes in the landscape and to create more accurate predictive models for the digs. “We’re looking at how different cultures have situated themselves in their environment, how they adapted to it, how they changed it, and how they made cultural landscapes,” says Renouf.

The current inhabitants of the northwest coast of Newfoundland are mostly descendents of the indigenous natives and of nineteenth century English and French settlers. They easily relate to the dependence on the sea of the earlier groups. It has been bred in their bones. They take ownership and pride in the unearthed vestiges of their history and welcome every opportunity to collaborate with the researchers. “By working together,” Renouf says, “we build an appreciation for the past, for its intrinsic value as much as for the developing economic opportunities in rural Newfoundland.”



Archaeology's role is not to complement the written record. It is a parallel science to historical records. Through excavations and discovered artifacts, we find evidence of past generations, clues to their lives, and insight into the geographical and cultural challenges they faced. Through the work of Priscilla Renouf and her colleagues, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador are able to learn more about their history and themselves.

Trudy Taylor-Walsh, for example, works as the Integrated Land Use Specialist in the Newfoundland West and Labrador Field Unit for Parks Canada. Growing up near the L'Anse aux Meadows site she became fascinated with the history surrounding it. "It made me appreciate the value of preserving our past," she says.

Walsh’s positive attitude is not an isolated one. Archaeological research and the related work on historic sites tend to have an inspiring effect on the local population. They awaken a sense of pride, the curiosity to know more, and the urge for higher education. On a national level, the archaeological digs provide career development for hundreds of aspiring Canadian archaeologists who may have otherwise had to acquire their practical experience in other parts of the world. Internationally, the work and published findings attract the interest of specialists and turn their attention to Newfoundland and the professional opportunities it offers.

As one of the fastest growing industries in the world, the tourism industry in Canada is predicted to provide in excess of 400,000 new jobs over the next five years. The archaeology sector in Newfoundland and Labrador is playing a part in the tourism boom. Initial estimates indicate that the three active sites are employing about 120 full- and part-time persons annually. They’re also generating economic advantages and other spin-off activities in the communities—such as craft pottery—that replicates the objects found in the digs.

The tourism infrastructure of Newfoundland is well served by the Archaeology sector as a whole. According to the study, Economic and Social Benefits of Heritage Industries in Newfoundland and Labrador, prepared by the market research firm Canning and Pitt Associates in 2002, the aging and more educated population of today demands a tourism experience that offers educational and enriching experiences. Archaeology and information about ancient cultures provide knowledge-hungry tourists with exactly what they’re craving. In fact, it’s a motivating factor for about a third of all tourists when choosing a travel destination.


An archaeological enquiry is not an isolated activity. It usually involves numerous stakeholders working together in a collaborative partnership. That’s especially true when the area being investigated is a designated historical site and a populated town—such as Port au Choix.

Phillip's garden
Phillip's garden

Priscilla Renouf is actively participating in the strategic planning of Parks Canada's Port au Choix National Historic Site with other stakeholders including: the Town Council of Port au Choix, Viking Trail Tourism Association, Port Au Choix Heritage Committee, Limestone Barrens Habitat Stewardship Project, Port au Choix Small Boat Fisherman's Committee, Miawpukek First Nation, Historic Sites Association, Association régionale de la côte Ouest, Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, Culture, and Recreation, and even the local high school. All of these organizations are involved in the site and are looking out for its commemorative integrity, and striving to ensure respect for its heritage value.

The archaeological research in northwestern Newfoundland is also connected to the study of other prehistoric cultures of the North Atlantic region. Throughout their development, all North Atlantic cultural groups have faced the same limitations and opportunities related to a changing environment. "I’m interested in understanding the fundamental, underlying similarities in how hunter-gatherers and other small-scale societies have adapted to these conditions," Renouf says.

Accordingly, Renouf’s research is part of a small interdisciplinary research group that focuses on integrating social and natural sciences to address questions of how human societies in the North Atlantic and contiguous areas (the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland, Norway, and Sweden) reacted to long- and short-term climate fluctuations.

Renouf hopes the findings from this research will enable scientists and researchers to better deal with our modern-day struggles with the changing environment.

Learn More

Visit Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Heritage.