Report – Four Mile Rapids

Report:  FOUR MILE RAPIDS (DfAv-01)

Author:  Laurie McLean, Archaeologist
Date of Report:  2016

The author and Don Pelley spent six days in June assessing the condition of the Four Mile Rapids site (DfAv-01) which is located on the bank of the Exploits River a few kilometers east from Grand Falls-Windsor.  This site had been identified and partly excavated by amateur archaeologist Don Locke in 1967 (Locke Field Notes).   Locke reported three Beothuk housepits there and collected iron, lead and tin artifacts (McLean 1990).  Locke found caribou bone in each of the housepits.

The term housepit refers to a depression in the ground left from Beothuk domestic structures and store houses.  Beothuk excavated the envisioned interior of these buildings to depths that varied from a few centimeters to over 50 centimeters and deposited the earth around the perimeter, forming a foundation.  Most housepit foundations were composed of soil, but a few built in rockier localities had sub-walls of mounded boulders.  A wooden frame was then anchored to poles embedded in the foundation.  The frame was usually covered with birch bark although sails from European ships and caribou hides were sometimes used as well.  Beothuk housepits manifest a variety of shapes, including ovate, round, square, rectangular, pentangular and hexagonal.  Octagonal housepits were historically described, but have not been found in the archaeological record (Marshall 1996:356).  Early housepits were round or oval-shaped, indicating conical structures stood over the pits.  This suggests that early Beothuk living on the coast, roughly dating to the late sixteenth-early seventeenth centuries, transferred the design of precontact wigwams, which did not incorporate subsurface interiors, to slightly larger pit houses.  Many of the later Beothuk housepits, found throughout the Exploits Valley, were more angular, ranging from four-sided to multi-sided.  One-hundred-fifty-five housepits have been found in the Exploits Valley and 33 were identified on the coast of Bonavista Bay and Notre Dame Bay.  The author and Don Pelley have re-identified 52 of the Exploits Valley housepits and have found at least two that was not previously reported (see below).  PAO archaeologist Ken Reynolds re-identified another Exploits River housepit in 2013.

Brief visits to the Four Mile Rapids site by professional archaeologists since the 1960s did not re-identify all three housepits.  Vegetation growth, erosion and recent construction complicated quick identification of the housepits.  Pelley and the author had briefly visited the site previous to 2016, noting a number of depressions that looked like Beothuk housepits, but could not be confirmed without excavating them to check for the presence or absence of artifacts.  When they returned to the site in June, 2016 they saw six housepit-like depressions.  One-hundred-thirty-seven test pits were excavated throughout the site last summer to determine the distribution of artifacts, should any be present.  Caribou bone, charcoal and fire-cracked rocks were recovered from the interior of three depressions confirming the presence of central hearths inside three housepits. The latter are dispersed in a 50 meter linear distribution along a natural berm three to four meters above the river.  Tools were not found inside the housepits, following a common pattern throughout these inland features.  This may be attributable to the previous amateur excavations and other illegal digging which removed most, if not all, of the artifacts.  Also, Exploits Valley housepits appear to contain much smaller tool kits than occurred in Beothuk houses found on the north coast.  Further excavations are required to test this observation.