Summary 2013

RE-VISITING BEOTHUK ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES ON THE EXPLOITS RIVER

LAURIE MCLEAN

ARCHAEOLOGIST, BURNSIDE HERITAGE FOUNDATION INC.

Date:  December 2013
Source:  Beothuk Institute Newsletter

Historical and archaeological information attest to an intensive Beothuk occupation of the Exploits River system from 1750-1829. The Exploits system includes the river, its tributaries, Red Indian Lake and Lloyd's River.  John Cartwright's 1768 expedition up the river as far as Red Indian Lake, first known as Lieutenant's Lake, reported seeing 95 Beothuk houses at 22 locations. Extensive deer fences, used by the Beothuk to hunt caribou, were also re- ported.  Nineteenth-century visits by Lieutenant David Buchan, William Cull, John Peyton Jr. and Sr. and a few others also reported numerous Beothuk houses, storage houses, deer fences, a grave site and encounters between Beothuk and historic settlers.

Twentieth-century avocational and professional archaeological research corroborated and elaborated on the historic information. The remains of 153 Beothuk housepits, so-named because their floors lay 30 cm or more below the surrounding surface, were ob- served at 26 Exploits River and 5 Red Indian Lake sites. Many of these house remains were excavated by an amateur during the 1960s through the 1980s.

A much smaller number of Beothuk houses were professionally excavated at four sites. An early twentieth-century anthropologist described the remnants of deer fences, but these items have not been seen since then. The Red Indian Lake burial site and other inland Beothuk graves haves eluded archaeologists.

The last professional excavation of a Beothuk housepit occurred in 1981. Since then, Newfoundland and Labrador's Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) has regularly visited the Exploits valley to monitor the condition of archaeological localities. The PAO has also sponsored professional archaeological surveys of the Exploits system to address specific research questions and continue monitoring the condition of known sites. The author has directed four such inland projects since 2010. Grand Falls-Windsor outfitter Don Pelley assisted in all of these endeavours and archaeologist Eira Ducey also assisted in two of the projects. Three of these surveys focused on 19 sites that are distributed in three clusters along the Exploits River. The fourth survey consisted of an unsuccessful search for Demasaduit's grave site and other Red Indian Lake sites in 2012. The three Exploits River surveys re-discovered 38/95 Beothuk housepits that had been previously re-ported. Further research is required to determine whether or not another six depressions are housepits, meaning that 44 features may have been re-discovered.

The large number of missing houses is attributed to erosion and flooding caused by fluctuating water levels due to the large dams that have been built along this water system, logging and associated historic activity, forest growth over the past 40 years and inconsistent/vague recording of information during the amateur excavations. Despite the loss, at least from easy re-discovery, of much interior Beothuk archaeological material, a significant record of their lives is extant. Also, given that recent surveys were under-taken under strict time limits, it is reasonable to expect that a long term archaeological inquiry will re-identify more of the previously documented archaeological features as well as find new archaeological evidence for Beothuk in the Newfoundland interior. A re-search project undertaken in the fall of 2013 illustrates this potential.

The author and Don Pelley were contracted by the PAO in 2013 to re-visit an Exploits River island and conduct a detailed search for important Beothuk features that were undetectable when this team spent part of a day there in 2012. This island will not be named in this report in order to protect it from possible looting and other damage. Three Beothuk sites occur on the island which is one of six islands containing 11 Beothuk sites in the Exploits River. A to-tal of nine Beothuk housepits, six storage pits, two concentrations of fire-cracked rocks and a 15 metre long hearth were reported on the island's three localities. Seven housepits were re-identified  at the island's three sites during 2012.  PAO archaeologist Ken Reynolds found an eighth housepit in a 2013 visit.  A housepit, four storage pits, the two fire-cracked rock concentrations and the long hearth were still missing from DfAw-05, the largest site on the island. The author and Don Pelley were given the task of searching for the fire-cracked rock concentrations and the long hearth in  2013.

The survey started on October 14 and the loss of much summer vegetation by then assisted the assessment. The archaeological team started by checking the four housepits that had been re- discovered there in 2012-1023. After checking the housepits, the team saw that the four storage pits were now easily visible slightly more than a metre east of the housepit cluster. The storage pits had been covered with fresh vegetation during previous summertime visits.  Another housepit that had been reported just outside the storage pits still was not visible, although it may be present among a number of appropriately located depressions. The latter need to be test excavated by archaeologists to determine the presence or absence of artifacts which would confirm or deny the presence of a housepit among them.  The 2013 archaeological team soon made a pleasant discovery, finding a new housepit amid dense forest 18 metres northeast of the already known housepits. This is a pentangular housepit with its longest side almost six metres long. Following this auspicious beginning, the crew turned its attention to the main subject of their research, namely a level area starting about 25 metres away from the housepits .

Given the failure to identify the fire-cracked rock and hearth features on the site's surface in 2012, sub-surface testing was required.  A 60 x 25 m level area was to be assessed by digging 35 x 35 cm shovel pits three metres apart. The location of artifacts or other cultural material found in the test pits would be recorded on a GPS and measured from a datum point. The distance and height above the river would also be noted. After selecting a datum point, weathered caribou bone was found on the surface and protruding through the sod slightly more than a metre to the northwest.  Excavation of a test pit near the surface find produced 39 bone fragments, indicating the discovery of a pile of caribou remains, proof for a number of animals being killed or butchered here. No artifacts were recovered, but the condition of the bone, its depth and widespread evidence for Beothuk caribou hunting along the river suggest this represents Beothuk activity.  This material had not been previously reported at the site.

Almost two days of digging culturally sterile test pits followed this discovery before fire-cracked rocks were found in a test pit. This marked the re-discovery of the two fire-cracked rock concentrations.  One of these concentrations also contained much caribou bone and some bird remains while the other one produced one bone fragment and scattered charcoal. Further excavations are required to determine if these depos- its are the remains of hearths, houses or disposal areas.

A new concentration of fire-cracked rock was found six metres south of one of the previously- known FCR deposits. The new area produced a tiny stone flake from a test pit dug near the edge of the bank, but the 24 cm high eroding vertical surface produced the most material.  Fire-cracked rock, a Dorset Paleoeskimo microblade and two small flakes were found when the eroding bank was lightly scraped. This represented another new cultural area at this site, but more importantly, the discovery of an in situ microblade establishes a pre-Beothuk Dorset presence at the site as had been suggested by two previously recovered Dorset artifacts that had been interpreted as intrusive.

The regularly-spaced test pits still not had located the 15 metre long hearth, but the author eventually discovered its vestigial portion eroding from the island's west shoreline. This feature consists of a 2.6 x 0.8 linear arrangement of fire-cracked rocks protruding southwest from a 2.2 x 2.1 m clump of bank that had separated from the island. Other clusters of FCR were found 1.1 m, 5 m and 10 m from the remaining hearth, indicating the extent of disturbance suffered here. Large erect trees, up to 3.55 m away from the island's edge with fully exposed roots under them extend- ing back to the shoreline, show that at least 3.55 m of bank has been lost.  Stone artifacts, dis- lodged from their original context by erosion, were found on the beach surface north and south of the hearth, although it is unclear if they were associated with it.

The discovery of the partially submerged hearth and stone artifacts along the edge of the water line prompted the crew to closely check the beach running along the island. This led to the identification of a new feature four metres southwest from the microblade area and 9 metres north from the hearth. The new deposit consists of a possibly mounded concentration of grapefruit-sized and smaller unburned cobbles. There was insufficient time to excavate the feature to see if it covers an object or objects, so its function is not known. Given the widespread evidence for hearths, namely fire-cracked rock, throughout the site, the cobbles may have been stockpiled in preparation for being heated to boil water or roast meat.

In sum, the archaeological re-assessment of DfAw-05 discovered four features that had eluded re- cent archaeological visitors and discovered a new Beothuk housepit, a concentration of butchered caribou bone, a pile of unburned rocks and the remnant of a Dorset Paleoeskimo deposit. Archaeological excavation of these features holds great potential for providing details of the Beothuk and pre-Beothuk usage of interior Newfoundland. This survey also graphically illustrates the negative effects of erosion and related impacts on Beothuk archaeological sites along the Exploits River.

Hopefully, the program of monitoring implemented by Newfoundland and Labrador's Provincial Archaeology Office can be maintained and increased in order to excavate some of the more endangered localities before they are destroyed.

Share
Share

Top