SUMMARY OF EXPLOITS RIVER ARCHAEOLOGY FOR 2015
REPORT PREPARED FOR THE BEOTHUK INSTITUTE BY
LAURIE MCLEAN, ARCHAEOLOGIST
Historic data and archaeological information list 34 archaeological sites and 155 Beothuk housepits throughout the Exploits Valley. Most of these sites were found in the 1960s. The combined negative impact from erosion, forest growth and human activity since then has destroyed parts of some sites and left many unidentifiable. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Provincial Archaeology Office monitors the condition of all provincial archaeology sites and has sponsored numerous surveys designed to determine the condition of the Exploits Valley localities. Five archaeological surveys undertaken by the author, assisted by Grand Falls-Windsor resident Don Pelley, for the PAO from 2010-2014 re-identified 51 of 107 previously reported housepits and found one new housepit at 20 archaeological sites. Professional archaeologists’ ability to re-identify only 48% of previously reported housepits is attributable to damage suffered by the sites and the often inconsistent previously recorded information. The PAO,
in 2015, hired the author and Don Pelley to conduct research at four sites found on three Exploits River islands (Plate 1). These projects primarily addressed Beothuk occupations although an eroding Dorset Paleoeskimo hearth was partially excavated during as well. The three islands will not be named in this report in order to protect them from possible looting and other damage. The islands will be referred to as A, B and C.
PROJECT 1, ISLAND A
Thirteen Beothuk housepits and one possibly used by Mi’kmaq had been found on Island A between fifteen and 47 years ago. The author, assisted by Don Pelley and Memorial University archaeology student Dave Craig in 2014, re-identified nine of ten housepits located on the island’s eastern half. The scattered distribution of the housepits and their increased distance from the river, compared to most other Exploits River housepits, suggests they were built by Beothuk who wanted to hide their homes from European settlers. These characteristics appear to be attributable to a very late Beothuk occupation, possibly one of the last along the river. The suggested late date for these housepits is corroborated by Island A’s close proximity to the Badger River which was a popular route from the deep interior to Notre Dame Bay for latter period Beothuk.
The author and Don Pelley were given the task of re-identifying Island A’s other four housepits in the spring of 2015. One of these housepits had been reported on the island’s upper terrace where the easternmost ten features were located. Three housepits had been previously found on a lower terrace skirting the island’s southern and western shorelines. The lower terrace is now covered with tangled alders that had to be cut and dragged away to permit looking for the housepits. A cluster of boulders found on the upper terrace appears to be the disturbed remains of Housepit 8. 1000 m2 of alders were cleared in three sections of the lower terrace, looking for Housepits 9 and 10 at one large site and a single housepit assigned to another site on Island A. Parts of walls built from mounded cobbles, representing all three former structures, were found (Plate 2). All three are partially destroyed, most likely from ice activity on the low terrace.
The Island A survey made a unique discovery in addition to re-identifying four more housepits on the landmass. The search for Housepit 8 on the island’s upper terrace found a rock-lined pit that was part of a 19 m2 triangular
platform built from fist-sized and slightly larger cobbles (Plate 3). The oval-shaped pit is 1.4 x 1.0 meters and 45 cm deep. It resembles depressions referred to as storage pits at four other interior Beothuk sites, but there is
no clear proof that these pits were used in this capacity. Eleven similar so-called storage pits found at four other Exploits River sites did not contain artifacts other than two deteriorated caribou bone fragments that may have
accidentally fallen into two of the depressions. Their similarity to roasting pits and boiling pits used by mainland First Nations people suggests another possible function.
The Island A pit has a number of unique attributes. Its perimeter is lined with slightly larger cobbles that suggest hold-down rocks used to keep a cover in place. Also, this pit was filled with charcoal and black humus which extended over the exposed part of the horizontal platform as well. The large amount of charcoal suggests it resulted from human activity. None of the exposed rocks are fire-cracked which suggests the pit was not used as a
roasting/boiling pit and the large horizontal boulder feature surrounding it was not used as a roasting platform unless this was a new facility that had not experienced enough burning for its boulders to begin heat fracturing.
Alternatively, the charcoal may have resulted from the structure covering the feature burning. Detailed excavation of this feature is necessary to test these hypothetical scenarios and ultimately determine the significance of this feature, but the brief 2015 appraisal noted other important characteristics. This feature currently sits on the outer edge of Island A’s north bank. There is no evidence for significant erosion here and even if this shoreline had eroded by up to six meters, as some Exploits River islands have, the feature was at most six meters from the visible edge of the island. This means that the Beothuk who built the boulder platform and whatever covered it did not attempt to hide the structure from Europeans, implying that it was created while Beothuk were relatively unconcerned about Europeans seeing it. As such, this feature probably predates the majority of Island A’s housepits. The three lower terrace housepits re-identified during 2015 are similarly located in more visible parts
of Island A, suggesting they are contemporaneous with the cobble pit feature. The time period between the cobble pit feature, lower terrace housepits and the less conspicuous upper terrace examples probably was not long, but this is less important than the Beothuk-European interaction they represent. The lack of use evident on the cobble pit feature suggests the Beothuk who built it may have been forced to abandon it due to an unexpected, unwelcome visit by Newfoundland settlers. The latter may have even burned the structure, prompting Beothuk to alter their settlement patterns on Island A.
ISLANDS B AND C
The author was awarded another Provincial Archaeology Office contract a few weeks after the Island A project was completed. The new contract enabled the author and Don Pelley to dig test pits and analyse the surface at Island B and implement salvage excavations of an eroding Dorset Paleoeskimo hearth at nearby Island C. The Island B site is usually under water, but was now exposed by the lower river level attributable to a break in Goodyear’s Dam, near Grand Falls-Windsor (Plates 4, 5). Stone arrow heads, other stone artifacts, bone
pendant fragments and burned animal bone had been previously recovered from two flooded hearths on Island B in the 1960s. This island is one of five sites in the Exploits Valley that have produced Beothuk and prehistoric Beothuk stone projectile points. Most Beothuk projectile points found at inland sites were recycled from European iron.
The reduced river height revealed a flat grass-covered terrace on the eastern end of Island B in 2015. The 2015 archaeological team re-identified the previously recorded hearth features along the outer edge of the terrace and
recorded five new features represented by clusters of fire-cracked rocks and unburned rocks on the surface. Two of these suggested previously unknown hearths, one possibly represented part of a housepit’s cobble wall and the other two, consisting of fire-cracked rocks and unburned rocks, were potential hearths or housepits. The location of the new and old features were carefully measured pertaining to a grid established over the site. The final report for this research will include a detailed topographic map of the site.
Some of the suggested features were tested by digging 50 x 50 cm test pits. Three of the productive pits were expanded to 1 x 1 meter units. Three stone projectile points were collected from two 1 x 1 m pits dug close together (Plates 6, 7). 600 small pieces of calcined (burned) bone were recovered from one of these squares. Just over 1000 small fragments of calcined bone were recovered from three features, four test pits and two surface locations. Preliminary analysis indicates the presence of birds, small mammals and caribou.
Unfortunately, the 2015 analysis of Island B’s terrace was cut short by rising water, probably due to the repairs of Goodyear’s dam nearing completion. The PAO kindly extended the research project by five days in consideration of the unique opportunity to excavate this normally flooded site and the significant results of the initial 2015 research. Despite the extension, however, there was insufficient time to perform test excavations at the
previously known Feature 2 hearth and the Feature 10 hearth which was discovered late in the extended period. There was also insufficient time to complete digging test pits in the terrace’s innermost corner to check the possibility that previously unknown features were located there. Despite these setbacks, the team’s examination of Island B shows it was a much busier activity area for late prehistoric Beothuk than had been previously been realized. Charcoal collected from the excavated hearths is being prepared for shipping to Beta Analytic where it will be radiocarbon dated. The types of stone projectile points recovered from the site are expected to date to approximately 600 years ago. This is the age of a large hearth excavated by the author and Don Pelley on nearby Island C two years ago.
Island C lies approximately 500 meters from Island B. Nine Beothuk housepits are distributed over three sites on Island C. A radiocarbon date of 600 + 30 BP (Before Present/1950 A.D.) from a Little Passage (prehistoric
Beothuk) hearth and older Dorset Paleoeskimo artifacts found on Island C show that this one of a few rare Exploits Valley archaeological sites to have been used before the intensive post-1750 Beothuk occupation. Unfortunately, Island C is actively eroding along its southwest shoreline where up to six meters have been lost, destroying significant archaeological resources. When PAO archaeologists Ken Reynolds and Steve Hull, accompanied by Don Pelley, visited the island in the spring of 2015, they found a Dorset Paleoeskimo hearth eroding
from the island’s bank. This feature was not visible when the author and Pelley performed PAO-requested work on the island in 2014.
The author and Pelley performed the 2015 Island C research once the Island B assessment was finished. A 2.2 x 1.0 meter section encompassing the endangered hearth feature was gridded off and excavations were started (Plate8). The excavation revealed two clusters of fire-cracked rocks that originated from the same disturbed hearth or they represent the remains of two different hearths. A number of charcoal samples were collected from the larger cluster of fire-cracked rocks and one of the sample is being prepared for radiocarbon dating at Beta Analytic laboratories in Florida. The expected age for these hearth(s) is between 1200 and 2100 years ago as this is the range for Newfoundland’s Dorset Paleoeskimo occupations.
Five complete endscrapers, nine fragments and one sideblade are the most prominent of 160 stone artifacts recovered from the Island C hearth excavations (Plates 9, 10). Endscrapers commonly occur at sites where large quantities of animal skins are processed. Their presence in this collection suggests that Dorset people processed a large amount of animal hides at this site. Caribou and beaver would appear to be the most common animal resource available in this area, but black bear and small furbearing mammals may have been hunted and
processed as well. One-hundred-thirty small flakes of chert and other fine-grained found in these excavations are proof that some of these endscrapers were manufactured or re-sharpened by people sitting near this hearth.
Don Pelley made a bonus discovery while exploring the northern portion of this site where he and the author had recently re-identified three Beothuk housepits and found a new one as well. PAO archaeologist Ken Reynolds
re-identified another of the originally reported housepits at this site in 2013. Don Pelley’s bonus find from 2015 was a small housepit, with mounded walls of cobbles, similar to others found at this site, except that it is much smaller. Its area of 7.6 m2, measured along the wall apex, is similar to a slightly larger store house found a few metres away by this team in 2014. Excavations are required to see if the new feature contains an interior hearth and other components indicative of a small domestic structure rather than a storehouse. This former structure is the smallest of a number of housepits recently identified by the author and Pelley.
This unusually small housepit is indicative of some of the new information produced by the recent Exploits Valley research. Significant variability in the construction and distribution of Beothuk housepits has been observed. In
addition, a number of new features have been identified that represent other inland Beothuk activities. It is important to note that the results summarized here were mostly derived from brief, cursory site appraisals. Detailed excavation at some of these sites will produce even more information about Beothuk and previous occupants of the Exploits Valley. These new data will be relevant to Beothuk and older occupants of coastal parts of Newfoundland as well.
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