Digging into the past
|Among those working on the Vieux Fort dig in Placentia were (L-R) Amanda Crompton, and NAHOP students Blair Temple and Regeena Psathas. Missing from photo is Catherine Murphy.
From finding artifacts to making history, Memorial is lending its support to the town of Placentia as it digs into its past. Two mid-17th century French forts were home this summer to three Memorial University students, 13 workers from Placentia, and Amanda Crompton, principal investigator, as a world-class archaeological dig transpired in our own backyard.
In 1996, two archaeology students from Memorial discovered what is now known to be the site of the first fort built in Placentia by the French, Vieux Fort, believed to have been inhabited between 1662 and 1685. Five years later, through the diligence of Placentia’s Heritage Advisory Committee and the Placentia Area Historic Society, funding was secured through Human Resources Development Canada and Memorial’s Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program (NAHOP), run by Dr. Peter Pope. This funding allowed for a large-scale dig that would incorporate Vieux Fort, a second fort by the name of Fort Louis, and a fully equipped lab.
"The advisory committee really saw the potential for tourism and community growth, and pursued that vision," said Ms. Crompton.
As supervisor of this extensive uncovering, Ms. Crompton ran the Vieux Fort site, delegating Fort Louis to Blair Temple, a graduate student in archaeology. The stories of these forts, and the people who inhabited them, came to life for these researchers this summer.
"Several years after the initial fort was built for protection by the French, Fort Louis was created. This second fort was built closer to the opening of the Placentia harbour, and was later reestablished by the British when they took over ownership of the community," Ms. Crompton explained. "These sites are rich with remains that allow us to catch a glimpse of how these people really lived, beyond historical maps."
From May to August of 2002, a vast amount of diverse artifacts were discovered and pieced together, attesting to the rich historical roots that run deep into Placentia’s ground.
"We’ve found everything from fancy French pottery to hand-blown glass, some coins that date back to 1630, and a French spigot, used to draw beer from a keg," said Ms. Crompton. "We can tell that the forts were most likely home to the French officers, as we are finding domestic materials that would normally be used for fine dining and entertaining."
The search and preservation of such artifacts proved to attract much interest from locals and tourists alike. Everyday over the summer, people flocked to the dig sites, as well as to the old Placentia drugstore that now houses the lab, to behold for themselves the unfolding story of their past.
"People love to watch other people dig," commented Ms. Crompton. "The community has been really great, and the people are getting to truly see the benefits of research."
The value of such research may also be observed in the study of archaeology itself. Projects like the Placentia dig have served as the subject of honours dissertations for students in the past, and it is the hope that such work will unearth increased interest in this field of study for others.
"Interest in archaeology has really only taken off in the last 30 years," Ms. Crompton said. "Memorial’s archaeology unit has been instrumental in developing this interest, making research opportunities such as this one possible."
Ms. Crompton and her crew, though cluing up for this summer, have boundless interest in the potential underlying their work. From the two sites in progress, to the mid-18th century houses buried near the opening of Placentia’s harbour, the research potential is abundant. "There will always be more research questions than answers," according to Ms. Crompton. "But it’s like being a mystery novelist – the process is just as enjoyable as the product."
All of the pieces found can be accessed for further research at the Newfoundland Museum, and will be distributed to local museums throughout the tourist season. Similarly, the spirit of learning and cooperation created in the throws of such intensive research will forever be embodied in the mounting evidence of Placentia’s history and in the future of these committed crew members.
"The NAHOP students and community crew were critical to the dig," Ms. Crompton stated. "The research really lent itself to looking at the lives of people in the past, and the people I worked with really made it happen."
To find out more about Memorial’s archaeology program and research, see www.mun.ca/archaeology/program.htm.