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Digging In: Helping Communities Unearth Their History

Bill Gilbert

Bill Gilbert (BA'83, MA'02) has embraced the exploration of Newfoundland's history as his life's work. Over the buzz of a poor telephone line, he recounts how it all began for him when he started his master's degree in 1980 by moving beyond the overpass for what he thought would be one season of gathering thesis material. Bill soon unearthed enough evidence to confirm the location in Cupids of the oldest English settlement in the country. "Many years, 4 buildings, and 100,000 artifacts later, I'm still here," he says.

Bill and his time-shifting crew from the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation received an unexpected boost in 2000. Memorial University's Archaeological Unit, with the provincial Culture and Heritage Division, the Newfoundland Museum and the Newfoundland Historical Society, created the Newfoundland Archaeological Heritage Outreach Program (NAHOP) to inspire and support archaeological links between Memorial and the community.

There is no hesitation in his voice when Bill praises NAHOP's coordinator, Steve Mills (BA[Hons.]'80, MA'00). Steve knew about Bill's work on the Baie de Verde Peninsula and invited the team to participate in the new program by involving archaeology students from Memorial. "We were totally in favor of this partnership. The community employees, with their practical experience, have met MUN students with their academic knowledge. It's resulted in an amazing sort of cross-fertilization, making archaeology that much more approachable for both sides," Bill says.

Steve Mills' office, buried in a quiet corner of Memorial University's Archaeology Unit, is like a working dig in progress - complete with ceramic artifacts and aerial maps of the province. Steve points out that Memorial's involvement in organized archaeology began in this province in the 1960s when Jim Tuck began sifting through the backyards of Port au Choix on the Great Northern Peninsula. Since then, extraordinary stories have been unearthed all over the province. "We only have to look to the Colony of Avalon - Ferryland, Renews, Fermeuse, Cupids and Placentia to see evolving sites that have incredible tourist appeal," Steve says. NAHOP is formalizing a successful model of both the practical and the academic providing labor and leadership to smaller communities, and greater research opportunities for larger centers.

If you are lucky enough to catch him in his office, you'll find Dr. Peter Pope, (MA'86, Ph.D.'92), amid a plethora of photographs and books from digs gone by. The soft-spoken associate professor of anthropology and history at Memorial, and director of NAHOP, freely shares his deep admiration for Bill Gilbert's work. Peter originally envisioned the program as a means of providing students with employment and experience, all the while pushing expertise into communities. "But since the project's inception, we've watched places like the Baccalieu Trail develop in incredible ways." Bill has been instrumental in focusing not only on one community, but also on the region as a whole. This has put their work into a much larger context. "I think it's very smart, developing an integrated approach."

Michael Clair, director of culture and heritage with the province, recognizes the significance of linked community and academic involvement in local archaeology. In other jurisdictions, the activity is usually driven by either development efforts or by academic research. "In this province, local groups are much more aware of the value of archaeological resources and are more involved in their preservation and presentation," he says. NAHOP plays a big part in this process.

Today, 32 community groups are registered with NAHOP, and seven Community University Research Alliance partnerships are in place, including the provincial Culture and Heritage Division, the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corporation, the Colony of Avalon Foundation, the Dorset Eskimo Quarry Committee Inc., the Petit Nord Nature and Heritage Society, the Placentia Area Heritage Historical Society, and the Labrador Institute.

Over the last three-years, Peter Simms (BA'99), Peter Pope, Steve Mills, and Lara Maynard (BA'96, MA) all worked together to create a unique guide for interested groups. Organizing Community Archaeology Projects is a step-by-step plan for linking community interests with archaeological expertise. "We want to make this sort of alliance available long after NAHOP is no longer around," he says.

With the recent announcement that NAHOP will receive funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a two-year completion phase, community-based archaeology in this province will have many more tales to tell.

Bill believes projects like those of the Baccalieu Trail provide communities with more than just an economic boost. "When people know their history, and interpret their heritage for the world, it provides an enhanced sense of understanding in the region people feel they belong and are proud."