Minas Basin Archaeological Project

The Minas Basin Archaeological Project began as a three year archaeological survey (1988-1990) directed by Michael Deal and sponsored by the Nova Scotia Museum. It has developed into a long-term research program focussed on the reconstruction of prehistoric resource exploitation and settlement patterning in the Minas Basin area. The major goal of the project is to determine the distribution of coastal and interior sites with respect to critical resources such as lithic raw materials, shellfish beds and anadromous fish runs. In order to achieve this goal, it is also necessary to work at fine-tuning the regional culture historical sequence (chronology) within which land and resource use is interpreted.

The main objective of the initial survey was to gain a thorough understanding of local faunal, floral and lithic resources, and a comprehensive inventory of archaeological sites and materials. By the end of the survey period, extensive information had been gathered on the Minas Basin area concerning (1) the occupational history (2) the distribution and present condition of the archaeological sites, (3) environmental and cultural processes involved in the formation and destruction of sites, (4) locations of and variability in exploitable resources, (5) local contacts knowledgeable in the archaeological and environmental research, and (6) collections of archaeological materials from onsite testing and records of relevant private and museum collections. This information facilitated an evaluation of the completeness of the existing inventory in terms of the stated longterm research goal, and to recognize those resources that require mitigation.

The survey involved pedestrian and helicopter surveys of the shoreline and targeted interior portions of the Western Minas Basin, as well as test excavations at four late prehistoric sites. The survey began with a week of mapping and test excavation at the important lithic quarrying site at Davidson's Cove, Scotts Bay. A paper concerning this site was presented at the 1989 annual meeting of the Canadian Archaeological Association. Prior to the 1990 field season, funding was obtained from Memorial University for the cataloguing of materials collected during the first two field seasons, including artifacts from 25 sites recorded in the survey and a variety of prehistoric and historic artifacts that were collected by John Erskine from several Nova Scotian sites, which he had retained as a reference collection. A paleoethnobotanical analysis of ecofacts recovered from soil samples from the Clam Cove site (BhDc-5) site was also undertaken.

During the 1990 field season, the survey was combined with a Memorial University field school, which was co-sponsored by Memorial University and the Nova Scotia Museum. Laboratory facilities for the field school were provided by the Geology Department, Acadia University. The goal of the 1990 field season was to conduct excavations at a relocated prehistoric site on the St. Croix river (BfDa-1) and the Frederick Joseph DesBarres manor house at Castle Frederick (BfDb-4/6). Work at Castle Frederick was directed by Steve Powell, Nova Scotia Museum, and involved a crew of MUN archaeology students and volunteers from the Nova Scotia Archaeology Society. Other activities included the photographing and cataloguing of materials from private collections from St. Croix (i.e., the David Burton [DSB] Collection), and the Gaspereau Lake/Gaspereau River area (i.e., the Marge Hirtle [MEH] Collection, and ceramics from the Jim Legge [JSL] and Ellis Gertridge [EFG] Collections). A large collection of materials put together by H. L. Cameron during the 1950's was donated to the Museum by the Acadia Geology Department. This collection included historic artifacts from Louisburg, Grand Pre, and Fort Lawrence. The Cameron collection also included six ceramic sherds from two prehistoric vessels and three projectile points from the Habitation site (BeDj-10), Port Royal. Other materials acquired for the Museum included a sketch map of the prehistoric site on Isle Haute (BhDf-1) and some lithic specimens collected at this site. A group of field school students spent one morning surface collecting at the prehistoric Simpson's Bridge site (BgDb-3/5) in Melanson, after the site had been bulldozed and resurfaced by the owner. Two days were also devoted to further testing at the protohistoric Burnt Bone Beach site (BfDb-8) on Gaspereau Lake.

The focus of research since 1990 has been the St. Croix (BfDa-1) site, located along the southeastern bank of the St. Croix River, Hants County. The original site extended for more than one half kilometer along the river and at least sixty meters back from the riverbank. The site location, along with the quantity and diversity of material culture collected at the site suggests that it was probably a large campsite or village, where one of more groups collected to exploit anadromous fish runs in the spring and/or fall seasons. The villagers of St. Croix relied heavily on lithic raw materials from Scotts Bay, but also made extensive use of quartzites of the White Rock Formation located to the west of the Gaspereau Valley. A few exotic materials were also used. An Early Maritime Woodland ("meadowood" style) projectile point pictured on the left is made from a raw material quarried in the Mistassini area of Quebec. The nearest village of comparable size is the Melanson site, which is about thirty kilometers to the west, on the Gaspereau Lake/Gaspereau River drainage system. Ronald Nash (St. Francis Xavior University) and Frances Stewart (University of New Brunswick) conducted a field school at the Melanson site in 1985 and surveyed portions of the Gaspereau River.

The St. Croix site was first reported by John Erskine during the 1960s. Erskine dug a few test pits parallel to the river bank and eventually wrote off the site as being completely disturbed. The site was relocated during the 1989 archaeological survey and an undisturbed area of the site was subjected to intensive excavation in 1990 and 1993. During the first year of excavation Early Maritime Woodland, or Ceramic Period 1 (CP1) pottery sherds were recovered, indicating that this site could provide a model for developing a regional culture history. In two years of excavation, ceramic sherds from nearly 100 vessels were collected, along with eighteen associated charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating.

In 1993 ceramic sherds were collected for dating using the thermoluminescence (or TL) technique, which is preferable to radiocarbon dating since it provides a date for the ceramic sherd itself. However, field collection procedures are more rigorous for TL analysis and there are more opportunities for both natural and cultural contamination. TL dating of the St. Croix ceramics was conducted by Dorothy Godfrey-Smith and two students, at the Luminescence Laboratory at the Department of Earth Sciences, Dalhousie University, which is the only facility in eastern Canada where this work can be undertaken. Originally, funds were made available by the Dean of Applied Sciences and the Department of Continuing Studies at Acadia University to hire an Acadia geology student, Gina Best, to begin processing the St. Croix materials at the Dalhousie laboratory. In three weeks of laboratory work, sample preparation was completed for sherds from three ceramic vessels. In 1994, funding from the Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, was used to hire a second student, Ilana Kunelius, to continue this work and sherds from three additional vessels were prepared. This analysis resulted in five TL dates for ceramics from St. Croix, providing a basic chronological framework against which we can interpret the culture history of the Minas Basin area,and indirectly, the entire southwestern portion of Nova Scotia. These dates are associated with ceramics representing at least four ceramic periods (CP1 to CP4.) identified for the Maine/Maritimes Region. Pottery vessels were generally wide mouthed cooking and storage pots with pointed bases, like the one pictured on the left, which is a reconstruction of a vessel recovered at the Fulton Island site, New Brunswick. The dated associations from St. Croix suggest some local and intraregional variation (i.e., the southwestern Nova Scotia portion of the Maine-Maritimes Region). This is not surprising due to the relative paucity of dated ceramic associations over the broader Maine/Maritimes Region and for Nova Scotia in particular. The nine dated associations from St. Croix, including three radiocarbon dates, constitute almost one-third of the Nova Scotia cases. It is significant to note that the TL dates are in close agreement with the stratigraphic positioning of ceramic vessels based on recognized stylistic attributes.

A number of Memorial University graduate students have been directly or indirectly involved in this research. Helen Kristmanson served as crew chief on the 1990 excavation of the St. Croix site, and the ceramic collection from that excavation formed the basis of her M. A. thesis on ceramic styles and chronology for southwestern Nova Scotia. Paul McEachen used Early Maritime Woodland Period materials and dates from St. Croix in his reanalysis of the Meadowood manifestation in the Maritime Provinces. Douglas Rutherford (with Michael Deal) used the Archaic Period materials from the Minas Basin area as the starting point for their study of the distribution of Archaic Period sites and materials in Nova Scotia. Brent Murphy reanalysed the Gaspereau Lake site (BfDb-5) collection in his reassessment of the Early and Middle Archaic Periods of the Maritimes. Dawn Laybolt conducted an extensive pedestrian and canoe survey of the northern shore of Gaspereau Lake in 1998 and recorded several new sites and private collections.

Field work was recently resumed in the Scots Bay portion of the study area, where further testing was conducted at the Davidson Cove workshop site (2003) and a small shellmidden site at Clam Cove (2004-05), along with limited testing and sample collection at previously identified sites at Starrs Point, at the mouth of the Cornwallis River (2005). The latter is an extensive and important river drainage that has received very little attention from archaeologists. Sara Halwas (2006) processed plant remains from the Clam Cove site as part of her MA research and a paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology on late prehistoric plant use in the Minas Basin area (Deal and Halwas 2006). Outreach has continued in the form of site tours, volunteer field workers, a town hall meeting at Scots Bay, and a survey of local mill and shipyard sites (with the help of several local residents).


Department of Archaeology

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000