Bryn Tapper

Bryn Tapper is a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology. His research is currently funded by an ISER Doctoral Fellowship awarded for 2018-2019. Originally from Cornwall, UK, he started his archaeological career in cultural resource management (CRM) and worked for the Historic Environment Service of Cornwall Council for over a decade until 2012. Shortly afterwards, he migrated to Newfoundland to pursue a Masters in Archaeology at Memorial. From there he turned his attention to a long held interest in rock art and cultural landscapes. He particularly enjoys travelling, exploring and hiking natural and cultural landscapes; current affairs, watching cricket and rugby, eating pasties, woodworking, and photography.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?

Towards the end of my career in Cornwall I had started to think about new directions which would afford me the opportunities to travel and live abroad, to broaden my horizons, and to meet new people, while allowing me to maintain my interest in archaeology. I had always harboured an aspiration to return to university, so Memorial’s archaeology program, the affordable tuition rates, and importantly its location were big draws. I grew up by the sea, and while I love to experience the vast landscapes of Canada, so unlike anything I was familiar with, the chance to live on the coast was especially important. And, last but not least, I had personal reasons for relocating since my partner is from Montreal and is also pursuing doctoral research here. So, happily, a constellation of factors helped me to make one of the best decisions of my life.

What drew you to explore archaeology originally?

The encouragement of my Mum and my Grandad; they both saw my interest in the past and provided lots of books. My grandfather was a Plantagenet historian who lived in Spain and France when I was growing up, so many summers were spent with my family visiting marvelous sites –from palaeolithic grottes, to prehistoric megaliths, to medieval walled towns.

Archaeology is a diverse discipline; beyond its core, it draws on a plethora of theories, methods and practices from many other fields. Because of this, and in my experience, it exposes you to a rich environment of eclectic and innovative thinking. Notwithstanding its inherent challenges, it offers an important perspective not only on the past, but also the present, and indeed the future. Besides its inherent merit, archaeology should be relevant for today’s world. Much of my CRM work was framed within broader heritage conservation, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic regeneration initiatives. In this sense, I am particularly interested in how an understanding of the past can inform our collective decision-making in the present. As I have pursued my doctoral research in Canada, I have increasingly recognized the importance of why it is also incumbent on archaeology to contribute to current debates on social justice for the communities whose past we investigate.

Can you tell us a bit about your current projects?

I am investigating the Algonquian rock art of the Canadian Maritime provinces. Specifically, I’m looking at the graphic content and landscape context of the known petroglyph sites from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I am particularly interested in the role of the petroglyphs in ancestral Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik societies. I am also curious to understand how, as these sites becomes historicized, they move beyond the intentions of their original creators to be incorporated, reconfigured and reinvented by subsequent generations. I analyse the petroglyph sites at various scales in order to articulate the different functional and ideological levels at which these phenomena operated. This ranges from an examination of the detail of the individual motif, to the scenes and compositions of a palimpsest panel, to the immediate locality of the site, and from there to the setting within the broader cultural landscape. Such an approach helps to inform how Indigenous concepts of landscape, the environs of the rock art site, the material conditions of the rock itself, as well as the content and composition of the images engraved, combine to make socially significant places. However, dating petroglyphs, especially in the Northeast, is notoriously difficult. For this reason, I undertake comparative analyses of the technical, iconographic and narrative content of the petroglyphs to align the corpus with neighbouring Algonquian petroglyph and pictograph traditions, both pre- and postcontact, known from northeastern North America.

I use a variety of techniques and practices to do my work, complimenting formal archaeological methods, including computational photography and GIS spatial analysis, with ethnohistories and ethnographies. Alongside photogrammetry, I use a multi-lighting technique called Highlight Reflectance Transformation Imaging (H-RTI) to document and interpret the rock art; these are excellent portable and non-invasive techniques for revealing new details and identifying internal chronologies in the imagery. Most importantly, I explore the multi-vocality of the rock art with the permission of and in collaboration with the First Nations of the region. A fundamental component of my project is the relationships I am building with Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik communities in order to place the archaeological narrative alongside their narratives of the rock art. The recent ‘ontological turn’ in archaeology has provided me with some important theoretical positions and interpretive tools which I endeavor to practice in my research. I think such approaches can help hold open alterity in the construction of alternative narratives of the past, while throwing a light on the conceptual frameworks in which archaeological research is itself pursued. This is critical in the post-colonial practice of archaeology if we are to decolonise our discipline.

A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor bring to their role as your advisor and mentor?

I am lucky enough to be co-supervised by Drs. Oscar Moro Abadía and Michael Deal who offer me guidance in two important areas. Through Dr. Moro Abadía’s work on the history and epistemology of science and archaeology in the context of prehistoric art I have developed a more acute appreciation of the theoretical paradigms that have characterised rock art research historically. Researchers have been investigating rock art in the far Northeast for nearly 150 years and the evolution of that research, from the earliest antiquarians and anthropologists to the archaeological and conservation-led initiatives of the later 20th century, tells us much about the metaphysical development of rock art research in this region. Furthermore, Dr. Moro Abadía’s expertise in Palaeolithic, and other, artistic traditions enables me to place the Canadian Maritimes within the broader framework of the rock art phenomenon found globally; and critically, to tie into the networks and current theoretical debates ongoing in the discipline. Through Dr. Deal I am privileged to be able to draw on the knowledge and advice of one of the leading scholars of Maritimes prehistory. With over 30 years of research and fieldwork experience in the area, Dr. Deal has grounded me in the archaeological record, provided terrific fieldwork opportunities, and opened the door to a network of colleagues across the region. I am particularly grateful for the ongoing mentoring and support provided by both my supervisors.

What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?

The freedom and responsibility to pursue my research. In the department, there is a strong emphasis on developing the logistical and practical skills required to organize and undertake your own research and fieldwork. This advocacy of independence is complemented by the collegiality of faculty and students which, personally, is important to my sense of belonging; my mentors and peers are my friends as well as colleagues. Furthermore, the department cultivates an understanding of the importance of close engagement and collaboration with communities during research; it is heartening to be working in an environment where that ethos is fostered.

What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?

I would like to continue research on the rock art of the Northeast, especially in those areas where, as far as we know, there remain gaps in our knowledge, such as in Eastern Québec, Labrador and Newfoundland. Particularly, I’d like to delve a little deeper into the nature of the exchange of icons, indexes, and symbols between Indigenous groups, and later, with colonial and settler cultures. In the longer term, I am interested in becoming an educator; I have taken my first forays into teaching and it is an experience I enjoy.


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