Memorial professor makes significant archaeological discovery

The crew of the Waterfront Archaeology Project have been hard at work in Clears Cove. (L-R) Peter Simms, Mathilde St. Arnaud, Dr. Peter Pope and Janine Williams.

Dr. Peter Pope, a professor of anthropology at Memorial University, believes he may have found evidence of the link between the migratory fishery and permanent residents in Clears Cove on the southern shore. During an archaeological survey of Fermeuse Bay in 2002, Dr. Pope and his crew found evidence of several sites from 17th century livyers. Following an early map of a surgeon named James Young from 1663, Dr. Pope and his crew went looking for evidence of a planter’s house in Clears Cove. Although they did not find the actual structure they did find early window glass which indicated its existence. So they returned this year to continue the dig and were pleasantly surprised by what they found.

“Doing some exploratory digging in a boggy area we found the wall of a cook room. We excavated a bit more and found the floor, well preserved by a 15 centimetre layer of wood chips,” said Dr. Pope of Memorial’s Archaeology Unit. “It is a breakthrough to find the remains of evidence of the migratory fishery. We have found objects such as fish hooks and flakes around Newfoundland, but to find an actual structure is quite amazing and to my knowledge has not been found elsewhere.”

Dr. Pope reasons that the cook room survived so well because it was sitting on peat. When the structure had surpassed its usage, it must have been knocked down and then covered over with wood chips. The wood chips soaked up the water from the bog and kept the wood moist. If kept moist and cold, wood preserves very well, he pointed out.

A cook room was traditionally built out of poles using boughs for walls and the rinds of fir trees for the roof. They were used to cook for the crew and were generally rebuilt every year. They were a common structure in Newfoundland and there is evidence of them in early regulation books pertaining to dimensions and usage.

What Dr. Pope finds most exciting about this find at Clears Cove is that they now have a site where it is going to be possible to look closely at the transition from migratory fishery to permanent residency. “We have a good, clear presence of planters and migratory fishermen in the period right before permanent settlement. It looks as though they settled in the same areas, but it will be interesting to see if there is some distinction in the areas they used.”

Dr. Pope has done a great deal of research on early settlement in Newfoundland including a book called Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century, which came out last year. He emphasizes that the fishery was the matrix or cradle of settlement in Newfoundland.

“There were proprietary settlements like Cupids and Ferryland that had famous founders but that was not the typical way that Newfoundland was settled. The normal process involved an evolution out of the migratory fishery.”

This newest discovery provides a valuable landscape study of how the whole area evolved and will help illustrate the layout of a fishing room and how they are distributed on the land. It also ties in well with Dr. Pope’s current research into the French migratory fishery on the Northern Peninsula and he hopes there will be some interesting comparisons.

Dr. Pope figures it will take a few years to gather the funding and formulate a plan for doing a full excavation of the site.

“We have to come up with a strategy for handling the volume of soaking wet material that is going to come out, find a budget for recording it, and determine how much we are going to conserve because we are not going to be able to conserve everything,” he said. “Therefore we need to find a way of recording it quickly so that the material is not damaged by being exposed to the air.”

Once the wood comes out of the peat it is a matter of hours before it starts to suffer and valuable information is lost. Dr. Pope pointed out that although it is not a huge site, it is significant enough that it should be very well considered and planned.

Dr. Pope is confident they can develop this site as a research area as they have good co 'operation from the town of Port Kirwan and the Brothers family who own the property. “We hope we can eventually show some of the materials we found in the local museum and maybe even reconstruct one of the structures on the site,” he added.