Archaeology students unearth French history in Saint-Pierre

Aug 7th, 2017

Susan Flanagan

Archaeology students unearth French history in Saint-Pierre

Dr. Catherine Losier, an assistant professor in the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences who investigated 18th-century French Guiana for her PhD project, chose St. Pierre for excavation because the first known map of the harbour of St. Pierre (1680-1700s) shows occupation in Anse à Bertrand: two fishing rooms, a chapel and one small fort to protect the harbour.

From left, Nancy Butler and Rachael Green excavate at Anse à Bertrand as part of the summer field school associated with Dr. Catherine Losier’s research at Memorial.


During the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, Breton, Norman and possibly Basque fishermen visited the archipelago during their migratory fishing season.

Little is known about the first European visits to the archipelago, or about the French and English permanent settlements of the first half of the 18th century. Dr. Losier aims to change that by documenting the human activities at Anse à Bertrand with a focus on the oldest settlements, which likely date from the 17th and the 18th centuries.

She also wants to document how the frequent change in governance between France and England during the colonial period impacted life in the archipelago.

Territory changed hands

The territory was under French rule from 1536 when Jacques Cartier officially claimed the islands in the name of the French Crown.

With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon became a British territory, which remained under British control for 50 years until the Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave it back to France. With the loss of Nouvelle-France, Saint-Pierre et Miquelon became the last remaining French territory in the North Atlantic.

The turmoil did not end there. Between 1763 and 1815, the islands changed hands six times, before their final return to France.

“The beginning of our project in 2016 coincided with the 200th anniversary of the final return of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon to French control,” said Dr. Losier.

“This project is very exciting and I am happy to develop it in close collaboration with my students, especially Meghann Livingston, who is completing a master of arts in archaeology and has been involved in the project since the beginning. After doing a pedestrian survey last summer and studying old maps through the winter, I’m thrilled to actually have a team out digging. We know the site was occupied by Europeans since the 17th century and the fact that Saint-Pierre’s first airport was here helped protect archaeological remains from contemporary construction.”

So far, Dr. Losier and her team have found “graves”, or beach rocks used to dry fish, and the vestiges of 20th-century houses.

During the first week of excavation they identified rock features and a fishing room associated with the occupation of the site during the 19th and 20th centuries. Other rock features and objects, gun flints, ceramics, or smoking pipes for example, associated with 18th-century fish harvesters were found in the most ancient layers excavated during the last week of the fieldwork.

“(The field school) will train undergrad students and get them excited about archaeology.”— Dr. Catherine Losier

These exciting discoveries are generating new data regarding the material life people established on the islands during this time period.

“Not only will this field school gather data regarding Saint-Pierre et Miquelon’s past, but it will also train undergrad students and get them excited about archaeology,” said Dr. Losier, who has been researching Saint-Pierre et Miquelon for the past two years.

The students working with Dr. Losier are more than field workers, they are part of a research team.

She also hopes that they will not just excavate and learn technical field and laboratory skills, but also be inspired by the international experience to continue archaeology at a graduate level.

“People from the community are enthusiastic to have us here and often stop by to visit and discuss the site.”— Laura Long

Laura Long, one of the field school students and an archaeology major at Memorial, says the Saint-Pierre dig was an excellent opportunity to gain practical archaeological experience and confidence in the field.

“As a class, we are learning proper techniques and archaeological methods, which will be invaluable to us as we progress in our studies,” she said. “Saint-Pierre in particular is an especially lovely place to work, as people from the community are enthusiastic to have us here and often stop by to visit and discuss the site.”

The field school wrapped up Aug. 4.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7, 2017, edition of The Telegram as part of a regular summer series on research at Memorial University.



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