For the archeology team at Cupids, the ground must seem as giving as the sea did when Europeans first fished there.
“You can pretty much dig anywhere here and find something,” says Bill Gilbert, chief archeologist for the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corp.
For the past 17 years Gilbert and a crew have been carrying out archeological work at the site of the Cupids Cove Plantation set up by John Guy in 1610.
On an October day that seems reluctant to let go of summer, Gilbert walks around the site pointing out what’s been uncovered to date.
The crew has unearthed a dwelling house and storehouse, almost certainly built in 1610; a temporary pit house, where some of the colonists likely lived while permanent structures were being built, two small outbuildings, a portion of the defensive walls at the north of the plantation, a gun platform, a cemetery and an estimated 160,000 artifacts.
Historical documents indicate there were at least three houses, the second of them “far greater and fairer” built in 1611, and a third built for Henry Crout and Thomas Willoughby in 1612. The colony also contained a workhouse, two sawpits and a sawmill, buildings for the animals, a blacksmith’s shop, a gristmill and a brew house.
This summer work continued on the cemetery first uncovered in 2008. The graves lie at the foot of a once-fortified hill, backed by a lake, where one of the sawpits may have been situated.
Thirty-nine colonists spent the first winter in Cupids. By 1613, the number had increased to 62. During the first three years, 12 people died. The team has uncovered 10 graves; four appear to be the graves of children.
“At this point we don’t know for sure if it’s the original cemetery or a later one,” says Gilbert.
Most of the graves are only 18 inches wide, an indication that it may be the cemetery used by the original colony.
“Sixteenth- and 17th-century graves tend to be quite narrow,” he explains.
Three stone walls have been uncovered. One, an inner defensive wall built in 1610, was discovered in 2003.
“John Guy talks about enclosing an area 90 by 120 feet and building his first dwelling and storehouse inside that area. It must be the north wall of that enclosure, with the dwelling house and storehouse over here,” the archeologist concludes, pointing to an area a short distance behind the wall.
However, Gilbert doesn’t think there would have been time to build a stone defence wall in 1610. That would have come a little later. Guy says in a letter from May 1611 that his defence works had been built from wood.
But by 1612 the colonists were having trouble with pirates.
“They’d actually established the second colony at Renews on the Southern Shore, which they were forced to abandon in 1612. Because of Peter Easton and the other pirates, it wasn’t safe to be down there.”
According to a letter by colonist Henry Crout, they made a deal with Easton. They would give him two of their roasting pigs in return for a letter of safe passage back to Cupids.
“They got back to Cupids in August. We know that in the summer of 1612 they undertook a major fortification effort. Henry Crout talks about Master Guy building a fort, and we have a letter written by John Slaney, secretary treasurer of the London and Bristol Company. He says Master Guy is now building a fort and when he’s finished the place will be impregnable against the pirates,” Gilbert says.
Easton was also attacking French fishermen, and the English settlers feared if the French sought revenge, they weren’t going to distinguish between pirates and settlers.
In 2009 the team found the results of Guy’s major fortification effort, a defensive wall located closer to the harbour, about 40 feet north of the enclosure wall.
“So it seems like this stone wall, which probably measured about seven feet high, and the gun platform for mounting a cannon, were most likely built in 1612.”
The stone from the wall appears to have been scavenged for reuse in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“All that’s left of the stone is what was below ground. So what you got left is the very base of the wall and the gun platform.”
Last year the crew found another wall, five feet to the north and running parallel to that one.
“It’s either a separate defensive wall, or all of this was one wall — the outer face and the inner face of a massive wall — nine feet wide.”
It may be that only the walls facing the harbour and most vulnerable to attack from the sea were built of stone. The walls to the east, south and west were more likely wooden.
“Big posts every 10 or 12 feet and rails, like a fence. They’d have palings six or seven feet high, sharpened at the top nailed onto the rails, so it would be a solid wall. If it’s a wooden palisade, all we’re going to find are postholes — the holes dug for wooden posts.”
In 2008 the team found slag — waste from the forge directly behind the inner wall.
“So we’re trying to find out where the blacksmith shop was.”
They uncovered a drainage ditch this summer that may have been used to drain off the water from the slack tub, where the blacksmith would have cooled the hot iron.
Instead of running in a straight line, the ditch veers off for several feet going around what seems to be the remains of a small building.
The most eye-catching feature at the site is the volumetric reconstruction of the original dwelling house and storehouse, otherwise known as a ghost structure.
Erected over the ruins in 2010, it shows the basic outline of the building without adding a lot of detail.
“The more detail you add, the more you’re imagining. But it gives you the shape of the building,” Gilbert says.
To protect the archeology beneath, the structure extends three feet outside the original house.
Gilbert points to what would have been one of the walls.
“We put the posts for the platform down and ran the rails across and then we realized this side (of the house) was built on an angle.”
Down to the landwash
This year the crew began work on an area closer to the harbour, in search of a “lower house.”
“Crout talks about the boards blowing off the upper house in 1613. We know by 1612 there were at least three dwellings. So the lower house may be down there,” Gilbert says, nodding towards an area behind the old Spracklin house at the entrance to Cupids Cove Plantation.
Built sometime between the 1870s and ’90s, the Spracklin house was purchased by the Dawe family in the 1930s and renovated. Since the Baccalieu Trail Heritage Corp. and Provincial Historic Sites acquired the house, it has been returned it to its original form with the help of photos from the early 1900s.
At one time the existing road was beach, and salt water washed up against the house. Gilbert is trying to determine how the land looked when the colonists arrived.
“Where was the landwash in 1610?” he wonders, glancing around the front yard of the Spracklin house.
“This area would have been usable for wharves and stages, but how much of it was dry land that they could use?”
He walks towards several test pits the crew dug in July, located a few yards behind the house. One of them offered up 17th-century artifacts — ceramics, pottery, pieces of clay pipes, window glass. There’s a refurbished well a few yards away, with a gentle slope of earth between.
Uncertain whether the well is 17th-century, Gilbert shrugs.
“It’s made of huge square stones; it could be a 17th-century well that just kept being reused. We don’t know.”
In his journal for Feb. 14, 1613, Crout mentions a “great storme of wind at south,” that blew off one-quarter of the boards from the upper house.
“The fact that Crout mentions an upper house implies the existence of a lower house. The dwelling house that we have already discovered is located on a terrace about four metres above the low ground to the west,” Gilbert says. “If this is Crout’s upper house, that would imply the lower house was on the low ground to the west of the terrace.
“See how the ground rises up and drops away just before you get to the well? If you look at the lay of the land, this might not be a bad place to put a house. You’re back on dry ground and the river is just over there, so I’m wondering if this may be the lower house.”
Gilbert hopes to answer that question before the season ends sometime in December, weather permitting.