Cemetery found at Cupids archeological dig

Nadya Bell
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Believed to be original graves from 1610, oldest English cemetery in Canada

In the back of Ruth Baker's garden, where her father used to grow potatoes, archeologists have discovered what they believe to be the oldest English cemetery in Canada, and the second-oldest in North America.

Lightly scraping away the dirt with a triangular trowel, archeologist William Gilbert and the group of people working on the site have found nine graves so far this summer.

Archeology assistant Patricia Elford sweeps an old gravestone last week. The marker was discovered at the Cupids archeology dig earlier this month. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

In the back of Ruth Baker's garden, where her father used to grow potatoes, archeologists have discovered what they believe to be the oldest English cemetery in Canada, and the second-oldest in North America.

Lightly scraping away the dirt with a triangular trowel, archeologist William Gilbert and the group of people working on the site have found nine graves so far this summer.

Perhaps it's not so much of a surprise - Gilbert found in 1995 that the lawn closer to her house is the site of John Guy's Cupers Cove plantation, the first English settlement in Canada.

They have spent the past 13 years carefully unearthing the main buildings that were built after the group of settlers arrived in 1610. They had found the storehouse, dwelling house, main fireplace and front stone wall, and even had an idea as to where they first put their tents when their ship landed, but until recently they had no idea where the dead had been buried.

Last November, the team accidentally unearthed a large intact headstone they dated to 1720. In a certain light they can make out one word of the inscription, which seems to say "Mary."

"It was a lucky accident that we found it. Where it's sitting under our back dirt pile, we might not have found it at all. But we knew there had to be a cemetery here, and this is the perfect place for it, just outside the enclosure," Gilbert says.

"After we found that gravestone, Ruth told us that her father had told her that there was a headstone back here somewhere," he says.

"Some of these stone markers were right on the edge of the potato garden," Gilbert says "That one there is actually in the garden."

Until they started digging this summer, Gilbert says, they weren't sure if it was an isolated grave, or if it was the first clue about where those who died during the 1600s were buried.

According to the diaries they have from the people who lived at the plantation, they know that 12 people died in the first three years of the settlement.

"A lot of those people died of scurvy because they didn't have access to Vitamin C. The winter of 1613 was a rough winter. The first couple of winters they had here were actually pretty nice, but that was a rough winter. Eight of them died of scurvy that winter," Gilbert says.

When they started removing the topsoil from the area around the first gravestone, they found an eight-foot slate gravestone shattered into small pieces from falling over. The urn and willow design on the stone date it to the 1780s.

Then they started to find smaller graves marked by flat stones set up on one end, or not marked at all. There are clearly defined strips in the soil that mark the graves, because the disturbed earth over the grave is a lighter colour than the dark orange clay of the sterile subsoil.

"The reason we're not getting that orange subsoil here is that this was dug down three or four feet and filled back in, and also it's really loose," Gilbert says. "It looks like there is a very good chance this is the original cemetery from 1610."

The graves tend to be about 19 inches wide and four feet long - quite narrow compared to the wide graves of today.

"First when we found them, I said, 'They're so narrow, how could they be adult graves?'" Gilbert says.

After a bit of research, he says he found that the size is typical of the graves at other 17th-century sites, including the Martin's Hundred archeological site in Virginia. Even the coffins found there were no more than 18 inches wide, he says.

Gilbert says the size of the graves is the main indication they have that these are the original graves of the plantation.

"They wouldn't have dug a hole any bigger than they needed for a burial," he says. "Especially if it was in the winter and the ground was frozen, it would have been difficult."

But at least one of the graves Gilbert suspects marks the death of a very young person - the grey mark in the soil is less than three feet long.

The other major clue to Gilbert that these are the original graves is that they are so close to the original plantation.

He says when the planters arrived, their first task was cutting timber to send back to Britain on the ship. The first person to die was Thomas Percy, in December 1610, and Gilbert figures he would not have been buried very far outside the enclosure.

"This was probably the edge of the clearing in 1610," he says. "And once the graveyard is established, they usually continue to use it. It would have been consecrated ground by 1612."

He says there is a recorded visit by an Anglican priest in the first years of the plantation, and once the cemetery was established they would have continued to use it.

Gilbert says they have no plans yet to unearth the remains in the graves.

"We're not going to start digging graves for no good reason. Possibly down the road, if we can justify it, we may dig some of them, and do some DNA testing," he says.

Although there are good historical records for the first 10 years of the plantation, Gilbert says, they have nothing after 1620, and so they are learning a lot from the archeological work, and could learn even more through DNA testing of bone remains.

"If you do get good bone preservation, there's all kinds of things you can tell. You can tell what the people died of, you can tell what their diet was.

"You can tell from the enamel in their teeth where they spent the first five years of their life. You can tell if they came from southern England, or northern England. You can even do DNA testing and see if some of these people are related to people who are around now," he says.

The archeological team hopes to find out how many people lived - or at least died - at John Guy's Cupers Cove plantation in the 17th century.

nbell@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Martin's

Geographic location: Canada, North America, Virginia Britain Southern England Northern England

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Recent comments

  • bob
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    r.i.p. is supposed to mean rest in peace.

  • pat
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    What a find,please keep us informed of future archeological results on this gravesite.

  • A man of
    July 02, 2010 - 13:12

    Bob, I think that's supposed to mean the soul and not the body.......you know ---water , bugs, worms, beet-------well you get the picture!! The body dies but the soul liveth on! Amen

  • bob
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    r.i.p. is supposed to mean rest in peace.

  • pat
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    What a find,please keep us informed of future archeological results on this gravesite.

  • A man of
    July 01, 2010 - 19:49

    Bob, I think that's supposed to mean the soul and not the body.......you know ---water , bugs, worms, beet-------well you get the picture!! The body dies but the soul liveth on! Amen