Unhearting history

Emma
Emma Graney
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Archeological dig trying to determine why settlement existed

Standing at the Point Riche archeological dig site in Port au Choix, wind whipping at her jacket and rippling through the long grass, Memorial University archeologist Priscilla Renouf holds out her hand.

For the first time in about 1,500 years, the sun glints off the sharpened object in her palm - a dorset paleo-eskimo harpoon tip, unearthed just an hour before from the soft, dark soil at her feet.

Kenny Tuach (left) levels the dry stone wall he and workmate Steve Parsons are building at Point Riche in the Parks Canada Port au Choix historic site. Photo by Emma Graney/The Northern Pen

Port au Choix -

Standing at the Point Riche archeological dig site in Port au Choix, wind whipping at her jacket and rippling through the long grass, Memorial University archeologist Priscilla Renouf holds out her hand.

For the first time in about 1,500 years, the sun glints off the sharpened object in her palm - a dorset paleo-eskimo harpoon tip, unearthed just an hour before from the soft, dark soil at her feet.

"We've found quite an unusually high number of these here," she said, pointing with her other hand towards the dig at the Parks Canada site.

"Most of them are broken, so they were probably thrown away, but this one here was probably lost because it's still in really good shape."

According to Renouf the tool, or "business end of a harpoon," would have been slotted into a length of bone and used to hunt harp seal.

"What we're trying to do at this site right now is establish that it definitely is a dwelling - which we think it is - and then work out why people lived here when there was a perfectly good settlement with lots of houses just over the hill there," she said.

The settlement she's talking about is Phillip's Garden, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most important paleo-eskimo sites in Western Newfoundland.

It was unearthed by William Wintemberg of the National Museum of Canada during a 1929 archeological survey from Bonne Bay to Port au Choix. Renouf is no stranger to the continual research at Port au Choix - last summer she celebrated her 25th anniversary, complete with a large cake, with a party at the visitors centre.

This is the fifth year work has been done at the Point Riche site and Renouf has a hunch the dwelling there was used as a kind of paleo-eskimo summer house.

"This is a sister site to the one there at Phillip's Garden. It's one of three dwellings over here, but they all seem to be different. We can't seem to figure it out."

Renouf said most of the people taking part in the dig are students - some undergraduates, some doing their master's and others in the process of completing a PhD. They poke at the dark soil with trowels and brushes, backs bent over small plots inside an area marked with bright yellow string.

Back towards the gravel road which runs from the visitors centre to the lighthouse, passing right by the archeological dig, a young woman stands bent over a land surveying tripod. She calls out numbers for a few minutes then goes back to the dig, picking up her trowel once again.

Along the worn path to the road there is another work site, but this labour seems a lot less fiddly.

There are only two workers here -Kenny Tuach and Steve Parsons. They're building a dry stone wall seating area.

Walking around piles of the stone, numbered in size in piles marked '1' to '10', Tuach will occasionally grab one and slot it into place. Sometimes one of the men will hammer at a large slab of dark sandstone to break off a corner or change the piece's shape.

"You basically sort them into the sizes there and then slot them together," explains Tuach, lugging a size eight piece of stone towards the half-built wall, he said.

"They're not a very common thing in Newfoundland. I guess they wanted something different up here that had a more historic feel to it."

Tuach has been building drystone walls for years as part of his family's business. He's part of the Dry Stone Wall Association of Canada and says he never uses cement in his walls - unless, of course, a customer requests it specifically. He laughs when it's pointed out that cement defeats the purpose of it being a dry stone wall.

It seems fitting that this seating area, which Tauch expects to take around 10 days to complete, will include no cement. It is, after all, going to be transformed into something resembling one of the Dorset structures which were unearthed in archaeological digs in the area.

"They've commissioned two artworks from St. John's to put up here," he says, panning his hand through the air above one side of the wall. "I've been told they're going to get something like whalebones and have them set up there so it looks like the Dorset structures. It'll look pretty good I think."

The men return to work, tapping a skeric of stone here and a block of it there.

They may be using modern tools but, along with Renouf, they're helping to recreate history in a windswept Northern Peninsula meadow.

Organizations: Parks Canada, National Museum of Canada, Dry Stone Wall Association of Canada

Geographic location: Port au Choix, Newfoundland, Bonne Bay St. John's

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