Excavation begins at Admiralty House

Rebekah Ward
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MUN archeology students working new First World War site in Mount Pearl

Students from MUN’s archeology program dig in Area 1 of the new Mount Pearl dig site, outside of Admiralty House Museum in Mount Pearl. The team, which includes (from left) Ashley McCalla, Melanie Morrison and Natasha Hawco, is searching for remnants of First World War structures that were once part of the historical wireless communication station.  — Photo by Rebekah Ward/Special to The Telegram

The Admiralty House Museum welcomed members of Mount Pearl city council and other guests to the grounds of its new archeological site Thursday.

Parts of the museum grounds are being surveyed by a team of Memorial University archeology students, supervised by archeologist James Lyttleton and his laboratory assistant, Melanie Stockley. The archeological survey began at the end of June.

“(Admiralty House) was originally a World War One facility. It was built by the British admiralty and the Marconi Co.,” vice-chairman of the museum’s board David Lythgoe said.

“And afterwards it was used as a farm and things like that, but we’re hoping, through the dig, to uncover some artifacts that will date back to 1914.”

The building on the site, now converted to a museum, once served as a wireless station during the First World War. It was used to intercept German naval transmissions and track ships in distress.

“At that time, the British government built 13 stations like this around the globe so that they’d have a series of wireless telegraph stations,” museum manager Paul Legault said.

“For a modern analogy, you could call (telegraph technology) the Victorian Internet. (It’s the only one of the 13 remaining), so it’s an international landmark. Unfortunately, most people don’t recognize the historical value here.”

Legault is hopeful about the outcomes of this summer’s dig.

“Who knows what’s under the ground. But it’ll help fill in the pieces, because there are many concrete footprints on the site, but we don’t know what the buildings were.”

So far the project is going well, but the diggers have only nicked the surface.

“Mostly we’re finding nails and glass so far, (which tells us) about what happened in 1914 with the construction process,” MUN archeology student Ethan Doney said.

“Generally speaking, we’ve been finding stuff in the topsoil,” Lyttleton said.

“We haven’t gone really much into the archaeological features there yet. But a lot of the finds we’ve been getting from the topsoil are actually nails, and it looks like they more than likely are actually associated with the wooden structures that were put in place here when the wireless station was first set up. The trench down by the parking lot has actually been opened up to investigate a covered way that ran between the barracks and the generator.”

Comparing old photographs and documents to nails and shards uncovered through archeological work can be an investigative puzzle, but at this site, records and material findings seem to be lining up.

Lyttleton says the wireless station remains they expect to find should stretch the understanding of the historical site beyond the current documentation.

“Excavation gives us some insight into the life ways of the personnel that actually would have lived here,” Lyttleton said. “In terms of the sort of pottery and artifacts they would have used through their work and through their time off-duty.

“We’ve looked at some documents in The Rooms archive, and they only record some general correspondence between the Dominion government and the Admiralty office in London.

“They don’t really talk much in terms of specifics.”

Working on this site is an unusual field experience for students.

“Normally the sites that are (used) have been worked on in the past, and Admiralty House hasn’t been excavated before this. It’s neat to start something new, but you’re not really sure if there’s going to be anything there,” Doney said.

The project will give students an opportunity to hone their skills and contribute to understanding of the historically significant wireless station. But it will also help the city of Mount Pearl gain visibility for the landmark.

“What we are doing with Admiralty House is that we’re trying to see to it that it’s integrated a little better into the community,” Mount Pearl Mayor Randy Simms said.

“This is an opportunity to showcase the fact that, while a lot of people think that Mount Pearl as a community is young, Mount Pearl is actually one of the oldest communities in the province.”

rebekah.ward@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Admiralty House Museum, Mount Pearl city council, Marconi Co.

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Dominion, London

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