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MUN archeology students unearth history at St-Pierre

Catherine Losier’s field school team next to an excavation unit at Anse à Bertrand, St-Pierre. Île-aux-Marins can be seen in the background
Catherine Losier’s field school team next to an excavation unit at Anse à Bertrand, St-Pierre. Île-aux-Marins can be seen in the background

Memorial University is hosting an archeology field school in St-Pierre this month. Eleven students and their adviser, Catherine Losier, assistant professor in the department of archeology in the faculty of humanities and social sciences, are excavating on the site of St-Pierre’s old airport, known as Anse à Bertrand.

Nancy Butler and Rachael Green excavating at Anse à Bertrand as part of the summer field school associated with Catherine Losier’s research at Memorial University.

Losier, who investigated 18th-century French Guiana for her PhD, chose this particular site to excavate because the first known map of the harbour of St-Pierre (1680 to 1700s) shows occupation in Anse à Bertrand — two fishing rooms, a chapel and one small fort to protect the harbour.

During the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, Breton, Norman and maybe 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. 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.

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, St-Pierre-Miquelon became a British territory, and 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, St-Pierre-Miquelon became the last remaining French territory in the North Atlantic.

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 St-Pierre-Miquelon to French control,” said 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 archeology 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 St-Pierre’s first airport was here helped protect archeological remains from contemporary construction,” said Losier.

So far, 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 (for example gunflints, ceramics or smoking pipes) associated with 18th-century fisher folks were found in the most ancient layers excavated during the last week of the fieldwork. These exciting discoveries are generating new data regarding the material life surrounding people established in the archipelago during this time period.

18th century artefacts collected at Anse a bertrand in 2017. (From left) Normandie stoneware, Westerwald stoneware, smoking pipe stem, gunflints and a lead custom seal.

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

The students working with Losier are more than field workers, they are part of a research team. Losier hopes that they will not just excavate and learn technical field and laboratory skills, she hopes this international experience will inspire them to continue archeology at a graduate level.

“Digging in St-Pierre is an excellent opportunity as I am able to gain practical archeological experience and confidence in the field,” said Laura Long, a field school student majoring in archeology at Memorial.

“As a class, we are learning proper techniques and archeological methods, which will be invaluable to us as we progress in our studies. St-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.”

Not only will the archological experience be advantageous to students, they will also benefit by being immersed in a French-speaking community.

The field school wrapped up Friday.

 

Susan Flanagan is the senior communications advisor (acting) with the Office of the Vice-President (Research). Email susan.flanagan@mun.ca. Learn more about Memorial’s research excellence at www.mun.ca/research.

 

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