Newfoundland/Labrador Day 22: I’m not the only one who digs the past

Newfoundland has an abundance of beautiful scenery, friendly people and historic sites.  Clearly, the “Rock” has more to offer than I can see in a mere two weeks, though I think I’ve tried hard to cram in as much as I can in the brief two weeks I’ll be here.  I may have to come back, even if it means driving here on four wheels (bite my tongue) so Marilyn will join me next time.  Every time I go somewhere (e.g. Alaska, western U.S., Newfoundland) I find that all I do is nibble at the opportunities that are spread out before me like an experiential banquet.  I feel like I’m sampling the appetizer of a five-course meal then being told I have to leave the restaurant before even beginning to satiate my gnawing appetite.

I’ve ridden about 4,500 miles so far this trip, but today I only rode about 100 miles (roundtrip) to an archaeological dig at what is believed to be the oldest permanently occupied English settlement in North America.  The dig is being conducted by Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and has been ongoing since 1992.  It’s a substantial undertaking on what will be at least a four-acre site and will last several more decades.

A picture is worth a thousand words. But being here leaves you speechless.

(I just took a brief break from writing to try to capture a picture of the fog rolling in on the islands in the cove where my B&B is.  There’s always something to see and it’s almost always good.  If the picture turns out well I’ll post it here or on Flickr.)

This was a building next to the water. The gravel in front is flooded at high tide.

Back to the dig.  Since 1992, they’ve uncovered more than 2,000,000 artifacts (which includes, for example, the tiniest shard of broken pottery or rusty nail) and they’ve cataloged, measured, described and stored each one.  When I talked with the head conservator at the site after touring the site, she told me they uncover about 1,000 items per day when they’re digging at the original occupation level, which lies about 3-6 feet below the current surface.  The head archaeologist on the site said this is the most complete and undisturbed 17th century site in North America.

Lord Baltimore (George Calvert), more famous for his family’s relationship to the founding of Maryland (where some of the best people come from), was given permission by King James in 1620 to establish a colony Calvert called Avalon.  He decided he would establish, using his own money, a small, English-like village, complete with cobblestone streets, brick fireplaces, and slate walls and ceilings.  Work began in 1621 but Calvert waited seven years while the village was being built before going to Newfoundland in 1628.  He lasted one miserable complaint-filled winter, and left for good.  But the village continued to operate (though not prosper) until another King granted another family title to the land in the 1630s. The village was sacked by the Dutch in the 1660s and burned by the French in the 1690s but the settlers and descendants of the settlers hung around the area even as the original village was reclaimed by the land.

Not a stone is left unturned as they look for clues to the past.

So far the archeologists and their graduate student peons have uncovered five or six  substantial buildings and a couple smaller ones, including the “mansion” built for Lord Baltimore and his family.  Hardly a mansion by any standards today, it was bigger than most of the houses occupied by other settlers who crammed 8-10 people in a 10′ x 14′ one-and-a half story house.  But uncovered artifacts indicate they did their best to lead an upper-class life in the wilds of the new world. Other artifacts, of course, tell the more dreary story of the lives of common people who built the houses, laid the cobbles, fished the sea, and baked the daily bread that sustained them all.

As I walked the site, watching the dirt-covered archeologists and future archeologists tediously digging, scraping, sifting, and picking out small, broken items identifiable only to their trained eyes, I thought about the lives of the people in this small outpost on the ragged and unfriendly edge of civilization.  Describing their existence isn’t difficult:  Cold, wet, smoky, hungry, dirty, smelly, sick, isolated, scared, laborious, deadly.  And their lives were the lives of everyone who settled the new world in the 16th and 17th centuries and from which grew Canada and the United States.  Hats off to these bold pioneers, these hardy settlers, these brave explorers whose difficult past made possible our comfortable present.

Typical scene in any of hundreds of coastal villages.

After I picked the brains of the staff, who were uncommonly friendly and helpful despite my stream of “whys?” and “hows?” and “whens,” I left them to return to their digging and cataloging, and I took a round about route back to my B&B.  My ride took me through several little villages on the coast where incomes continued to be squeezed out of the sea.  Although the life of today’s coastal villagers is much improved from the lives of those who lived here 400 years ago, their lives today no doubt have hardships I can’t fathom.  They stay, I think, because the land and the sea are beautiful and because their neighbors are friendly and strong.  Maybe it’s not such a bad trade-off.

This caught my eye. I liked the rust in the rock.

It’s hard not to stop and turn around when I pass a particularly appealing photo op.  Frequently, however, the turnaround is difficult because most turnarounds involve uneven ground and loose gravel.  So far, so good;  I’m hopeful I’ll make it off the rock without unceremoniously dropping my bike by the side of the road.  But these little detours are always worth it because I almost always see more than I thought I was going back to see when I look more closely at the pond or the mountain or the brook that caught my eye as it flashed by.  

There’s a whole blueberry pie waiting for me in the kitchen.  I’ll probably share it with other guests unless it’s very good.

More pictures on Flickr.  Click here.

Watch out for marauding Frenchmen and I’ll do the same. 



5 responses to “Newfoundland/Labrador Day 22: I’m not the only one who digs the past”

  1. Steve Hauser says :

    We have enjoyed your daily posts Dennis. Safe travels my friend. Perhaps Eileen and I in our Crossfire will accompany you on your return….

  2. mar says :

    Hard to fathom life 400 years ago when you can cover hundreds of mile on a motorized 2 wheeler which would have taken them weeks or months! I like blueberry pie warm and with a scoop of chocolate ice cream! Ride safe.

  3. johnwest2343 says :

    I have enjoyed all the posts. Pics are great. Baltimore is a good place to be from. Be safe coming home.

  4. bishopellison says :

    I’ve really enjoyed the posts, Dennis. I know you’re having a blast! Ride safe.


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