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E’se’get Archaeology Project

Project Description | Matthew Betts’ Biography | Project Blog

Project Description

Since 2008, researchers from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) have searched the South Shore of Nova Scotia for special kinds of archaeological sites, known as shell middens. Essentially ancient refuse heaps, these middens form in locations where clams, mussels and oysters were intensively collected and eaten by prehistoric Mi’kmaq. Shell middens are important because the calcium carbonate in the shells helps to preserve organic remains, such as animal bones and antlers, which normally dissolve in acidic Maritime soils. Combined with the stone tools, pottery, hearths and dwelling features found in and around the middens, these deposits provide an unparallelled opportunity to learn about ancient Mi’kmaw life on the coast.


Field assistant Andrea Thompson excavates a shell midden in Port Joli, N.S.

Field excavation of a shell midden in Port Joli, N.S.

The E’se’get Archaeology Project seeks to understand the intricate connection between ancient Mi’kmaq and the marine ecosystem, and how this relationship changed between 2000 and 500 years ago (e’se’get is a Mi’kmaw word meaning “to dig for clams”). Over the last two summers, project archaeologists have surveyed, mapped and tested close to a dozen middens within Port Joli Harbour, which contains one of the densest concentrations of shell middens in the Maritime provinces. In 2010, the team will return to Port Joli to excavate at one of the largest of these middens, located in Thomas Raddall Provincial Park.


Beach view of Port l’Hebert Harbour, located in Queens County, N.S.

A pottery sherd found during research excavations in Nova Scotia

This collaborative field project will integrate First Nations, students and local communities in the research process. The six-week dig will provide field training for a dozen undergraduate archaeology students from the University of New Brunswick. Through a partnership with Acadia First Nation, the project also will offer an archaeological training program and traditional camp for Mi’kmaw high school students, who will work one-on-one with the undergraduates. Archaeologists from the Nova Scotia Museum and the Mi’kmaq Rights Initiative will also participate in the excavations and training. This archaeology project will be open to the public. Local residents, tourists and campers will be invited to view the excavations, ask questions and experience rigorous archaeological research first-hand.


A seal pup separated from its mother is observed by researchers near Port Joli, N.S.

A seal skull placed in a tree near a shell midden site

Matthew Betts’ Biography

Matthew Betts joined the CMC in 2007 as Curator of Atlantic Provinces Archaeology. Born and raised in Atlantic Canada, he received a Master of Science degree and a PhD from the University of Toronto. Prior to coming to the CMC, Matthew held research and teaching positions at Idaho State University and the University of Toronto. His technical specialty is zooarchaeology, the study of animal remains from archaeological sites. Matthew has published on a broad range of topics, including dating methods, historical archaeology, archaeological method and theory, and hunter-gatherer subsistence.


Overlooking Port Joli Harbour on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, Thomas Raddall Provincial Park is a nature lover’s haven. The park is just across the harbour from the Seaside Adjunct of Kejimkujik National Park.

His current research focuses on maritime hunter-gatherers and their complex economic and social relationships with the animals they exploit. Most recently, his research has turned towards conservation zooarchaeology and the use of the archaeological record to address pressing issues of ecological sustainability. Nevertheless, his interests are broad, including archaeological method and theory, dating techniques, statistical analyses, and computer applications in archaeology. In addition, Matthew is responsible for maintaining the Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (CARD) and currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of World Prehistory.

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