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Glimpses of Atlantic Canada’s Past – Page 3

- Page 3 –


Maritime Hunters
Burial Mounds and Trade Networks
The Arrival of a New Technology
Marine Estuary, Lagoon and Riverine Ecosystems
Shell Middens

Maritime Hunters

In the millennia that followed the Palaeo-Indian period, the archaeological evidence is sporadic. However, for the period 3500-4500 years, much has been preserved. This may simply reflect sampling in the archaeological record or perhaps selective preservation.

Twillingate, Newfoundland artifacts

Cemetery sites, in particular, have preserved a rich archaeological record for this period, known as the Maritime Archaic. This period seems to reflect a lifestyle emphasizing resources of the sea. Not only in their tools but also ceremonially, marine mammals appear to have taken on a special significance in the lifeways of these ancient people. Maritime Archaic sites have been identified from as far south as southern New England to as far north as northern Labrador. One such site lies along the north central coast of the western peninsula of Newfoundland at Port au Choix. This was a popular fishing and sea mammal hunting place for many thousands of years, for both the Maritime Archaic (4200-3700 years ago) (Tuck 1976) and later Palaeo-Eskimo Dorset (2500-1000 years ago) (Harp 1964) cultures. Excellent preservation conditions have preserved much of the often lost organic artifacts belonging to the Maritime Archaic people. A wide array of utilitarian and ceremonial objects of stone, antler, bone and ivory reveal an artistic wealth which quite often depict stylized animal life and waterfowl by the sea (Figure 8). These people possessed an elaborate fishing and sea mammal hunting tool kit to exploit the shore and offshore marine resources: eg: small stone effigies, symbolically representing killer whales suggest a special relationship to these large, aggressive sea mammals. These were a people well-adapted to the sea with the technology and knowledge for traversing great distances. Specialized heavy woodworking implements at this site and at other Maritime Archaic sites were probably used in the construction of dugout canoes.

Further evidence of the Maritime Archaic people are also found inland. On Grand Lake, in central New Brunswick, the Cow Point cemetery dates from 3800 to 4000 years ago (Figure 9) (Sanger 1973). Once again, as seen in Newfoundland sites, we see the ceremonial burial of utilitarian objects such as woodworking axes and gouges, fishing weights or plummets, but as well, specialized implements such as ornately decorated slate bayonets (see Figure 9 inset). Given their long slender shape and the relatively fragile nature of the material from which they were made, it is hard to imagine that these implements would have served a practical purpose. However, they illustrate the high level of craftsmanship and the precise decorative techniques they had achieved.

Cow Point artifacts; incised decorations
on the two long slate bayonets (photo: D. Sanger, CMC)

Cow Point artifacts(photo: D. Sanger, CMC)

The almost total absence of organic remains precludes our appreciation of what must have been an artistically rich culture. Of considerable interest however, were the remains of hollow enamel shells of several shark’s teeth – identified as a large Great White, Carcharodon carcharias at Cow Point. Historically, stories of shark attacks on canoes hint at the possibility of earlier encounters by native people. Perhaps, like the Killer Whale, the shark held special significance in the life of these people. One wonders if some of the sawtooth-like engravings on the slate bayonets are actually stylized shark’s teeth.

Burial Mounds and Trade Networks

About 2500 years ago, dramatic developments took place in the Maritime Provinces. The Maritimes were host to strange new visitors who brought with them an elaborate burial cult closely reminiscent of the Ohio Valley, Adena culture. At Red Bank on New Brunswick’s Southwest Miramichi River, the Augustine Mound was investigated by archaeologists in the early 1970′s (Figure 10) (Turnbull 1976). The mound was circular, ca. 11.5 meters in diameter , a meter high, and contained at least 11 features which included cremations, burials, red ochre and many associated artifacts including organic remains and literally thousands of native copper beads. The chemical presence of copper oxides from these beads acted to preserve organic materials such as basketry, woven fabric, hair fibres and birch bark.

Augustine Mound

Although many of the stone artifacts found were fashioned of local materials, numerous examples of exotic materials were also found: native copper appears to have come from Lake Superior sources; exotic cherts were obtained from distant sources in the mid-western U.S.; tubular pipes were fashioned of Ohio ‘fire-clay’. A number of the large exotic blades exhibit ‘travel scars’ – polished surfaces likely created as a result of being carried long distances in a pouch or bag.

Our understanding of the population dynamics at this time in prehistory is far from clear. Some archaeologists have suggested that these findings are part of a broad interaction network among many groups in the Northeast (Turnbull 1976). Wright (1998) has suggested a possible adoption of ‘Adena religion’ by some segments of Maritime culture. Given the amount of trade material at this and a number of other similar site assemblages across the Maritimes, I tend to favor an interpretation which involves the actual movement of a small group or groups of Adena culture peoples from the Great Lakes region to Atlantic Canada. The finding of mounds with very similar features and associated grave goods across the Northeast, above all else, indicates a relatively rapid spread of a complex set of inter-related ideas and materials associated with the burial of the dead. Radiocarbon dating places the ages of most of these sites in a short time-frame between 2300 and 2500 years ago, perhaps suggesting these events did not transpire over a period much longer than several generations.

The Arrival of a New Technology

Along with the many exotic items at Red Bank were fragments of a ceramic vessel. It is exotic in the sense that to this point in time, few examples of ceramics have been found in the archaeological record. Current archaeological ceramics research has identified a first ‘wave’ of ceramic manufacture sometime between 2700 and 2500 years ago. It is currently believed to be the time of introduction of ceramic technology into the Northeastern States and Maritimes region. Ceramic technology has much earlier roots in the New World, probably originating in Columbia or Ecuador between 5000 and 6000 years ago (Meggars 1997). The lengthy dated sequence from the southeastern United States indicates the presence of an early ceramic technology by 4500 years ago (Sassaman 1998). In eastern Canada, whether in the Maritimes or the Great Lakes region, ceramic technology seems to have arrived virtually simultaneously between 2500 and 3000 years ago. Through exchange mechanisms such trade and inter-marriage between neighbouring tribal groups, the knowledge of making ceramics spread up the Atlantic seaboard, following the coast to the Maritimes and inland via major river systems such as the Hudson, Connecticut and Susquehanna Rivers.

By 2000 years ago, ceramics are widely used and are found associated with habitation sites across all of the Maritime Provinces. Early types include thin walled, simple conical forms; many extensively decorated on their exterior surfaces with intricate linear impressions. Later forms also tend to be conical in shape, but they are thicker walled and exhibit different decorative elements with generally less surface decoration (Figure 11) (Keenlyside 1984b). Curiously, the skill level of the craftsperson, both in terms of decoration and fabrication, appears lower during the later periods.

It is difficult to establish what impact ceramics had on peoples’ material culture. The absence of organic preservation at almost all sites, does not allow a balanced view of the range of materials and tool types being used. Did ceramics replace birch bark? Since birchbark is found in later assemblages and also historically, it clearly was not. There were probably certain cooking or boiling functions where ceramics were preferred. Its durability in the fire would obviously be an asset. Pot boiling was traditionally done using a stone boiling technique where pre-heated stones were dropped into wood or skin containers. This may have changed with the introduction of pottery, but only to a limited degree. It is not believed that boiling involved suspending the ceramic container over a fire in the conventional sense. The absence of suspension holes and flat bottom vessels precluded this method. A significant advantage, however, would be that vessels could be pushed directly into or beside the hearth to heat or to hold a higher temperature than using birch bark. For portability, especially among seasonally mobile populations such as found historically in the Maritimes, birch bark would have a distinct advantage for its light weight and durability. Although ceramics are found at most late prehistoric Maritime sites, they occur in relatively small amounts. Unlike birchbark containers, ceramics were quickly replaced during the contact period by European copper and iron containers. So rapid and early was this change that there is no historical record documenting the use of ceramics among aboriginal peoples in the Maritimes.

Marine Estuary, Lagoon and Riverine Ecosystems

Traditionally, resources found in the ecologically rich coastal estuaries and rivers, for Atlantic Canada’s aboriginal peoples, were as important as those of the sea. The year-round pursuit of different seasonally available resources maximized food return to support populations. For exploiting marine resources, tidal estuaries in many ways offered the best of both worlds. Both salt and freshwater fish species and sea mammals are found in these ecosystems as well as abundant terrestrial fauna and waterfowl. Perhaps most importantly, they were easily accessible.

Late ceramics

Late ceramics

The tidal estuaries found along New Brunswick’s northeastern shore are still home to numerous Mi’kmaq communities and have been for thousands of years (Leavitt 1996). From Caraquet in the north to Kouchibouquac in the south, the eastern shore is characterized by numerous saltwater estuaries and associated barrier beach lagoon systems. Here, the tidal saltwater flows well inland meeting the outflow of freshwater streams. Anadramous fish species such as salmon, sturgeon, gaspereau or alewife, striped bass, and eel, seasonally move up the estuaries in large numbers. Species such as salmon spawn above the ‘head of tide’ and up the freshwater streams. Others, such as striped bass swim only as far as ‘head of tide’.

Acadian/prehistoric site on the Tracadie River

Given the low topographic relief of much of coastal New Brunswick, head of tide may lie many kilometers inland. Ancient camps identified by archaeologists along the Tracadie estuary document thousands of years of fishing (Ibid). Even today, Acadian fisherman still fish many of these same localities (Figure 12). Archaeologists found a wide variety of stone tools related to woodworking. The knives were probably used in producing fishing-related implements and in the processing of fish. Heavier stone tools such as axes and adzes cut and trimmed the poles necessary for building wigwams, other structures and importantly the poles for fish weirs (Figure 13). Canoe parts and paddles would be roughed out with axes and finished with adzes and knives.

Another important estuary site is located at Red Bank, on the Southwest Miramichi. Located only a short distance from the previously mentioned Augustine Mound, the Oxbow site documents over 3000 years of continuous fishing by ancestors of today’s Mi’kmaq First Nation (Allen 1980). Surveys and excavation of archaeological sites in the Red Bank area formed part of an ongoing co-operative project between the New Brunswick Government and the Red Bank First Nation beginning in the 1970′s which continues to this day (Allen 1991). At a place still fished by the community, archaeologists excavated a deeply stratified encampment site, literally occupied over a hundred generations (Figure 14). Repeated seasonal occupations by fisherman left thousands of artifacts dating back over 3000 years. Distinctive implements found at the various levels of this site characterize the different cultural periods and traditions which eventually became defined as Micmac. Sites such as Oxbow were favorite spring and early summer camping locations. Salmon, smelt, and sturgeon were speared, netted or caught in weirs in great numbers. Filleted fish were hung on drying racks for preserving and eventual storage. Later in the season, runs of striped bass, sea trout, eel and shad were also important.

Tracadie, New Brunswick artifacts

Fishing remains an integral part of the Mi’kmaq community life of the Red Bank First Nation. Co-operative programmes during the 1990′s with government and the private sector to manage the salmon fishery have been an important initiative to ensure stock survival and continued local use of the fishery. A recent film entitled “Metepenagiag: Village of Thirty Centuries”, co-produced by the Red Bank First Nation, vividly documents and describes the community’s traditional relationship with the Miramichi River, its long history and contemporary programmes in the management of salmon stocks (Red Bank First Nation 1996).

In south-central New Brunswick along the St. John River, head of tide is found above Fredericton, some 100 kilometers from the sea coast. In the Maliseet language, this place is known as Aukpaque (literally ‘head of tide’). This has been a traditional spring gathering place for many generations among the Maliseet or Wolastoqiyik (people of the beautiful river) and their ancestors.

Tracadie, New Brunswick artifacts

Archaeological remains indicate this has been a major fishing place for at least several thousand years. This place had many natural attractions, notably, the seasonal spawning runs of salmon and striped bass. Fish would have been speared or netted from shore or from canoes. The striped bass which spawn only as far upriver as the head of tide, were particularly favored. Records document striped bass as large as 30 kg. in the St. John River.

Shell Middens

Shell middens found along the shores of the Maritime Provinces and New England underline the importance of shellfish as a protein-source in the pre-contact aboriginal diet.

In southern New Brunswick’s Passamaquoddy Bay, surveys have identified many shell midden sites, in particular, along the shores of the many bays and Islands which are characteristic the Bay (Sanger 1987). One such midden site is the Weir site located on the Bliss Islands (Figure 15) (Black 1992). This extensive shell midden was excavated in the late 1980′s and the archaeologist’s analysis tells us a lot about the importance of fishing and the collecting of marine shellfish to early aboriginal economies. The layers of soil and shell (stratigraphy) suggest repeated use of the area for at least the past 2000-2500 years.

Bliss Islands fish weir, Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick
(photo: S. Finlay, Government of New Brunswick).

The archaeologist has analysized each layer of the deposit and determined how it was formed, either through a natural process or through various types of human activity. Among the discarded refuse in the midden were remains of terrrestrial (deer, beaver, muskrat) and marine fauna (seal), fish (cod and sturgeon), and many shellfish species of varying importance. Shellfish were collected seasonally, primarily during the spring to mid-summer period. Sea urchins and horse mussels occur in greatest abundance, but also represented were scallops, common mussels, whelks, limpets, periwinkles, saxicaves and barnacles.

Similar archaeological sites have been identified along Nova Scotia’s north shore. At Merigomish Harbour, archaeological fieldwork by W.J. Wintemberg identified similar island-based sites consisting of large deposits of shellfish remains (Figure 16). Species most sought after appear to have been quahogs, oysters and the common mussel. Of less importance but present are the hen clam, soft-shelled clam, horse mussel, moon shell, boat shell and spiral shell. Thousand year old artifacts excavated from these middens tell us about the types of activities and the technology used by ancestors of today’s Mi’kmaq peoples (Figure 17) (Smith and Wintemberg 1929).


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