New Severn Post Archaeological Project: The Excavations Begin
This is the fourth post in a series by Dr. Jean-Luc Pilon about the work he is conducting as part of the New Severn Post archaeological project.
One of the great challenges posed by the site where we worked for most of the month of August is the vegetation that now hides and protects the location. In 1982, relatively low bushes of willows and alder were sprinkled around open, grassy areas. We could easily see the bricks and pits left behind by souvenir hunters. We could also see many stumps of fairly large trees that had been felled, it appeared, following a forest fire many years earlier.
This fire and subsequent harvesting of the standing timber were likely what led to the site’s discovery by southern visitors. Local people told me how these visitors used shovels to dig around the fort, apparently finding old bottles. One story recounted how bricks were removed and shipped to Toronto, where they were used to decorate a new fireplace. How much of the history of this location was destroyed by those souvenir hunters?
In the summer of 2015, during a brief visit to relocate and inspect the site, much hard work was required to find it. A forest of spruce and poplar trees — with a thick ground cover of Labrador Tea, as well as willows and alders — now covered the location. It was challenging, to say the least! But we eventually succeeded.
Relocating our 1982 excavations, however, proved much more difficult. Oddly enough, two distinctive tree stumps led us to the area where the brick hearth apron had originally been discovered. Using these two stumps, and pairing them with 1982 photographs, we laid out a grid for our work, which we hoped approximated the 1982 grid. That way, we could continue to expand the area excavated around the European-made apron.
The work was painstaking. The first step involves clearing each grid square of its surface vegetation and debris. Then, using very sharp trowels, we scrape away thin layer after thin layer of soil, noting changes in colour and texture. When objects are encountered, they are collected according to the layer in which they were found, as each layer represents a different chapter in the site’s history.
Of course, being close to the brick fireplace apron, there were dozens of bricks strewn about from the collapse of the fireplace and scattered by the souvenir hunters. Digging around the bricks was not always pleasant, but eventually we reached the level of the soil onto which they had fallen, a level that could be associated with the Europeans who had constructed the building.
Work is progressing slowly. Many of the objects that we find could just as easily have been left by Indigenous visitors to the site, as well as by any Europeans who constructed a building here just a short time after them. Quite often, what we think might be the remains of floor joists or beams are found in close proximity to a hearth feature that was used by people still making stone tools. And, just when we think we have an understanding of the site, we find a European trade good that could have been used by either Europeans or Indigenous peoples. Hopefully further work will yield something more conclusive.