Women in NL Archaeology: Selma Barkham

In honour of International Women’s Day & Women’s History Month 2021, the NLAS is profiling women who have made contributions to archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. Inspired by TrowelBlazers “We’re here. And we always have been,” we celebrate all women in archaeology.

Selma Barkham, though remembered as a historian-geographer, made significant contributions to the archaeology of this province (and indeed the North Atlantic as a whole) through her decades-long research on the historic Basque presence here, and the discovery of their 16th century whaling industry along southern Labrador and Quebec’s North Shore.

In 1954, Selma married Brian Barkham, an architect who had a special interest in Basque rural architecture. The following year, they visited the Basque Country, where the priest Don Pío de Montoya told them he’d seen mentions of voyages to “Terra Nova” in the local archives. This was Selma’s introduction to Basque archives, but her research didn’t begin immediately.

Brian passed away in 1964, and Selma with four children under the age of ten, became the family’s sole breadwinner. She had contract work as a historian with National Historic Sites, which included the research for the restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg. It was here Selma developed a plan to research archives on the region’s Basque fisheries in the 16th and 17th century. At the time, it was recognized there has been Basque fishing and whaling expeditions in those centuries but very little was known about them.

The records Selma wanted to access were mostly in Spanish, which she did not speak (yet). In 1969, with her children, she moved to Mexico where she stayed for 3 years working as an English teacher and learning the language. In 1972, she applied for a Canada Council grant and travelled by cargo ship to Bilbao. Upon arrival, Selma found the grant had been turned down, but she was not deterred. She continued teaching English and received a $1000 donation from an anonymous Canadian who thought she was on to something. In 1973, she negotiated a part-time contract with the Public Archives of Canada and moved to Onati (to conduct research at the local archives) where she lived for the next 20 years.

Selma Barkham, in black and red plaid, was on hand to advise archeologists during a 1979 excavation on Saddle Island (Image from About Basque Country)

Little by little, Selma uncovered thousands of manuscripts associated with the Basque presence in Terra Nova and reconstructed many aspects of their historic fisheries, particularly in the 16th century. Crucially, she concluded that the “Gran Baya” corresponded to present-day Strait of Belle Isle, and identified individual whaling ports, matching them to their modern names. Selma knew in those ports, there had to be remains of the Basque whaling industry and she wanted to find them.

Backed by her research thus far and a grant from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Selma organized an archaeological survey of southern Labrador in 1977. With two of her children, and archaeologist Graham Rowley and his family, she explored many harbours, identifying archaeological remains of Basque whaling bases and found red roof tile in a cabbage patch at Red Bay. Later that summer, she led MUN archaeology professor, Jim Tuck, to the sites.

Based on information Selma provided, a team of Parks Canada underwater archaeologists led be Robert Grenier conducted surveys at Red Bay and Chateau Bay in 1978. Selma had pinpointed almost the exact location of the San Juan which sunk at Red Bay in 1565. From this point on, Selma continued her work parallel to the land and underwater excavations at Red Bay which were led by Tuck and Grenier respectively.

Selma Barkham in 1982 (Photo from Canadian Geographic)

In 1982, Selma organized another expedition. This time, sailing by boat from Cape Breton to southern Labrador and the Quebec North Shore. She identified 17th-century Basque cod fishing locations on the west coast of Newfoundland and further archaeological remains of the 16th century whaling industry in Quebec.

Selma Barkham published extensively and received numerous honours for her contributions to maritime history, geography, and archaeology. In 1980, she was the first woman to receive the Gold Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. She was named a member of the Order of Canada (1981), received honourary doctorates from University of Windsor (1985) and Memorial University (1993), the Basque Country’s Lagun Onari (2012), and the Spanish Geographical Society’s International Prize from King Felipe VI of Spain (2018). Selma passed away of natural causes in May of 2020, at the age of 93.


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