NLAS 2021 AGM Keynote Lecture: Thirty Years of Archaeology at Ferryland, Newfoundland

Thank you to everyone who joined us for the 2021 Annual General Meeting, both in person and online! This year, Dr. Barry Gaulton delivered the keynote lecture at the AGM, in honour of the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Ferryland, Newfoundland and Labrador. He has graciously written his lecture up as a blog post, for those who were unable to attend the AGM. Enjoy!

“Thirty Years of Archaeology at Ferryland, Newfoundland” by Dr. Barry Gaulton

2021 is the 400th anniversary of the founding of the English colony of Avalon established in Ferryland in 1621 by Sir George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. This year also marks the 30th season of continuous archaeological excavation, analysis and interpretation at Ferryland. Therefore, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon this longstanding community archaeology project: from its heyday in the 1990s, to economic downturns in the 2000s, to a changing climate and rising sea levels. Throughout it all, faculty and staff at Memorial University and employees and volunteers with the local not-for-profit Colony of Avalon Foundation (COA) have adapted in the face of various challenges to strengthen this community-university partnership.

Image 1: 1986 excavation, Area C (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

Setting aside limited exploratory work in the first half of the 20th century, the archaeology at Ferryland really begins in the mid-1980s with two field schools led by Dr. James A. Tuck from Memorial University. These excavations were conducted along the southern end of Ferryland’s sheltered inner harbor known as The Pool. It’s important to note that local Ferryland resident Arch Williams had previously convinced Dr. Tuck that the remains of Lord Baltimore’s colony was located in the Pool area, and that several local residents allowed Jim and his team to undertake excavations on their lands.

The discoveries made back in the mid-80s — including sections of 17th century stone walls, a rectangular feature that was later determined to be a flushing privy and the colony’s early forge built in 1622 — were so well preserved and the site so rich in artifacts that Jim reluctantly backfilled the excavation until such a time when adequate resources and funding could be marshalled to conduct a more thorough investigation (Tuck 1993).

The site then lay dormant for five years.

In 1991, a multi-year federal-provincial agreement provided funds to further investigate the archaeological remains of Ferryland’s buried history. This cost-sharing arrangement was finalized shortly before the Newfoundland Cod Moratorium. Thus, when excavations restarted again in 1992, the archaeology brought with it the added benefit of employment and retraining opportunities for community members in both Ferryland and surrounding towns (Tuck 1993).

Image 2: 1992 excavation, Jim Tuck talking with staff and visitors (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

Following the formative years of the early 1990s, as more of the 17th-century colony was uncovered, interpreted and made available to the public, Jim’s vision for the site evolved in close collaboration with local staff and community members. In 1994, the local not-for-profit Colony of Avalon Foundation was established. Together, archaeologists and volunteer members of the Foundation sought to make this archaeological site a key tourist attraction for the region. But of equal importance, they sought to make it a source of collective pride for the community and a way to embrace our past to build a viable and vibrant future (Gaulton and Rankin 2018).

In partnership with the COA, the level of interpretation and public dissemination grew in leaps and bounds. An old school not far from the site was renovated into an interpretation centre, with an in-house conservation lab and collections room to display, conserve and store our finds. Guided tours were available throughout the summer months and three heritage gardens were established in and around the archaeological site (Gaulton and Rankin 2018).

Image 3: Reproduction 17th-century kitchen room shortly after completion (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

In the late 1990s, the COA also acquired a former bait shed and repurposed one half as a gift shop, and directly behind it created a reproduction 17th-century kitchen room. Once completed, the kitchen room boasted a large stone fireplace, a flagstone floor, wood paneling and a collection of period oak furnishings including a table, cupboards, chests and chairs all hand made by Jim at his home workshop on Mt. Scio Road. Also incorporated into the kitchen were reproductions of the same ceramic and glass vessels found during the excavations at Ferryland. Visitors could therefore learn about where these objects were found on the site and what they were used for (Gaulton and Rankin 2018).

With the addition of these new components, community members received further training and employment opportunities as tour guides, heritage gardeners, living history interpreters and retail staff. Local artists were commissioned to produce accurate reproductions of site-specific objects for sale in the gift shop. Local businesses also flourished due to the popularity of the archaeological site and its thousands of annual visitors (Gaulton and Rankin 2018).

The archaeology at Ferryland saw a notable downturn in the late 2000s due, in part, to the global financial crisis and Jim Tuck’s retirement from Memorial University. The result was a shorter season with fewer staff, and big shoes to fill by one of Jim’s protégées. Around the same time, we started to note significant erosion events along the shoreline, in particular a large area at the eastern end of the site, combined with increasing occurrences of flooding around The Pool caused by rising sea levels and storm surges (Gaulton 2019).

In the context of funding constraints and climate change, we embarked, in 2012, on the next stage of this community-university partnership, one that involves a greater variety of experiences and opportunities for visitors and locals of all ages and interests. While still maintaining the core experience of active archaeological research and on-site conservation, visitors can now participate in the Archaeologist for a Day program. In addition to the educational and public outreach benefits of the program, would-be-archaeologists, under direct supervision of the archaeology team, excavate along the actively eroding eastern side of the site as part of our ongoing mitigation efforts to record in-situ deposits before they are lost to the sea (Rankin and Gaulton 2021).

Since 2012, lab staff have also enhanced the visitor experience by developing a series of revolving displays called “Finds from the Vault” focusing on themed artifact types to show visitors more of our existing collections. At the same time, graduate student research has been incorporated into the visitor experience as part of a guided tour. This practice allows students to disseminate their field or lab research to the public on a daily basis, honing their presentation skills, building their confidence, and learning to respond effectively to questions. For the general public, it provides a behind the scenes look at various stages of the research process, often involving large or diverse archaeological assemblages (Rankin and Gaulton 2021).

Image 6: One of several ‘Finds from the Vault’ displays produced by lab staff at Ferryland (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

Young children are now engaged during guided tours through the COA’s “Baltimore’s Backpacks” program, working to complete an on-site scavenger hunt and participating in dry sifting and lab activities. Finally, members of the general public as well as local knitters have also partnered with the COA in the ‘Stitching Time over Nine’ project, a multi-year endeavor in the form of a large hooked rug with 9 panels, each representing an important part of Ferryland’s history, based in part on archaeological evidence (Gaulton and Rankin 2018; Rankin and Gaulton 2021).   

Looking back at the last 30 years of archaeology at Ferryland, what have we learned about this place that we didn’t already know from historical records?

In truth, beyond a handful of early letters from 1621 and 1622 we knew next to nothing with regard to the When, What, Where and How of the colony’s development back in the 1620s and 1630s. We have no sketches or maps from this early period, nor do we have any additional surviving letters stating what was built where, or how and when it was constructed.

Image 7: Aerial of the Ferryland site (2009) showing two distinct terraces (Courtesy: Gord Carter, National Currency Museum, Bank of Canada).

It has taken upwards of twenty five years of archaeological investigation to paint a comprehensive, albeit still incomplete, picture of George Calvert’s colony of Avalon. That picture, however, reveals the well-planned and substantial nature of this early British settlement. When you examine the overall placement of the early structures and their elevations on the 17th-century landscape, as revealed through archaeology, you can clearly see that the Ferryland colony was built on a series of anthropogenic terraces (Gaulton 2012).

Essentially, this was a terraced seaside village built into a hillside.

The archaeology has demonstrated that Ferryland’s lowest terrace (alongside the inner harbor) was built on reclaimed land using the earth which was dug out to make a second terrace to the south. In places, upwards of 6 feet of fill was used to build up this first terrace and at the north end was a massive stone retaining wall that also served as the colony’s quayside. A large stone warehouse was constructed at the eastern end and immediately to its west, an ingeniously built, stone-lined privy, equipped with two openings at the north end so that the rising tides could enter twice each day to ‘flush out’ its contents.

Image 8: Waterfront buildings (ca. 1620s) including sections of the stone quayside, warehouse and privy (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation)
Image 9: George Calvert’s ‘Mansion House’ (ca. 1620s) (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

Eight feet above the quayside, warehouse and privy is a second terrace containing the domestic core of the Ferryland settlement, including a cobblestoned street measuring 13 feet wide and running 400 feet from the east to west end of the village. Directly south of the street are the remains of several dwellings and a variety of outbuildings including a stable, a brew house and bakery, and a blacksmith shop. Some of these structures were even built with subterranean slate drains that allowed liquid waste (in various forms) to be redirected away from these spaces and into the inner harbour.

Image 10: Beothuk hearths in 16th-century contexts at Ferryland (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

Another important fact that we’ve learned thanks to the archaeology is that there was a significant Beothuk occupation at Ferryland during the 16th century. Jim first found evidence for the Beothuk in pre-colonial deposits during the 1986 field school, and up to that point there was no historical or archaeological evidence to suggest that the Beothuk ever inhabited the eastern Avalon Peninsula (Tuck and Robbins 1986). As excavations continued, evidence for the Beothuk presence became more substantial with over 14 hearth features and many more artifact scatters spread out over various parts of the site, suggesting that the coastlines of the eastern Avalon were in fact familiar territory and visited frequently back in the 16th century.

The final lesson that the community archaeology project at Ferryland has taught me, and many others, is that archaeology is as much about people and places in the present as it is about the past. Archaeology is about including local residents and local priorities in your daily routine. Archaeology is about job and retraining opportunities, about local economic diversification and rural rejuvenation. Longstanding community archaeology projects enrich the lives of everyone involved, they provide a collective sense of identity, and probably most important, a renewed sense of optimism in the future (Gaulton and Rankin 2018; Rankin and Gaulton 2021).    

Image 11: Ferryland field and lab crews 1993 (Courtesy: Ferryland Archaeology Project/Colony of Avalon Foundation).

References cited:

Gaulton, Barry C.
2012    A Terraced Village at ‘Avalon’: The Construction and Evolution of George Calvert’s 1621 Colony at Ferryland, Newfoundland. Paper presented at the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology conference held in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

2019    Climate Change at the Colony of Avalon National Historic Site. Presentation to the Climate Change & Heritage Places Information Forum and Adaptation Workshop (Parks Canada) held in St. John’s.

Gaulton, Barry C. and Lisa K. Rankin
2018    Archaeological heritage as a catalyst for pubic engagement, rural rejuvenation, and rethinking our shared past: perspectives from a quarter century of community archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador. História: Questões & Debates 66(2): 19-44.

Rankin, Lisa K. and Barry C. Gaulton
2021    Archaeology, Participatory Democracy and Social Justice in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. In Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress (Special Issue: Archaeology as a Public Good). Guest editors Stanton Green, Claudia Green and Joseph Schuldenrein.

Tuck, James A.
1993    Archaeology at Ferryland, Newfoundland. Newfoundland Studies, special issue Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 9(2): 294-310.

Tuck, James. A. and Douglas T. Robbins
1986    A glimpse at the Colony of Avalon. In J. S. Thomson & C. Thomson (Eds.), Archaeology in Newfoundland and Labrador 1985 (pp. 237–249). Historic Resources Division, Department of Culture, Recreation and Youth.


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