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.

Women in NL Archaeology: Priscilla Renouf

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.

Dr. Priscilla Renouf. Photograph from the Globe and Mail 2014

Dr. Priscilla Renouf devoted her career to understanding past human occupation on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, particularly at Port au Choix. She was an outstanding researcher, mentor, teacher, and supervisor, with a wicked sense of humour and the ability to bring the best out of everyone who crossed her path. Born in St. John’s, Dr. Renouf studied archaeology at Memorial University, supervised in her Master’s thesis by Jim Tuck. Her PhD thesis at Cambridge examined the settlement and subsistence patterns of past hunter-gatherers on the northern coast of Norway.

She returned to Memorial University and in 1984 she began a 30-year research programme at Port au Choix, focused on the unusually large Dorset site of Phillip’s Garden, understanding the cultural entanglements of different cultural groups that simultaneously occupied the same landscape. Her investigations revealed both short- and long-term variability in architecture, household structure, and settlement organization at the site over its 800-year history of occupation. She also led or was associated with investigations at over 150 different sites within Newfoundland and Labrador, researching the role of material culture in traditional small-scale societies, and the interactions between people and their environments.

Priscilla was awarded a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in North Atlantic Archaeology in 2001. She was a member of the founding board of directors at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (now the Canadian Museum of History). In 2003, she became Chair of the founding board of directors of The Rooms Corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador. When she became a faculty member at Memorial in 1981, Arctic archaeology was a particularly male-dominated specialty within an already male-dominated discipline. Although not writing from a feminist perspective per se, Priscilla opened space for other women in this realm. Her presence and formidable research output proved an example to students and younger colleagues that Arctic archaeologists did not have to be burly men with beards: women could run major northern field projects and become highly respected researchers in the field. She cared deeply about her students. Lisa Hodgetts and Patty Wells wrote that:

All sites in Newfoundland and Labrador that Dr. Renouf worked on throughout her career.

Her respect for her students, fairness, and confidence in their abilities were an inspiration to them. None wanted to disappoint her, and all endeavored to meet the standard she had set through her own example. Priscilla saw her students through to completion using a mixture of firmness and humour. We recall her thorough and meticulous edits of our written work, which often included witty illustrations of trash cans filled with jargon and guns aimed at poorly worded phases.

Another student, Steve Hull, has calculated some of her impact:

Depending on the research she would have a team of about six students assisting her. So, after nearly 30 years of work that would be 120 to 150 students she directly influenced with her fieldwork. This doesn’t include students she had working in other areas of the Province off the Northern Peninsula like Tim Rast at Burgeo or Lisa Fogt at Cape Ray. It also doesn’t include the thousands of students she would have taught during her university teaching career. The impact she had on Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology just through her students is immeasurable.

She was married to Roger Pickervance, a biologist and chef who supported her career at home as resident editor, and accompanied her into the field, where he participated in her research and conducted his own. On occasion, he also filled in as cook, much to the delight of hungry field crews used to plainer fare. More significantly, with her beloved Roger, Priscilla realized the joys of a balanced life. As Lisa Hodgetts and Patty Wells have written: “To Priscilla, Queen of the Dorset, who helped us discover Sivullirmiut archaeology, inspired us to persist through adversity, and made us laugh. We are better scholars for having worked with her, and better people for having known her.”

With thanks to Lisa Hodgetts, Patricia Wells, Tim Rast, and Steve Hull. Hodgetts, Lisa and Patricia Wells.

Additional Articles:
Priscilla Renouf Remembered: An Introduction to the Special Issue with a Note on Renaming the Palaeoeskimo Tradition. Arctic, 69(5), Supplement 1. https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/arctic/article/view/67716/51612

Hull, Stephen. 2014. Dr Priscilla Renouf. Inside Archaeology. https://nlarchaeology.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/dr-priscilla-renouf/

Rast, Tim. 2014. Dr. Priscilla Renouf. Elfshot. http://elfshotgallery.blogspot.com/2014/04/dr-priscilla-renouf.html

Women in NL Archaeology: Birgitta Wallace

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.

Photo by Rob Ferguson

Anyone interested in Norse archaeology in Newfoundland will likely be familiar with the work of Birgitta Wallace, who has been an instrumental part of the work at L’Anse aux Meadows and wrote the book ‘Westward Vikings: the Saga of L’Anse aux Meadows‘ on the site, which was published in 2006. Today she is retired, but remains an active part of the Norse Archaeology community.

Born in 1944, Wallace completed her degree in Nordic Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Uppsala, and received her Masters in 1975 in Pittsburg, with her main research area being the western expansion of the Norse into North America. She worked for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, PA, prior to heading north to Canada in 1975 to join Parks Canada as the archaeologist for the Atlantic region.

With an excavation career to make all early-career researchers envious, Wallace has excavated sites in Sweden and Norway, Israel, the USA, and Canada. She worked on both the Norwegian expeditions at L’Anse aux Meadows and the later Parks Canada work at the site, and became responsible for the archaeological material recovered there. The first woman to be awarded the Smith-Wintemberg Award from the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) in 2015, the president at the time wrote:

Although most of us recognize the work that Birgitta has undertaken in Norse archaeology, especially at L’Anse aux Meadows, her research was much broader.  She undertook significant work with Parks Canada at the Fort Anne National Historic site in Nova Scotia, at Nicholas Deny’s 17th- century trading post in Cape Breton and throughout the shell middens of Prince Edward Island.

Along with traditional excavations, Wallace has worked as the curator of multiple museum exhibitions and have been praised for her work as a public educator, to teach those interested in the “realities of Norse North America”. Those in Newfoundland and Labrador who have gotten the chance to work with her, attest to her expertise and passion for the field. Wallace is currently Parks Canada Archaeologist Emeritus, and remains engaged as an advisor in the interpretation and promotion of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Her husband, Rob, wrote:

She not only put an end to the age-old question “Where is Vinland?”, but correctly identified the mis-located site of the first Scottish settlement in Nova Scotia (yes, the one that gave us our name and flag), and used an innovative strategy to look at pre-contact shellfish processing in PEI by stripping sod from an entire site to reveal individual work stations of shell. She was instrumental in bringing overhead photography techniques to Parks Canada, and has been involved, through L’Anse aux Meadows, in many technological developments in archaeological science, such as AMS dating. Despite working in a glamorous field (Viking archaeology) where egos frequently take precedence, she has always maintained that the results of research are far more important than who found what first. Ok, I’m a little bit proud. It’s International Women’s Day. I’m allowed to be.

If you are interested in reading more about Birgitta’s work, check out her book, or this open-source article!