My Discovery of P. E. I. Prehistoric Archaeology

That evening in the early summer of 1983, when I found my first prehistoric artefact ever at David Keenlyside’s dig at the Jones Site at Greenwich in Saint Peter’s Bay, has never faded from my mind and the moment of revelation is as strong today as it was 36 years ago. I held that point in my hand for maybe half an hour then David packed it away to take back to the Museum of Man in Ottawa. I never saw it again.

In the course of the summer I visited the dig as often as I could and became fascinated with the prehistoric chronology of the Island and the various kinds of stone artefacts associated with each period from about 12,000 years BP to the phasing out of these artefacts after European contact.

Here is a summary of prehistoric chronology taken from an American site on the net. These dates are never firm and change with each major advance in archaeological exploration. It is impossible, I think, to find a chronology with enough detail to account for changes in technology and associated lifestyles of prehistoric people that everybody agrees with.

 

A Provisional Prehistoric Maritime Chronology

12,000 B.C.   Paleo-Indian Period – Ice Age Nomadic big game hunters (Clovis Culture)

9,000 B.C.     Transitional Period – Adjustments to the changing environment as the Ice Age ends

8,000 B.C.     Archaic Period – use of atlatl (spear thrower), ground stone tools and ornaments

2,500 B.C.     First pottery, revolutionised cooking and storage methods and probable emergence of Mi’kmaq peoples

1,000 B.C.     Woodland Period – Finer pottery decorated; bow and arrow, gardening (sunflower, gourds,  etc.); semi-permanent villages with burial mounds

(Adapted from: J. Merrill – Prehistoric Period and First Contacts)

 

 

I BECOME A PASSIONATE AMATEUR PREHISTORIC ARCHAEOLOGIST

That fall I continued to return to Saint Peter’s Bay and the Jones Site after it had been filled in and the archaeologists had gone away. A sort of madness seized me – the collector’s madness! – and I tried to find more prehistoric material, no matter how insignificant. On the beach there were a few small thin flakes of a black stone that had been discarded in the making of stone points and there were also flakes of white quartz pebbles, that I later discovered could be found everywhere in the form of what are called thumb scrapers.

I began to wonder if there were more prehistoric sites in Saint Peter’s Bay and where they could be found. Because I have always been passionate about aerial photographs and what they can tell us I studied the aerial configuration of the bay in the area of Greenwich. I used the first ever vertical aerial survey of the Island done in 1935.

There was a lot of information to be gleaned from this photo. The point of land on which the Jones site was located had resisted erosion throughout the centuries, probably because the substrate resisted erosion, but probably also because of the direction of the tidal currents in the bay. In that way the artefacts associated with the various prehistoric communities that inhabited that area over the millennia were preserved. Because of the constant movement of the sandbars and sandhills the innumerable artefacts in that location associated with millennia of succeeding cultures were liberated from their original matrix and swirled about for thousands of years. That is what archaeologists find on the surface of that point of land. Its all mixed up.

There was a similar configuration on the 1775 Dury engraved edition of the 1765 Holland manuscript survey of the Island and this encouraged me to believe that this configuration, based on tidal currents, was ancient. When I finally saw the original huge Holland manuscript map in 2015 it showed exactly the same very narrow channel at Midgell.

Dury 1775

Holland Manuscript 1765

I began to look in Saint Peter’s Bay for similar configurations where spits of land jutted out into the bay and was drawn to the narrowing of the bay where the Midgell peninsula juts out.

Quite plain to see at the point was a shallow spit of tidal accumulation that almost looked as if it joined up to the North side of the bay at one time. This was reflected exactly in the 1775 Dury engraving of that part of the bay. I decided to go and explore. The ground sloped down to the water and there was evidence of fairly recent human activity on either side of the point. Meacham’s ATLAS even showed that there was a wharf there in 1880 to the left of the road that ran down past the Presbyterian cemetery.

Today all traces of activity shown in Meacham have disappeared and their presence is remembered only by the historical litter – late archaeological evidence! – scattered along the beach.

Here is a panorama of the Midgell point of land taken at the time of my explorations.

The day I visited the Midgell site was windy and cold. As I walked around the point, I could see some peat and black compacted material eroding out of the bank.

I examined this and realised that the black material was part of a huge compacted hearth from prehistoric times. There were many tiny thin black flakes of the same stone found at the Jones site as well as the usual spread of white milky quartz.

These flakes seemed to spread out onto the spit of land that went out from the point, just like at the Jones site. As the tide was coming in and the water was choppy, I decided to wade out a bit and see if I could find anything. Then another epiphanic moment happened.

I saw a large black artefact being tossed about by the water. I could not believe my eyes and thought it looked like a blade cut out of tar paper, the way it seemed to undulate. I reached down and grabbed it and was stunned!

It was a huge blade, probably meant to be hafted as a knife with a wooden handle, about six inches long!

The tide was coming in fast and I was getting splashed on all sides, but I kept looking around and soon I found more artefacts until, after several more visits under better searching circumstances, I assembled this collection of points, blades and scrapers.

Wild with excitement I contacted David Keenlyside at the Museum of Man in Ottawa and told him about my finds. Very soon he appeared in Charlottetown and was thrilled with the artefacts I had found. By their appearance they seemed to have eroded out of the hearth matrix quite recently. The edges were all as sharp as the day they were made. David thought that the material probably dated to the second period of prehistoric occupation on the Island, the Archaic, with a range of dates from perhaps 9,000 – 3,000 BP.

All this material, and over 200 other artefacts – mostly very minor – that I found at that site were taken to be part of the National collection in Ottawa. There was no official place to deposit them on the Island as the Heritage Foundation refused to accept collections of prehistoric material. I still have the inventory of everything that went to Ottawa, and here is a pdf of it.

Porter Site Collection CcCp-2 – National Museums

The very thoughtful and kind David Keenlyside arranged with his museum to make exact replicas of two of those artefacts – the long knife blade and the large notched point, probably a thrusting spear to hunt walrus and seal, and these were given to me as a present. What a present!

This site has never been published, or even mentioned in any publication that I know of. This makes me very sad because the purity and consistency of what came out of it  suggests that it is the remains of an Early to Middle Archaic site. There could be much more there under the rising bank. There would be a small trench dug on the beach in the summer of 1985 and I describe that event below.

In August 2006 when I last visited it, private collectors had come with picks and shovels and dug up the visible remains of the hearth to find artefacts to sell on the international market.

A collector showed me this small side-notched Ramah quartzite point made of stone imported from Red Bay in Labrador. This find, said to be from the remains of the hearth, opens up all kinds of new areas of speculation about the site. Back in the 1980s I had already found, eroding out of the black hearth matrix, thinning flakes of Ramah quartzite, like the one shown below. This may have been the reason why.

 

 

THE PERIOD OF EXPLORATION

I continued to explore the Island, from North Cape to East Point in the next ten years when I was able to find the time. I walked hundreds of kilometres. At the end of it all I was able to say that I had seen evidence of prehistoric activity – no matter how slight – in areas designated on this crude hand-made map. The material was almost exclusively along the shoreline where it had eroded out of the bank. It is very important to remember that, thousands of years ago, these sites would all have been inland, stretching out for miles, perhaps as many as ten miles, into the Strait and the Gulf.

I continued to explore and look for new sites, using the instincts that I was developing to locate probable locations. I discovered quite a bit of evidence that the same people who had developed that massive hearth at Midgell were also quite active on the east side of the peninsula. Quite a number of black and grey artefacts and flakes were found.

To my immense surprise one day at very low tide I was attracted quite far out where I seemed to see bubbling in the water. It was the base of a pioneer well, lined with cut stone, that had once served a house on the quite high bank hundreds of metres away and about 30 feet above sea level! Imagine the extent of erosion in just 100 years!

 

1985 RETURN TO THE JONES SITE

In the middle of June, 1985 Keenlyside returned to the Jones Site at Greenwich in order to extend his investigations. In 1983 there had been all sorts of tantalising clues about the Palaeo level. The stratigraphy had been clearly established and levels previously known only by numbers could be given names. A photograph like this, numbered and named, was published in an article by Keenlyside.

At this time I was invited to spend a week at the dig as a volunteer digger. This was wonderful because, for the first time ever, I would excavate the nebulous mysteries of prehistoric occupation, so different from the Greek excavations where I had received training in 1979. Keenlyside was a wonderful teacher, so patient in making one understand how subtle the signs of occupation were in this built-up layer of deposits from various ages. One slip of the trowel and you might destroy a fugitive but vital feature. It was all new to me and I delighted in trying to develop the necessary skills and sensibilities.

I had noticed that the Jones site bottomed out – or at least I assumed so – between the tide lines on the beach. A dark carbon-bearing thin layer was clearly visible below where the major trenches were located inland. Because of my find at Midgell I wanted specific information on how to approach a beach site. David very kindly allowed me to open a small trench on the beach over the area containing charcoal that seemed to extend from the edge of the shore.

I was shown how to set up and open a 1 x 3 meter trench and begin peeling off layers of overburden – in this case sand – until I approached what appeared to be a cultural layer. I did not have to dig deep before I reached a layer of hard packed earth which I described in my journal in this way. The main feature of my pit … was the presence of a very mottled, extremely colourful very compacted layer that in my innocence I saw as a dancing floor near a fire. I thought that such compaction could only come from extensive pounding, like in dancing feet. There was charcoal mixed in with the variously coloured clay. You can see those hard coloured patches in this photo I took at the time. Unfortunately I did not wet the ground to make the colours stand out – but they were vivid.

Being classically trained and of a romantic frame of mind, I saw this as a dancing floor, like in prehistoric Greece, where celebrants danced in a sacred spot to their gods. These would later evolve into theatres. Greenwich PEI? Shades of John Buchan.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dancing_Floor

Why not.

 

THE MIDGELL SITE IS TESTED

As an extension of his return to the Jones site, Keenlyside, with the help of an anthropologist at UPEI, opened a trench in what was left of the rapidly-eroding hearth at the Midgell site. We quickly found a HUGE hand axe or celt as they are referred to in older books, just under the surface. A truck had recently driven on the beach on that very spot and when it was removed from the ground we found that it had been freshly broken in two.

I

There were a lot of flakes of the black stone from which the major artefacts I had found earlier were made, many flakes of milky quartz and lots of charcoal and some organic material. No other significant artefacts were found. The excavation was quickly over and the trench was lined with plastic and the overburden shovelled in over it. When I visited in November everything was still more or less intact, but by the spring, the plastic had washed away and the trench, now much disfigured, was open to erosion. Strangely our datum stick survived the winter ice.

News of our small, almost insignificant excavation had got out and soon visitors arrived to see what was going on. I was struck by the parallel of our black trench, the archaeologists and visitors, and the locals who were calmly digging clams, as must have been done for thousands of years, only a few hundred feet away. I wondered if their shovels were turning up artefacts…

 

OTHER LOCATIONS AND OTHER FINDS

From 1983 on my explorations continued for about 10 years into the early ‘90s. I kept revisiting sites I already knew about to see if anything new had eroded out and was often rewarded. I was in regular touch with David Keenlyside because he was the Atlantic Provinces Archaeologist for the Museum of Man, later to become the Museum of Civilisation. All the artefacts I found, with exact documentation, went to Ottawa where they are still stored in some depot. At this time Keenlyside was especially interested in Palaeo-Indian material because he had just discovered their presence on the Island.

First, my instincts drove me to explore Savage Harbour in an area of beach just behind the fishermen’s sheds, next to boggy ground.

There I found a number of very early points, a couple of truncated concave base points just like the ones found at the Jones Site, and some quartzite stemmed points which, both form and materials, are associated with the Archaic Period in its middle or bottom period.

As well there were these two absolutely beautiful enigmatic points that I know nothing about but suspect to be Archaic, like the rest of the material found there.

I still believe that there is possibly great potential to discover an extension of the site from which this material eroded inland where the ground never seems to have been disrupted by human activity.

 

RETURN TO SAINT PETER’S BAY

Of course, Saint Peter’s Bay has always been the motherlode for the most ancient material. One glorious summer evening I was drawn to a little point at the end of a road just east of the Jones site and, because the tide was coming in, I went into the water with hip waders. AGAIN, there was a major epiphanic moment as I saw something fluted and perfect lying on the silty bottom. The water was too deep to simply reach for it and I had to immerse myself up to the shoulder and for a moment over my head before my eager fingers found it.

Here it was, perfect in every way! What appears to be a broken barb is actually the striking platform from which the maker removed thin flakes of stone in the process of shaping the artefact.

It is made of the same material as all the other black tools and weapons found in the Bay. There is still discussion as to why it has turned grey and I have read that some stones in prehistoric times may have been heated in the fire to make them more tractable to flaking, that the heat may have altered the molecular structure to cause this to happen, and in the process cause the stone to age in this grey fashion. Maybe that is so. I will talk more about this in my next post which will be on what I know about prehistoric technology.

I could go on and on, rhapsodising over many other special artefacts I found over the years, but I will conclude with one, in some ways very crude, but in other ways very sophisticated, that I found while on my way to a meeting in Prince County in the summer of 1987. As I neared the Trout River at Roxbury all my alarm bells went off as I looked to the side of the road to a small field next to the river. It had just been ploughed. Walking over the furrows I saw something small and compact and when I picked it up it turned out to be a hammer stone, but not just any hammerstone.

A compact igneous cobble, probably diorite, had been shaped smooth along the sides with pecking away at it with another hammer stone and then, with a polishing stone, grinding the flat surfaces until they were glossy smooth. You can have no idea what a pleasure it is to hold it in your hand. The sense of intimacy with something – some other hand –  of so long ago is very moving.

It is perfect for delicate hammering, probably the early stages of shaping one of those long thin sophisticated blades so popular in the Palaeo- and Archaic periods.

This artefact has not gone to Ottawa with the others. For many years it has been in my bedroom where I can reach over when I want to and caress it and hold it in readiness for a prehistoric hand to strike the first creative blow. When I die it will go to the Provincial Collection, where it belongs.

There is a Latin phrase at the beginning of Vergil’s Aeneid where the hero is described as fato profugo – driven by fate in his adventures. I have always thought that Fate drove me to these discoveries that changed the way I view the Island and even the way I view art.