Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Search for the 17th-century Ferryland burial ground, 2017: Introduction


Tomorrow is the day! The 2017 excavation at Ferryland is finally going to start and I couldn’t be more excited! (That’s a lie, I will be more excited when I get on site tomorrow). I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you all a bit more about this year’s excavation and where I am taking it for the next 4 weeks. I’ll be blogging every week about the latest adventures and finds as well and I hope you all come along for the ride!


Map made by Robyn Lacy & Bryn Tapper, 2017.

This is a map I made under the guidance of Bryn Tapper, a PhD candidate in my department who knows way more about GIS that I do! It’s an aerial photo of the Ferryland harbour, centered on the 17th-century British settlement area in the Pool, with a later, known burial ground circled in red on the left side of the image. The Pool refers to that little curl of land in the middle of the image, which formed naturally, if you can believe it! It’s the perfect little protected harbour, and deep enough to bring ships into, making it a wonderful location for a small settlement 400 years ago.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, the British settlement at Ferryland was established in 1621 by George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore. Unlike some other early British settlements in North America, the surviving records from Ferryland (or the Colony of Avalon as Calvert called it) are scarce and only one letter from Calvert himself mentions deaths at the Colony… and of course doesn’t mention what they did with the bodies.

I wrote previously about where the bodies were likely not buried (i.e. the sea), but it’s time to revisit where I actually did dig last year, and why I’m going back this year!


Map made by Robyn Lacy & Bryn Tapper, 2017.

This map shows all of the units, trenches, and test pits that myself and my awesome crew excavated over 6 weeks in 2016! Those long trenches were dug by a back-hoe, by the way, through old garden soils. The grey areas denote stone features that are visible when you visit the Colony of Avalon Historic Site today, and if you come by make sure you drop into the Visitor’s Centre, museum, and maybe take a guided tour! Archaeologists including myself will be working at the site through August, and it’s a really cool opportunity to see archaeology in action! *shameless plug* 


Here I am holding a piece of German stoneware from one of the trenches, 2016. 

As you can see, we covered a lot of ground last year. These areas were chosen based on a number of factors:
a) historic and archaeological data,
b) the results of my statistical analysis,
c) GPR survey to narrow down trench location

Using each of the above, I selected specific areas to excavation to the south and east of the settlement outside of the fortified walls. Ferryland used to be completely surrounded by a large ditch, earthwork, and wooden palisade to protect them from potential attacks from other Europeans in the area, as Newfoundland was considered prime real-estate in the ‘new world’. However according to the statistical analysis, having a wall around your town didn’t play a major role in deciding whether or not to keep your dead inside the immediate settlement or not. This likely has to do with a change in the western perception of death since the 17th century. While modern cemeteries today are mainly pushed to the periphery of settlements, it was common practice for post-medieval communities to keep their dead closer to home, and we can see this directly translating into new burial grounds in North American colonial settlements (Lacy, in progress).

So in 2016 we didn’t find any graves! The large circle on the map above indicates the general area that I am going to start excavating tomorrow. This area is within the fortified settlement, in a more central location than places I was investigating last summer, and part of the test area is on a slightly raised landform, which has a higher probability of being selected for graves according to my analysis of similar sites (Lacy, in progress).


South of the brewhouse, photo looking NW from the pile of rubble fill. Photo by author, 2017.

The circled area has a brewhouse / bakery structure at its centre, built in the 17th century by Capt. Edward Wynne and the first settlers who came over to Newfoundland with him. It was later incorporated into the Kirke house and the areas directly around it have either never been excavated before (and are covered in C18th rubble we have to get through first) or were excavated but not cleared at subsoil to look for features, and there is definitely enough space for nine or ten bodies! This was also the area where the gravestone fragments were recovered during previous years of excavation.

We will start this year by excavating directly to the south of the brewhouse, first by shoveling through the fill and then troweling down the 17th-century layers until we reach subsoil, where we will be cleaning and checking for soil features which could indicate a human burial. If another piece of gravestone wanted to show up as well, that would be spectacular!

That is where we stand right now! Dr. Gaulton and his team have laid out some grid points in the area for me to use starting tomorrow, my crew organized and ready to go, and I have a bag of spare trowels beside me just in case (Marshalltown though… WHS any day for me!) I’m going to be blogging around each week as we go, or more than once a week if something really dramatic happens, so stay tuned!


Lacy, R.S. In Progress. Here lieth interr’d: An Examination of 17th-century British burial landscapes in eastern North America. Masters Thesis. Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

2 thoughts on “Search for the 17th-century Ferryland burial ground, 2017: Introduction

  1. Great work!


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