Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 3, 2017

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Here we are, 3/4 weeks complete for the 2017 field season!
Cumulatively, this makes my 9th week excavating at Ferryland in search of the 17th-century burials. Lets go over what we uncovered this passed week, and then I’d like to talk about visitors to public archaeology sites and what we know so far about the burial ground!


The first thing we got up to this week was opening a new trench just to the south of the monster trench from the first two weeks. The area this new trench was laid out in was previously excavated down to the 18th-century layer but not beyond. The space was covered in debris which had washed down the hill since that excavation, so we had some disturbed soil buildup to dig through before we could hit the in situ historic soil layers.


Map of all trenches from Weeks 1 & 2, with new trench on south end. Photo (and map) by author, 2017.

I really should say… my wonderful crew dug through that, while I busied myself doing unit forms from Trench 1.

To properly record soil layers in situ, one has to do a unit form to record every soil layer, in every unit (1x1m) that was dug in that area. This meant that while my team was digging away just up the hill from me, I spent all of last Monday sitting in a hole on the sterile subsoil, writing unit forms! Seriously guys, it took all day! Don’t neglect your paperwork like I did! It wasn’t bad though, I was still close enough that tour groups could come up and ask me questions about the research that we were undertaking which is always fun.

Above is a sketch-map of all the trenches that we covered (or uncovered…hah) during the first 2 weeks plus a few days at Ferryland so far! I can’t believe how much earth we’ve moved already, and there is still another week to go! It’s really great to see how much ground we’be covered too, because it helps tremendously with narrowing down where to check for burials next, and all the places that they definitely weren’t burying their dead. Negative data is still data! The southern trenches only contained the 18th-century soil layer, characterized by the same types of ceramics as were being found in Trench 1, but in much small quantities. In the southern end of this trench, Trench 5, the subsoil was very shallow, but sloped dramatically towards the N/NW. There was no indication of a 17th-century soil layer in this area either, which was very interesting considering how close to the rest of the 17th-century settlement the space was. This could suggest that they simply weren’t using this area, or that the area was dug into during the 18th century and the 17th-century layer was destroyed.

Backfill was also started on Trenches 2, 3, and 4 this week, with the help of the landscapers to whom I owe a batch of cookies or something for all their hard work! Backfill is the worst part about fieldwork, especially at the rate we’re throwing rocks out of our trenches and it has been so wonderful to have help putting it all back!


Volunteers Johanna, JD, Elsa, and Natsuho learning how to de-sod units on a steep slope! Photo by author, 2017.

After some wandering around the site, contemplating the use of space and alterations to the landscape as a mortuary/historic/landscape archaeologist does (what on earth is my job title), and after much discussion with Dr. Gaulton on the subject, I resolved to open two trenches in the bastion. The ‘Bastion’ at Ferryland is part of the early 1620s defensive earthwork structure that was constructed in the first few years of occupation at the site. It was inside the palisade wall and ditch that surrounded the town and used to hold a cannon. In short, it’s an artificial hill with the intention of protecting the town by providing a view of the mouth of the harbour. The bastion itself has never been the subject of an excavation, but we do know that part of it was built from stacked sods. My reasoning for wanting to explore the area for burials are as follows:

  • The only recorded deaths happened in the winter, and it’s very likely that the corpses were kept somewhere unheated until the ground was thawed enough to bury them.
  • After years of massive constructions and ditch-digging, the inhabitants would have been aware of how rocky the ground was at Ferryland.
  • They may have reasoned that the earthwork on the hill, made of loose earth and sods, would have been an easier place to dig into in the spring.
  • If  you wanted an elevated area for burials, that’s basically the best bet in the town.

The sods came off the trenches very easily as it was loose earth as we were expecting! Very easy to dig in, nearly a luxury compared to some of the areas to the north that we had been exploring previously. Not long into the new units and an new soil layer was exposed. Because this area has never been excavated before, it means a lot more administrative paperwork for me, taking extremely detailed notes of every change in the composition, recording new soil layers for the site records, making sure everyone knows how to proceed, etc. It’s very exciting! Surviving early 17th-century colonial earthworks are rare, and getting the chance to explore how this one was built while looking for human burials is such an awesome experience. What I really love in archaeology is seeing structures, especially changes to the landscape, and how they affected the ways which people could interact with their physical environment. It’s such an interesting aspect of the research and what has really drawn me away from looking at material culture most of the time.


Trench 6, looking south, showing layer of loose rock. Photo by author, 2017.

We weren’t finding many artifacts in the bastion, but this wasn’t really a surprise to me. The mound was built so early into the European occupation of the area that there wouldn’t have been much, if any, material culture to get mixed up into the fill! If anything, we’d be finding objects from the Beothuk peoples, which would be amazing, but hasn’t happened yet. Soon the new layer ended, and a few of the units were met with a compact light grey clay, with flecks of charcoal indicating a likely occupation layer. The clay horizon was very thin, and once it was removed the two western units were left with….rocks. So many rocks.

There were massive spaces between the rocks, and they were not compacted in place by sediment at all. Reminiscent of week 1’s Mystery Pit, trowels and hands could fit in between a lot of the rocks. When you find spaces like this, it is a good indication that the layer was deposited very quickly, and sediment did not have time to get between all of the stones before it was buried again. This could mean one of two things for the construction of the bastion: either this is a layer of rock used as a part of the fill for the earthwork itself which wasn’t too deep because the northern face of the mound has since slumped off (created the flat area we are digging in), or these rocks were from a pile or sort of platform on top of the mound itself which was pushed off the top at a later period in order to make room for something, like the tavern that was later built to the south. If the second option is what we’re dealing with, then we have to go through all of the rocks in order to look for indications of burials, but if the rocks are part of the fill of the bastion itself then they probably weren’t putting burials directly into a massive pile of stones. We won’t know what we are dealing with either way until we go through the rocks however, so it’s onward and downwards for the excavation!


Volunteer Natsuho demonstrating the spaces between the rock layer. Photo by author, 2017.

Even if there doesn’t turn out to be graves in this massive 17th-century earthwork, we are going to learn a lot about how the area was constructed in the 1620s, which will greatly benefit the archaeological record of Ferryland! It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I can’t wait to see what might be waiting beneath all the rocks! The unit I’m working in, east of the photo above, is starting to reveal rocks as well, just a bit farther below surface, so I’m curious to see if it’s a pile or indeed part of the fill. Either way, how on earth did they get them all up here??

One unfortunate part of digging on what feels a bit like a tower when you’re up there, is that I don’t get to interact with tour groups nearly as much! It’s great to be able to explain my research myself to visitors and be on hand if anyone has any questions. Public archaeology is an integral part of any project, and I’m so grateful to have been able to get so much experience talking with visitors over the last two years! Especially when you’re doing mortuary archaeology, being able to engage with visitors and make that sort of research, more accessible to everyone is great.


Me, sad to be missing the Death & the Maiden conference, wore my Death Positive shirt to site on Friday. Photo by Ian Petty, 2017.

The most common question I’ve been asked this year is “Why are you digging so close to the houses?” I like to use that as an opportunity to briefly discuss how burial spaces being so far from a domestic, living, area is a modern construction in a lot of Western society and has disconnected us from interacting with death in a ‘morbid’ space on a regular basis, which grows the idea that is isn’t something you should do. In the 17th-century, however, the dead were kept close to home, especially in colonial settlements!

The last thing I wanted to talk about today is the importance in this kind of research of knowing where there are no burials. Of course, I have one more week left to take another look around, but I’m starting to compile thoughts on the subject of not finding the graves at all. As I said earlier, negative data is still data, and while there is a growing discussion in archaeology about accepting failure, I think that not finding them provides a great deal of information about the burial landscape at Ferryland as well. Not as much as finding them, but still! After next week, I will have spent 10 weeks looking for the burials at Ferryland, and have checked off a massive number of spaces which were high probability contenders for a burial ground according to the archaeology, local talk, and the statistical frequency of burials at 64 similar settlements in North America. What I can say at this point is that many of the places checked seemed perfect through the eyes of my research, but might not have been so great in the eyes of a 17th-century English person experiencing their landscape there. I’ve got more to say on this topic, but I’ll save it til the end results next week!

Just briefly before I pop off to The Rooms to be a museum educator for the afternoon (wanna hear about old NFLD things?), I wanted to show you all this bead that volunteer Becca found during week 2.


I didn’t know it was gold until it was cleaned up and in the lab earlier this week, and when I took the crew down to see the exhibits in the museum, we realized there have actually been a ton of these beads found at the site to date! There are way more in storage! Now, we don’t really know much about them, where they came from, etc, but they are likely from the 17th-century. The one that Becca found was out of context unfortunately, or I might have a bit more info on them. Isn’t that interesting?

Stay tuned next week for Week 4’s summary, and a discussion of the results of this entire, 2 year excavation!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 3, 2017

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 23, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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