Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 4, 2017. The Final Push


Well here we are, the final week of my Masters excavation! The title of this post may say week 4, but including last year’s dig this would be week 10. Week 10! For a Masters, I believe that is a bit more time spent digging than was necessary for the degree, but in terms of pursuing the questions I was asking… maybe it wasn’t enough time?
We’ll have to wait and see! We got up to quite a bit at Ferryland this week, and I spent part of the week gathering my thoughts about the research, the end of a major part of my project, and what conclusions we can draw from the results.


I’m standing up in this photo! The trench got a little deep towards the end of the week. Photo by Ian Petty, 2017.

If you saw my Day of Archaeology post, then you’ll already know what the final results of this excavation were. After 10 cumulative weeks of excavation between 2016 – 2017, I did not find evidence of human burial shafts at the 1621 Colony of Avalon at Ferryland.

Yes, this is a bit disappointing, and yes, I will spend the rest of my life wondering what happened to the ‘9 or 10’ people who died in that harsh winter of 1628/9. However it does not mean that my research ‘failed’, nor does it mean that I wasted my time exploring this question in the field for two summers with the ultimate result of delaying when I can send my thesis to my reviewers (if you’re reading this, reviewers, hi! I’m nearly done!). What it does mean is that we know so much more about how the early British and Irish at Ferryland were using the space that was available to them, how they constructed earthworks to defend themselves, and added to the knowledge of the extent of the settlement. It also helped us know exactly where there are not graves, which is extremely important too!! I’ll discuss my results and thoughts further at the end of this post, but before I get into that, lets finish up this fieldwork summary shall we?


Southern wall, E88 S23. Note the dark soil layer vanishing over the well-sorted stones. Photo by author, 2017. 

So we started out the week on the bastion, in the same units we were working on the previous week! Troweling is slow going, but it’s so important to make sure you don’t miss artifacts, and crucially for excavation of an earthwork, that you are familiar with the soil enough to identify layer changes and features as they might become exposed.

Examining sediments in an earthwork is especially important when you’re entering the second week of zero material culture! The gravels and cobbles appearing in the bastion were far more interesting to me than pipes though. Were they put there as a quick deposition of fill in the construction of the bastion itself, or were they part of a stone platform built up on top of the bastion for the cannons that was later pushed down / fell down the face of the mound? If the former, then there wasn’t going to be a chance of graves buried into a gravel mound. If the latter, then we’d have to go through the never-ending cobbles to find the old ground surface. Either way we’d have to remove the stones, and remove them we did!

The stone layer eventually petered out, and a new layer of loose stones mixed with silty soil began. The stone layer seemed to be at its closest to modern surface between the two trenches, hence the darker soil layer appearing in the west of the photo above. I’m still not totally sure what purpose the loose stones would have had for the construction (they collapsed into the trench if you walked above it, that’s not great for the structural integrity of a hill!), but with the continued stones and sediment below, the bastion was no longer a place I’d consider for burials. However, with only a few days left and backfill still needing to happen by the end of Friday, I resolved to finish the dig exploring the earthwork!


Profile of units E88 S22 & E88 S23. Drawing by author, measurements by Natsuho Kaneko, 2017. 

Isn’t that stratigraphy amazing? About 35 seconds into drawing the circles for the stone layer I regretted my choices, but it turned out so well (crippled hand and all)! I was so excited for the chance to explore this earthwork, and I regret to inform you all that we have no idea how much farther down the original ground surface was before they started building this thing!

By the end of Thursday, two of the units in the eastern trench had reached 1.5 metres below surface, and the western trench (the one the profile is of) was over 1 metre deep and becoming increasingly unstable. Those rocks were not held in with anything, and anyone working in E88 S23 had to wear a hard hat at all times as a result. Health and Safety, everyone! Volunteer Natsuho uncovered something very interesting in a sod layer at the ‘bottom’ of her unit on Thursday afternoon however: a piece of wood. Wood?? What are you doing down there? The wood was found partially burned, mostly on the way to becoming soil, and over 1m below surface in the middle of a piece of decomposed sod from the construction of the bastion. I spend a good 30 minutes slowly digging around and under it so we could remove the entire piece of clay it was adhered to, and we quickly brought it up to the conservation lab to be stabilized. I have a sample of the charcoal that broke off when it was first uncovered and will be prepping a charcoal sample for ID in the next few weeks, so stay tuned to see if I can ID this tree!


Sods with stones and sediment between them, E91 S25 testpit, NW quadrant of unit. Photo by author, 2017. 

What we’ve learned about the Bastion:

  • The rocks were deposited very quickly, leaving large spaces between them. I pity the people who had to haul them up there.
  • Below the large rock layer were intermittent layers of clay and sods, and loose rocks and silty soil, one after another, down to at least 1.5m below modern surface.
  • The deepest we got was 1.6m in one test pit in one of the units, with no signs of the old ground surface, nor of subsoil.
  • The entire mound was artificial, it does not seem like there was much of a hill there before at all.

Because we still don’t know where the old ground surface was, I have no way of telling you what the landscape used to look like before this mound was put on top of it…but that is for someone in the future to figure out! We now have a bit of a better idea about how the bastion was constructed now, even if it’s just the top metre of the construction. I definitely wasn’t expecting to see all of the rock layers in there, that’s for sure.


Eastern bastion trench, refilled and resodded. Photo by author, 2017. 

With that, the trenches were measured, the soil layers recorded and samples of exposed sods were taken for future analysis, the profiles were drawn, and backfill began. If you’ve worked on any archaeological site before you’ll know that backfill is fairly quick but back-breaking work. For these trenches we had the loose piled up on tarps on top of the bastion itself, so it was easier to fill the trenches back in when the time came. Easier in terms of it being close… but it was no less heavy! Luckily we had some extra help, and the trenches were refilled by lunchtime on Friday. My volunteer crew was amazing, and I wanted to extend my thanks and undying graditutde to everyone who put their time and dedication into this project. There is no way I would have been able to pull this off over the last two years without every one of you! Thank you!

And now, the results:
No graves.

Part of my project, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, was researching similar settlements to Ferryland and examining the spatial relationship between burial grounds and living spaces within the community to look for any potential patterns in how these spaces were being laid out. While statistically, there do appear to be religious, political, and regional patterns appearing along the east coast of North America and Newfoundland, there is no sure-fire way to quantify human behavior! Even if my statistical results say there was a 99% chance the Ferryland burials would be in X location because eeeeveryone else was doing it, they still didn’t have to do that too, and are very likely not going to. So many of these early colonial towns were isolated for ages, it’s not surprising that people would go off on their own paths. In addition, the likelyhood that the Ferryland burials fall into the minority is just as likely as the majority. We don’t know much about British 17th-century burials in Newfoundland at the moment, since there remains to be no burial grounds that early identified.


No graves there, interpretive sign! I checked. 

My excavation explored areas to the east and south of the fortified settlement in 2016, along with the aid of GPR data and a back-hoe at one point. This year I focused on more central locations, close to the stats majority results and where the gravestone fragments had been recovered, and I can tell you with 110% confidence that there are no graves anywhere I looked.

So where could they be?

I have some thoughts about that! One option is that the graves are to the west of the settlement. Statistically, this is the least likely location but some settlements still used the western area for burials! However, the western portion of Ferryland currently contains two modern houses and we are unable to excavate over there. If the graves are there, they will remain covered.
Another option is that one of the previous houses that used to cover the rest of the Colony cut right through the graves, which would likely not be well preserved, and the remains and graveshafts are gone.
Yet another option is that perhaps the individuals were buried in fairly shallow graves, since the people at Ferryland already would have been aware of how rocky the ground was. If this is the case, by the time farming started happening in the area, the acidic soil could have broken down the bodies and plows would have removed any indication of burials.
Another possibility is that they were built to the north along the coast. We do not know the extent of the coast to the north in the 17th-century, but due to the proximity to a large spit and the current rate of erosion, they would be long gone by now (but you’d hope there would have been stories of bones falling out of the hill!).
The last option is that they are buried way farther away from the settlement than I expected. This one would be unusual for a colonial settlement, but still possible!

What I’ve learned from all of this is that you really, truly, cannot predict human behavior, and that’s ok! What fun would that be, honestly? Archaeology is as much a social science as it is a hard science, and when those fields come together we open up amazing research possibilities and an understanding of how people lived and worked in the past. I love it, every moment of it.

The statistical model I built for this project is something that I want to work further with in the future as well, as it is the first wide-scale analysis of burial landscapes in eastern North America, and I’m extremely interested in spatial analysis through social lenses of death and dying. The data that went into that model will all be made available as soon as my thesis is accepted! I can’t wait to share it all with you!

With that, the fieldwork chapter of my thesis is complete. I’m going to spend the next two weeks finishing the thesis itself and getting it submitted to reviewers before I jet off to British Columbia for a much deserved visit home. Thank you for following this excavation, and I’ll continue to post research updates and such as normal!

blog4_4Honourable mention: On the last day of the dig I went up the hill early to double check I’d measured everything before backfill started, and found the tiny body of a mouse who had fallen down into the deepest trench overnight. We’re pretty sure he died on impact, and I buried him on a bed of yarrow and clover flowers. Here lies buried. x



Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

4 thoughts on “Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 4, 2017. The Final Push

  1. Dear Robyn,
    An interesting read! Sorry about not finding any graves ..It was not to be. I like the way you laid to rest the little mouse.


  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 30, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  3. As an osteoarchaeologist, I SO wanted you to find the burial ground, but congratulations on all of your hard work and the wealth of data you collected on the site! I’d imagine between the rocky soil and the season of burial that shallow graves and plough disturbance represent a a pretty reasonable hypothesis. Or equally, some sort of atypical location. Good luck with the rest of the thesis!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ellen! I really wanted to find it too, but I’m very happy with everything I learned about the site throughout the project! There are a load of options for what happened to them, for sure! My thesis is in review now, hoping it comes back soon!


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