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Annual Report

Digging up the past to preserve history

Taking skills and theories learned in the classroom and putting them to use is a proven method to make them stick. UNB is a leader when it comes to hands-on and experiential learning, no matter the discipline. For students who study the past, there’s no better time than the present.

The department of anthropology at UNB has formed a unique partnership with Parks Canada to ensure students can learn, faculty can research, and one of Canada’s national historic sites isn’t lost to the sea.

Digging up the past

Under the partnership with Parks Canada, a bioarcheology field school program has been established at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.

The project is a salvage excavation to recover burials in danger of erosion on Rochefort Point. An experiential learning opportunity and a chance for faculty and graduate students to conduct research, the program centres on health patterns, mortuary treatments, and the cultural mosaic that made up 18th-century Louisbourg.

Dr. Amy Scott, assistant professor in the anthropology department and program director of the field school, led 12 students from UNB and across Canada in the excavation and research of the individuals uncovered from Rochefort Point near Louisbourg in the summer of 2017.

“First and foremost, we’re trying to protect these burials from coastal erosion, which is rewarding for students who get hands-on experience while also addressing this ongoing issue,” Dr. Scott says.

History in hand

Louisbourg, established in 1713, served as a critical French fishing port in the North Atlantic before evolving into a military stronghold, transshipment centre, and the capital of Ile Royale in the 1720s. By the mid-18th century, it consisted of a 60-acre fortress with additional coastal defences, along with a harbour lined with fishing concessions for the flourishing cod trade.

Twice in its history was Louisbourg besieged, first by a New Englander force in 1745, then by an immense British force in 1758, which marked the end for Louisbourg. The British destroyed the fortifications in 1760.

The primary burial ground for Louisbourg’s deceased after 1739 was Rochefort Point, a narrow peninsula extending just past the east gate of the fortress. Coastal erosion and an increasing sea level have narrowed the land, putting the burial ground at risk and prompting this long-term rescue evacuation and analysis.

This program offers students a unique experience to put skills learned in the classroom to the test, such as excavation methods and techniques, field data recording and ethical handling practices. Students have the opportunity to engage in the technical analyses of skeletal remains through laboratory cataloguing, curation and storage, in addition to exploring the fortress and learning the history of the area.

Racing against time

But while they work, the field school is battling time and weather. To the south, Rochefort Point is met by the ocean, while to the north, impact comes from the harbour. The cemetery was once far away from the water, but erosion and rising sea levels chipped away the land. The edge now sits at the boundaries of the cemetery, where approximately 1,000 individuals are buried.

Two undergraduate students, one from UNB and one from Ontario, who completed the field school are now at UNB as graduate students under Dr. Scott and will help teach next year’s program while completing their own master’s research.

“These students get to be there from the moment these individuals are uncovered. No one has seen them for 300 years and we have the unique privilege to excavate and study them, before they are returned to Parks Canada to be reinterred.”

This summer, 26 individuals were excavated. Students studied grave artifacts, including buttons on clothing, to piece together the stories of the past.

Popular with students, tourists

One added highlight of the field program is how engaged the public was throughout the excavation.

“They were interested in the work we were doing, and expressed their appreciation that we were excavating to salvage the area and preserve the history,” Dr. Scott says.

Parks Canada kept records of visitors over the four-week field study. More than 2,100 people stopped by in a two-and-a-half-week period.

The partnership between UNB and Parks Canada runs through the summer of 2020, with the possibility to extend far beyond that date. In the meantime, there are already talks to expand.

“We’re going to have 16 students in 2018 with the hopes of further expansion into 2019 and beyond. This work is important and needs to continue before we lose more of this important historical site and the stories of those who lived there.”