Uncovering history in 300-year-old skeletons | UNB is here | UNB

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Uncovering history in 300-year-old skeletons

Spending four weeks of the summer digging up bones in a cemetery might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but for the students attending the UNB Bioarchaeology Field School there is nothing more exciting.

Every July since 2016, in partnership with Parks Canada, UNB anthropology professor Dr. Amy Scott and a team of students from across the country have been working at the Fortress of Louisbourg, a National Historic Site on Cape Breton, N.S. They are working against time to save the 18th-century graves being lost at an alarming rate to ongoing coastal erosion. At greatest risk are those soldiers and settlers buried on Rochefort Point.

Bones tell a unique story

By excavating and analyzing the remains of these individuals, a great deal can be learned about life and death in that early settlement, which was established in 1713 by French fishers and later became a military stronghold.

The graves reveal burial practices, health issues and medical treatments, remnants of clothing, and styles of coffins — all of which contribute to a better understanding of the 45 years Louisbourg was occupied. Our knowledge of Canadian and Indigenous history at this important location is being expanded through examination of these skeletal remains.

Valuable skills learned include respect for the dead

The aspiring archaeologists learn the basics of excavation, including mapping, cataloguing, note taking, photography, and interacting with the public. They also gain interpretive and analytical skills as they clean and work with artifacts and humans remains in the on-site lab.

And in case you’re wondering what becomes of the skeletons at the end of each field school, they are temporarily stored in the Bioarchaeology Research and Teaching Lab at UNB for further study. Ultimately, all remains will be re-interred at the Fortress in a safe location far from the coast.