Digging History

From Pacific shores, over vast plains and ancient forest to the islands of the Atlantic coast, Canada hides a wealth of stories in her soil.

Written by Ann Chandler

Posted May 1, 2015

A lady in shorts and a blue tshirt sitting on the ground leaning over the work site.

A group of English colonists arrived In August 1610, making them the first Europeans in Newfoundland. They settled at a place they named Cupers Cove, known today as Cupids.

The colony’s first governor, John Guy, was given very specific instructions about how to set up the new colony, which included fortifying the settlement, building dwellings and other structures and carrying out experimental farming.

In 1997, an archaeological excavation crew uncovered and mapped the dwelling house.

Almost half a millennium ago, pioneering groups of Inuit began to establish their winter villages on Labrador’s northern coast, relocating from the High Arctic to milder climatic conditions. Archaeologist Peter Whitridge has been excavating the village sites in order to shed more light on this neglected period of Labrador’s history.

For many Canadians, summer is a time to travel and explore the vast and diverse land we call home.

It may seem as though much of the land is untouched, but wherever you go in Canada, people have been there before you, some of them much earlier than can be imagined.

This land has been inhabited for more than 11,000 years, but the archaeological traces of human activity are often buried in the earth or lying beneath a sea bed.

While there have been extraordinary archaeological discoveries, much of the ground is unexplored. And the digging has really just begun.

Even huge archaeological finds, such as the unearthed evidence of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland, have been discovered only in the last 50 years.

Archaeologists are devoted to studying the traces of material culture left behind by humans many, many years ago. Sites, discovered remains of human activity, can include single artifacts, kill-site areas, encampments and more defined habitation, such as villages and fortifications.

In Canada, our largest archaeological sites include the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, the Rainy River Burial Mounds in northwest Ontario and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, among others.

While summer is a time for travel, it is also the prime time for site excavation.

All across the country, field archaeologists are digging in the dirt. It’s not always a glamorous career, but the discoveries help complete our understanding of Canada’s past and the people who lived on the land hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Check out these excavations

Cupids, Newfoundland: Conception of a New Life

Canada’s first English settlers leave a rich Elizabethan legacy.

Cypress Hills, Alberta: Secrets of the Great Plains

A gathering place for six millennia, Cypress Hills excavations yield new clues about ancient pathways.

Dorset in the Arctic: A Norse Connection

Which group may have influenced the Dorset? It was the Norse, of course.

Havre Saint Pierre and Port-la-Joye, P.E.I: A tale of two families

Two Acadian families settle in Prince Edward Island and meet different fates. But each leaves its mark on the island’s red soil.

Nachvak and Kongu, Labrador: A new design

When Europeans met Inuit in Labrador, home and hearth were reshaped.

The Northern Plains: Nomads of the grasslands

The culture of ancient peoples on the vast plains of Eurasia and North America is much alike. But in important ways, it’s often different.

Quality Creek, B.C.: Walking with dinosaurs

In ancient Canada megafauna ruled.

Quebec City: Blending past and present

At the Auberge Saint-Antoine, archaeological gleanings are only a touch away.

Quebec City: Trash or treasure?

The true treasure of the Palais de l’Intendant lies outside its walls.

Victoria, B.C.: Unearthing an intersection of cultures

A trade magnet for coastal First Nations in the mid-19th century, Victoria’s waterfront yields an unexpected trove of artifacts from many peoples.

West Pubnico, Nova Scotia: Farming saltwater marshes

Happenstance uncovers a precious reminder of the Acadians’ genius for thriving in an unforgiving terrain.

Whitehorse, Yukon: Frozen in time

In Yukon, keys to the past are sometimes preserved in patches of ice.

Help keep Canada’s stories strong and free

The importance of understanding ourselves by examining our history is an anchoring belief of Canada's History Society. We highlight our nation’s diverse past by telling stories that illuminate the people, places, and events that unite us as Canadians, and by making those stories accessible to everyone through our free online content.

Canada’s History is a registered charity that depends on contributions from readers like you to ensure students and citizens of all ages can continue being inspired and informed by our country’s fascinating stories. Please donate to Canada’s History today. Thank you!

The Canada’s History Archive featuring The Beaver, Canada’s History, and Kayak was made possible with the generous support of the Hudson’s Bay Company History Foundation. Visit CanadasHistory.ca/Archive to read ninety-plus years of stories.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2006 issue of Canada’s History.

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