Captain

Searching for Archaeological Sites on Oderin Island, Newfoundland, Canada

This was how I started my day as an archaeologist on July 20, 2011: Sitting in a kayak, paddling towards an island, where we would look for archaeological sites.

This was how I started my day as an archaeologist on July 20, 2011: Sitting in a kayak, paddling towards an island, where we would look for previously unknown archaeological sites.

On July 29, 2011, I found myself sitting in a kayak, paddling quietly off of Oderin Island,  in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. I couldn’t help but marvel at the good fortune that brought me to this beautiful place in the name of doing archaeology.

As a way of explaining how I came to be sitting in a kayak with archaeology gear stowed in the hatches and strapped to every available space on the boat’s deck, I suppose I ought to backtrack a little.

My name is Amanda Crompton, and I work and study in the Department of Archaeology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I’m an almost (almost!) completed archaeology PhD candidate, a sometime undergraduate course instructor, and part-time co-ordinator for a large research project. My own research interests revolve around the European presence in Newfoundland—and Europeans have been coming to Newfoundland for a very  long   time—which means there’s lots of different kinds of archaeology to do in Newfoundland.

I’m particularly interested in the French presence in Newfoundland. The French have a long history in Newfoundland; since the early sixteenth century, French fishing ships sailed across the Atlantic to catch, process and dry codfish on Newfoundland’s shores. This was  a seasonal venture for a long time, so the French didn’t live here year round. That all changed in the mid-seventeenth century, the French founded an official colony at Plaisance (now the community of Placentia).

Map showing the location of Oderin Island, and other places mentioned in the text.

Map showing the location of Oderin Island, and other places mentioned in the text.

I  was fortunate enough to direct an archaeological project at Placentia that explored the remnants of the colony for four years, and the project continues on today. I’m now interested in the French settlement that occurred outside of the colony—the unofficial settlements that were established in Placentia Bay, on the Burin Peninsula, and off the south coast of the island of Newfoundland.

One of these settlements was established on Oderin Island. We know it as Oderin today, which is an English adaptation of its original French name, Audierne.  Oderin is located in western Placentia Bay, about 9 kilometers offshore from the Burin peninsula.   The first reference to permanent settlement on the island is by two families, one of whom was the Lafosse family. Only a handful of historic documents mention the Lafosse settlement, and most of those don’t contain much detail.  This means that most of what we’re going to learn about the settlement is going to come from archaeology. Still, what we know of the Lafosse family from these documents is fascinating, and their story was one of the main reasons behind my decision to do archaeology on Oderin Island.  I think their story would make a fantastic movie, actually. It’s a complicated story, which means it’s a long one, so bear with me.

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A Snapshot of Discovery

Life as an archaeologist often starts like anyone else’s day, an early morning, a hearty breakfast, reading the news online, and getting dressed. Where it differs is, I am going to uncover objects that are lost and buried sometimes right beneath your feet, or right under your garden. I look at neighborhoods not as they are today, but as they were, perhaps a hundred years ago, or perhaps a thousand years ago. My thoughts are locked in a mode where every fragment of brick raises questions, and every piece of stone a new discovery. Perhaps you’ve walked right past an archaeologist in the street, his or her eyes gazing toward the ground, examining every detail, looking for something out of place. This is just the start of the day.

I’m a different kind of archaeologist, while I have studied Native American sites in the Northeast, and I have dug sites in the west, my primary focus is on industry and workers. I am an Industrial Archaeologist, I study class development with my focus on riverworkers in the Monongahela Valley in Pennsylvania. Namely, I study 19th and 20th century steamboat workers.

My day for the past few months has been to meet with my archaeology volunteers from the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology Mon/Yough Chapter #3 (www.mon-yougharchaeology.com) and head out to a site that is offering a great window into the 19th century steamboat industry, a captain’s house! Actually we’ve excavated two steamboat captain’s houses from different time periods in the 1800’s.

Community involvement is important to the future of archaeology in the United States as federal and state monies slowly dry up. The community must value their past and take ownership of it, and archaeology is a great way to get the community involved and get them to value their past! You will see in these photos 3 age groups from Zander who is 6 years old, to Carl who is a venerated senior, archaeology has brought these different people together.

Here are some pictures from those excavations, we are in Brownsville, Pennsylvania.