Anatolijs Venovcevs is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland. For his thesis work he is looking at the semi-migrator winter housing tradition of European fishers in Newfoundland by combining historical geography, archaeology, and GIS. Before coming to MUN, Anatolijs did a post-graduate certificate program in Geographical Information Systems at Sir Sandford Fleming College and worked for several years at Archaeological Services Inc. in Toronto, Ontario.

Cabin Fever: European Transhumance in North America

From the mid-17th century to the 1950s, many European settlers of the island of Newfoundland abandoned the sedentism of their home countries in favour of a flexible, seasonal transhumant tradition. While transhumance is a term often given by anthropologists to describe with seasonal movement of pastoral people with their lifestock between summer and winter pastures, Euro-Newfoundlands did not usually have herd animals. Instead, they migrated between exposed islands and coastal communities where they fished for cod during the summer months and for the winter traveled upwards of a 100 kilometres to their second homes in inner-bay areas and around near-shore lakes and streams. Thus. for anywhere between four to seven months, the European “permanent” seaside communities were abandoned by all except the wealthiest members of the community. Despite being practiced for 300 years by most of the island’s population and generating of what might be thousands of winter house sites, these ephemeral and seasonal cabins have only left a faint trace on the landscape usually defined by a small pile of stones surrounded by a faint scatter of artifacts sometimes located kilometers away from any modern road or community. Because of this, only seven European winter house sites are known archaeologically in Newfoundland.

One of the few known depictions of a winter house from the 1850s.

One of the few known depictions of a winter house from the 1860s (Moreton 1863).

A photograph by Eliot Curwen in 1893 of a tilt in Labrador that followed a similar winter housing tradition.

A photograph by Eliot Curwen in 1893 of a tilt in Labrador that followed a similar winter housing tradition.

Over the last two weeks, I and a few committed volunteers have trudged through to one such isolated corner of the island to document two sites that have been found by accident by a local history enthusiast. The sites date to the first half of the nineteenth century, around the same time when the first people were enumerated in the census records for the area and when this semi-migratory tradition was at its peak. Among the hundreds of artifacts recovered from the two sites there are gunflints, musketballs, and pieces of lead shot indicating the importance of hunting during the winter months while the large amount of smoking pipe fragments reveals a common winter time activity. The lack of storage vessels in particular and the small number of ceramics in general points to the reliance on hunted, rather than stored, foods during this time period. A few bones that survived Newfoundland’s acidic soils might help shed light on the winter diet of the people with future analysis.

Melissa holding forth a complete nineteenth century pipe bowl she found.

Melissa holding forth a complete nineteenth century pipe bowl she found (photograph by the author).

All of the rocks pulled out during a four-day excavation of one of the sites.

All of the rocks pulled out during a four-day excavation of one of the sites (photograph by the author).

Additionally, the positions of most artifacts was recorded with a total station and by mapping this data the distribution of nails and other artifacts might shed light to the structure and spatial arrangement of these buildings. In the meantime, the partial excavation of the stone collapses identified them as stone backing behind open-pit hearths of the cabins. The presence of a thin black, organic layer with lots of charcoal suggests extensive fuel consumption at these sites. From the few oral and documentary accounts on the tradition, it is known that the surrounding trees were extensively harvested during these months as a constant supply of lumber was needed for fuel and the construction of boats, barrels, staves, furniture, and other items. Finally, the excavations revealed the significant amount of time invested into their construction. At one site, a stone base for a wall was identified for what might be an auxiliary storage room, while at the other site, we found evidence for the ground being artificially leveled with 10 to 20 cm cobbles to create a suitable surface for the house.

The rain flooded the streams, making some a bit perilous to cross.

The rain flooded the streams, making some a bit perilous to cross (photograph by the author).

Rocky fill used to level the area for the house with a remains of the stone hearth back behind it.

Rocky fill used to level the area for the house with a remains of the stone hearth back behind it (photograph by the author).

Through the excavations, the crew endured through a long drive, a several kilometer walk, dense roots, heavy rocks, and the glories of Newfoundland summer weather that consisted of rain, fog, wind, bugs, and a sun that gave everyone sunburn in the brief hours that it was out. Despite this, morale was high and the team uncovered some rare, precious data about a widely practiced tradition that challenges our underlying assumptions about European adaptation to the North American environment but is not often acknowledged as a part of the modern Newfoundland identity.

Check out a video of this week’s excavation compiled by one of my volunteers, Melissa Wilkie:


Moreton, J. 1863 Life and work in Newfoundland Reminiscences of thirteen years spent there. London: Rivingtons.

In Small Things Remembered

Among other things, I chose archaeology for one primary reason – I did not want to be stuck in an office working nine to five.  Inundated with commercial television, I assumed, as many, that archaeology was all about traveling to exotic places to solve ancient mysteries of long-lost civilizations.  Archaeology, not dissimilar to the adventures of a certain Dr. Jones, was about adventure and big, spectacular discoveries.  My 18-year-old self would probably be horrified to learn that I do, in fact, work nine to five and much of the discoveries I deal with are neither ancient nor big.  In fact, now, I commute on a bicycle, work in an air conditioned Toronto office, and get to sleep in my own bed every night.  I work in commercial (aka CRM) archaeology as a report writer and a material culture analyst and I get REALLY excited if my Euro-Canadian site pre-dates 1800 AD.  Despite all this, I am happier and much more self-fulfilled than my 18-year-old self ever imagined myself being.

Today, I spent my day analyzing artifacts from a survey of an 1830s to 1850s Euro-Canadian farmhouse located about an hour’s drive north of Toronto and as far as big ancient mysteries were concerned, it was neither big nor ancient nor particularly mysterious.  In fact, it was a scatter of early-to-mid nineteenth century artifacts that was sparce by any standards.  The occupants of the site, tenants who were among the earliest settlers in the area, lived a frugal existance in a sparcely occupied landscape that did not warrant a large accumulation of material goods.  The number of tenants that occupied the site is unknown and the site’s name comes from an individual who is listed on the property only once in an 1837 directory for the area.  This is no grand Egyptian temple.

Ceramics, a bottle base, buttons, a pipe, and some nails:  A small sample of the artifacts from an early nineteenth-century Ontario farmstead.

Yet, this small site is an excellent example why archaeology, especially historical archaeology, is important.  Much of all written history was written by the privileged elites who, through their perceptions of what is significant and fundamental left to us a written record that has narrowed our vision of the past by reproducing in us what they considered important.  Archaeology challenges the bias of written history since the disposal of refuse is a universal activity done by everyone within any given society.  While the archaeological record can be obscured, manipulated, and altered, the traces of past human activities remain to be discovered and interpreted.  By that fact, the study of that refuse, archaeology, is an increadibly democratic process.

Nowhere is this more true in historical archaeology than the excavation of lowly log cabins of early European settlers.  From politics, economics, cultural norms, and the geography of the land itself, the work and social interactions of countless of individuals in the recent centuries has transformed the economic and social landscape into what is recognizeable today.  Over the years, historical archaeology has contributed to the understanding of a variety of topics including the development of modern foodways, the growth of industrial capitalism, and the institutionalization of present day socio-economic hierarchies.  Yet, these studies have started through the analysis of simple sparce farmsteads occupied by more-or-less nameless individuals such as the one I’m working on.  The lives of the people that discarded these ceramic sherds and pieces of bottle glass had a lasting effect on the sorts of lives we experience today.  These people have lived as long and as complex lives as we have and yet we do not know who these people are and have only vague ideas about their daily lives.  Their non-degradable material on farmstead and concrete-covered urban lots is the only record they left behind for archaeologists to study.  It is through this record we can know something about them and thus know something about ourselves.  Every day, the work of contract archaeologists continues to discover and document humble homes of lowly individuals and it is up to us to tell their stories and interpret our findings, we owe them that much for all the world they have created.

Pen, paper, and plastic bags in front of a computer: The necessities for analyzing artifacts.

Anatolijs Venovcevs
Historical Archaeologist
Toronto, Ontario