Gearing Up For Public Archaeology at the Fortress of Louisbourg, Among Other Things

I believe the normal archaeologist work day is to enter the office (or the field) in the am with a work plan then watch it change almost immediately.This is why I like this job, it’s ever-changing.  I became smitten with the idea of archaeology and palaeontology at an early age (grade 2 I believe) yet I never would have considered what the ‘job’ would be. Back then, it was dreams of digging and discovery. Now it’s about protection, understanding and education much of the time.

Talking to local students and their teachers about archaeology at Louisbourg, at the rescue excavation site of an 18th century fishing property on the North Shore of Louisbourg harbour at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada in 2010

I work in CRM (cultural resource management) at the Fortress of Louisbourg, a national historic site in Canada. Louisbourg is a large 18th century French fortress & fishing community site located on the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island in the province of Nova Scotia. This rough & foggy place was the French stronghold in the region and a busy transhipment centre and port for the cod fishery. Two rather dramatic sieges eventually led to the destruction of the fortress and abandonment of the community in the late 18th century. Given it’s rather isolated location, not much happened to the fortress & surrounds after its fall, so we now have a massive archaeological site with resources scattered over 22 square kilometers of terrain, as well as sunken warships in the harbour.

25% or 14 acres of the 60-acre Fortress of Louisbourg has been reconstructed and is open to visitors in the summer months with full animation, cannons firing, livestock and a variety of activities.  The reconstruction was carried out over a 20 year period (1960s-80s) and required a huge archaeological effort to guide the process (along with all the historians, restoration architects, artisans, etc). The concept of historical archaeology was pretty new in the 1960s, and much was learned about the discipline on the grounds of Louisbourg. This had a good/bad impact on the site but to be fair, the greatest learning often stems from mistakes. I suppose this is one of Louisbourg’s contributions to the development of the discipline in this country.

Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada. Showing the 14-acre reconstructed part of the 60-acre fortress. The site is open to visitors in the summer

Today, archaeology has a different role at Louisbourg.  On one hand, there is still much to learn about the site since only a fraction of it has been studied. We plug away at improving our understanding of the 18th century community through focused archaeological and historical research and this information is carried forward via public presentations, animation, publications and the like. On the other hand, much of my time, as the site archaeologist, is spent addressing site protection. Louisbourg was first recognized as a valued historic site by the Colonial Wars Society in 1898 and became designated as a site of national historic significance in 1928. Since then, the coastally-positioned fortress & community has seen the effects of weathering, time and climate change. Spruce forests regenerate over the abandoned battlefields, kelp shrouds the shipwrecks, waves pound down on the fortress walls and the seas rise and rise and rise. It’s a big job keeping track of these impacts and mitigating their effects through routine monitoring and various actions such as vegetation management programs, rescue archaeology, etc.

Eroding glacis (fortress outerwork) at the Fortress of Louisbourg, following a series of powerful storms in December 2010

However, while doing our best to work with Mother Nature to protect Louisbourg for future generations, as others have done before us, we enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the site through a public archaeology program. This program, co-run by Parks Canada and the Fortress Louisbourg Association, allows us to continue excavation within the footprint of the reconstructed site while giving archaeology enthusiasts an opportunity to work on a dig at a great site and learn about historical archaeology.

Public archaeology excavation in the De la Vallilère yard at the Fortress of Louisbourg

Screening artifacts from the soil and talking to visitors during the public archaeology program

The public archaeology program is offered in August every year (started in 2005) for two 5-day sessions. We’ve been working in the yard of the De la Vallière property for several years now to get a closer look at this property and better handle on how it was used. During the reconstruction project, research focused on the buildings since they need to be designed and rebuilt and little attention was paid to the outdoor areas – the yards, roadways, drainage systems, gardens, etc. We are taking a closer look at these areas now because they were an important part of the community – can you imagine interpretation of your own home town without looking at your streets, yards and below-ground infrastructure?

So, today, I’m preparing for the 2012 public archaeology program and have just posted the 2009 field season review on the program website. This way, past participants can see how things are progressing, as well as the results of their time in the field. At the same time, I’m creating another series of web postings for the Parks Canada Fortress of Louisbourg website. These will provide an overview of current archaeological research at the fortress and in the collection, including some recent research conducted by university students for their thesis work. I think it’s important to inform the public about our research, new findings, opportunities, challenges and efforts to protect the valued resources of the site.

Later, since it’s such a fine, sunny Friday, I think I’ll hop in the truck and go check on the coastline around the North Shore of the harbour to see how things are looking today. It’s been a mild winter with few hurricane hits so things look pretty stable along the shores these days – this will not be the case for long. I’ve been surveying the 13 km long shoreline at Louisbourg for over a decade and have seen the remarkable power of hurricanes and nor’easters. So, I’ve developed a healthy respect for the sea; it always wins. Knowing this helps us make the right protection decisions for the site. Protection doesn’t mean fighting the forces of nature, it means working with them.

Yikes. It’s lunchtime now and there’s still much to do. I hope everyone is having an equally good indoor-outdoor, fun & productive Day of Archaeology.