When Don Pelley discovered the raised sides of an ancient Beothuk dwelling in 2016, everyone involved in the expedition knew they had stumbled upon something special.
The circular pit where the Beothuk had built walls some 200 years before was perfectly intact. There was no sign of interference from the amateur archaeologists who years ago swept the Beothuk Lake region with metal detectors, unearthing all sorts of artifacts and leaving little in the ground.
It was the rarest find in that region in decades.
“At the time it was discovered, it was the only known shaft from a Beothuk house in that region… that had not been affected by erosion or unauthorized excavation,” said provincial archaeologist Jamie Brake.
Beothuk Lake was the last refuge of the Newfoundland Indian group. They battled against European diseases, violent encounters, and the loss of crucial migration routes to colonization. Shanawdithit, widely recognized as the last Beothuk, died in 1829.
Residents around Beothuk Lake have raised concerns that the last remaining archaeological sites could be lost due to water levels in the lake, which also functions as a hydroelectric reservoir.
After the site was discovered, Brake said, archaeologists were concerned about erosion and teams took steps to learn as much as they could from the house pit before it is swallowed by the lake.
What has been done to protect the site?
The area was mapped with drones and the ground in and around the well of the house was inspected. Crews removed trees that were considered to be at risk of falling and damaging the site.
Archaeologists have spent part of three summers excavating the most vulnerable parts, removing important artifacts before they are lost to erosion.
Among the items found were a pair of deer spears: metal rods taken from European settlements and sharpened at the point for killing caribou. Brake said they are perhaps the best-preserved spears discovered by archaeologists.
Another item found was a pointed piece of iron, which exactly matches a drawing by Shawnadithit depicting the final blade of a harpoon that would have been used for sealing.
Shawnadithit was one of the last inhabitants of Beothuk, captured by English furriers in 1823. He died of tuberculosis in 1829.
Brake said more excavations are planned in the area to learn as much as possible before the site is lost to erosion.
Artifacts tell a story.
The items found help archaeologists date the site to the late 1700s or early 1800s, Brake said, which falls towards the end of the Beothuk period.
Your location is also important. While water now splashes against the walls of the house’s well, it would have been located inland before Beothuk Lake was dammed and flooded in the early 20th century.
It dates from a period when the Beothuk were trying to hide from Europeans who were taking over important hunting and fishing grounds, Brake said.
In that context, the presence of a sealing tool is a curious find, since there are no seals in the middle of Newfoundland. Brake said this shows that the Beothuk must still have traveled as far as the coast at some point, despite moving further inland to avoid detection.
“It’s probably a good indication of how important the coast will continue to be for these people until the end,” Brake said.
More discoveries are possible, but leave it to the professionals.
The discovery of an inland site raises some hope that more may be discovered in places that have not been searched before, not just in Lake Beothuk, but in other areas of the province.
Brake said it’s important that the work be done by archaeologists. An artifact taken without proper study is a lost artifact, he claimed.
“If you take it out of context, you lose its meaning,” Brake said. “[It’s] something like taking a word from a page of a book. Once it’s taken out of its context, you can no longer understand what it is, what its meaning is.”
The stakes are high, Brake said. Each item can go a long way toward discovering more about a people who are no longer here to share their own story.
“A very small amount of surviving Beothuk material exists today,” Brake said. “We lose a tremendous opportunity to learn more about these people. We lose a piece of the very limited physical legacy of the Beothuk. So every feature matters enormously. Every artifact and every site.”
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