Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | July 13, 2009

And Now a Word From (one of) Our Sponsors…

As Parks Canada’s archaeologist responsible for cultural resources at Signal Hill National Historic Site, I had the opportunity to spend the past week with the Memorial University Archaeology Field School. For the moment their work concentrates on two areas: the North Range Soldiers’ Barracks and an unidentified walled feature on the western scree slope of Ladies Lookout. Fortunately for me, field school director Amanda, and her assistants, Stéphane and Danielle, had sites and field lab well in hand. It gave me a chance to do what I enjoy most – stand around and watch. Even better, I could get in the dirt and dig.

Rob Ferguson, Senior Archaeologist, Parks Canada (standing around, taking photos, and watching us work hard).

Rob Ferguson, Senior Archaeologist, Parks Canada (standing around, taking photos, and watching us work hard).

I had led a team of archaeologists on the hill in 1984 when we first tested the North Range Soldiers’ Barracks, a project I assigned to Martha Drake (who is now Newfoundland and Labrador’s  Provincial Archaeologist). In a small 1x2m trench she found the southeast corner of the building.

Floorplan of the 1799/1800 North Range Soldiers' Barracks.  The red area is the 1984 test trench.  The green and blue are the first pits opened in 2009.  But now we don't know where we are in the building, if in fact we are in it at all.

Floorplan of the 1799/1800 North Range Soldiers' Barracks. The red area is the 1984 test trench. The green and blue are the first pits opened in 2009. But now we don't know where we are in the building, if in fact we are in it at all.

Behind it was a rich midden deposit of mammal, bird and fish bones, broken ceramics and glass and other artifacts from the soldiers’ domestic lives between 1800 and about 1830. A low retaining wall held the garbage from falling into the terrace below. Simple features, simple explanation – until we expanded the excavations this year.  Stéphane’s crew has completely muddled our interpretation. Our foundation wall has turned into a stone platform with no trace of a continuing foundation.

Stephane gaining some height to take an overhead photo of our confusing rock wall/platform

Stephane gaining some height to take an overhead photo of our confusing rock wall/platform

Now we have to ask ourselves, are we inside the building? Are we completely outside the building? Could the retaining wall actually be the foundation, and if so why is there garbage piled up on the inside? The latter seemed improbable until I remembered excavating under the floorboards in the blockhouse at Fort Edward National Historic Site in Nova Scotia. There we discovered that some time in that same time period, 1800-1830, the floor had been removed and garbage brought in to fill the space below (cannonballs don’t fall through the cracks). Lots of possibilities, and fortunately Stéphane should have time to expand his trenches and get some answers.

So, Stéphane took a perfectly simple, straightforward project and thoroughly messed it up. How about Amanda and her mystery pit? Several years back, a local man who frequently walks the trails discovered four unusual stone features on the western slope between Ladies Lookout and the Burma Road. These include rectangular stone walls, some of which contain cellar-like depressions, and a long drainage trench, all of which are known as the Emberly sites, in honour of the discoverer. Amanda selected one area to test with a long trench through the centre.

Test trench through one of the Emberley sites

Test trench through one of the Emberley sites

No maps or documents of the British military indicate any activity in these areas. However, some of the married soldiers were given permission to build homes for their families in Ross’s Valley – beats bunking your wife and kids in with the boys in the barracks. Could this be something similar? The only other known people in the area were the American troops in WWII, but would they have built such carefully-laid stone walls? Unlikely. Why lift stones when you can pour concrete? So what does Amanda’s team find, from top to the bottom? Wire nails, plywood, asphalt shingles and electrical insulators. Looks like the Americans are it. Thanks Amanda – you just messed up the other theory. I’m down two out of two. [Amanda notes: Glad to be of service in wrecking your ideas, Rob!]

But that’s the thrill of archaeology. Keep an open mind. Expect to be challenged. Have a lot of humility. And when students ask you questions you can’t answer, be prepared to bs them – they don’t know diddly-squat anyway.

Danielle is sequestered in a salt shed in the maintenance compound, instructing the students on processing artifacts and preparing for conservation. The first time they were squatting on the floor with wash basins and brushes. Fortunately tables and chairs were not long in coming. Interesting pieces are coming out of the barracks dig, including a nice copper-alloy lion’s head from a shako. From the Emberly site? Well those wire nails sure are a treat to treat. I await a blog from the lab to tell us how they’re enjoying their luxurious accommodations.

Thanks to the MUN crowd, students and instructors, for indulging me and putting up with me. When you’re down at the Duke, think kindly of me and have a drink.

–Rob Ferguson, Senior Archaeologist, Parks Canada



  1. I’m glad I was able to mess up everything that was done before 😀

    Today was so productive…we’ll soon post some artefacts pictures…but today’s finds include a piece of domino, many buttons and many other goodies. Plus, we don’t have 1, but 2 middens. This site is very productive!

    More on the interpretations of the building later…

    • Salut Stéphane,

      Je ne sais pas si c’est toi qui était aux Forts-et-Châteaux-Saint-Louis, si c’est le cas je te salut.
      Il semble que tu as un site très intéressant.

      Good luck

      Jean Croteau
      archéologue/ géomaticien

      Parcs Canada
      Québec city

      • Hey Jean!

        C’est bien moi qui était à la terasse. En effet, on fouille un site très intéressant, et on a maintenant deux fosses à déchets. Donc, très productif en artéfacts. On va étendre la fouille la semaine prochaine pour essayer de mieux comprendre la structure qu’on a…parce que pour l’instant elle est difficile à interpréter.

        J’espère que tout va bien à Québec et que tous le monde passe un bel été!

        On se croisera peut-être à Québec l’automne prochain!

        À la prochaine!


  2. It was awesome to work with you, Rob. Your sense of humour and knowledge make for interesting conversation. As soon as I am able to, I will send you a copy of my project that I am working on. My goal is to Float the Sample that Stephane gives me and have an analysis of the sample by the end of July. Exciting Stuff!


  3. […] group of students and I finished work on a remote site in the brush on Signal Hill, called the Emberley site in honour of its discoverer.  This was a recently-reported site, and we weren’t sure of its […]

  4. […] we’re pretty sure that this is a single chimney stack foundation– and by consulting the historic map of the site, and looking for the rooms with single stack chimneys, we can guess that we’re digging in the […]

  5. Hi Rob, nice work on my sight #4. did you check out the partial stone braced 3×50 foot trench on on sight #1. or sight #2 the hole where the 8″boulders were dug out. or #3 my favorite ,the possible covered well with the fantastic rough stone which is perfectly placed? I sent alot of photos of the stone work, just below this sight I filled my boot with water, you wouldnt think the water table would be so high. please respond

    • Hello Robert. Nice to hear from you. I haven’t looked at this site for a while so I missed your note. I crawled all over the various features with Don Parsons when you first reported on them. We have the locations plotted but we haven’t done an intense inventory of all the details. Yours is the best so far. We were hoping the MUN field school would be a start to that. However, this coming summer we will focus on the North Range Barracks again. It is difficult to get students into those back areas so the logistics for field school work are tricky. At the moment, none of the sites are under threat so we’ll work at them as best we can with available resources (that’s a euphamism for “God-knows-when”). Perhaps if I’m over in July we can look at them together.

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