Published on October 24, 2013
Catherine Hawkins, an archeology graduate student at Memorial University, beside the site of the fireplace researchers believe was once part of a 17th-century winter house.
Published on October 24, 2013
Pipe bowls found at the Sunnyside site dating from the late 17th century.
Published on October 24, 2013
An iron hinge fragment (left), pitsaw blade (top right) and bone knife handle (bottom right), also found at the site.
Sunnyside winter house provides insight into Newfoundland history
A murky aspect of Newfoundland's history is becoming a little clearer thanks to an archeological find near Sunnyside that is providing insight into how people survived our harsh climate in the 17th century.
The winter has always been a challenging time in Newfoundland. Before the invention of double-glazed windows and electric heat, people escaped the harsh weather by relocating from the exposed coastline that provided the best location from which to fish. They moved to protected coves that sheltered them from the biting wind, where they could spend the winter trapping, hunting and cutting wood for the coming year.
These shelters, called winter houses, were wood structures that rotted away over time. There were no examples of winter houses from further back than the 19th century, until recently.
"If you're tucked in the woods and all you have is a hut, 300 years later there's going to be almost no trace of it on the ground, so you can almost never find them," says Barry Gaulton, an associate professor of archeology at Memorial University.
That changed in 2010 when, during a week-long excavation, Gaulton and a team of researchers dug up a mound originally discovered in the 1980s. The mound turned out to be a collapsed stone fireplace. They also discovered items of daily life in the 17th century, including a knife handle made of bone, pipe stems, part of a door hinge, and even ceramic game pieces.
Researchers returned this summer and uncovered more of the structure, outlining its perimeter and orientation. Gaulton says they are now more confident than ever it's the location of a 17th-century winter house.
"Things are looking very interesting," he says. "It's in a nice sheltered location. It's a great location for a winter house. It's far from fishing grounds, in a sheltered cove. Lots of resources right at the isthmus of Avalon between Placentia and Trinity Bay, and Newfoundland's native peoples have been in that area for thousands of years."
The discovery fills a gap in knowledge about the history of the region. There are no written historical records of European settlement at the bottom of Trinity Bay until the 19th century.
In 1612, John Guy visited the area in an effort to trade with the Beothuk, and his expedition started to build a small house, according to the record, but didn't finish it. There were no records of settlement until 1835, when a clergyman by the name of Edward Wix reported four English families were wintering in the area.
Gaulton believes the winter house was built sometime between 1660 and 1680, establishing that European settlement took place two centuries before the first written records of it.
More importantly, the site is the oldest example of a winter house yet uncovered, providing a look at how Europeans survived the winter in the early days of settlement on the island.
"We know Europeans started to do this practice in the 17th century," says Gaulton. "They went inland in the winter, but we don't know what kind of buildings they lived in, what they built, and what they brought with them. This is all new territory in terms of the history and archeology of our province, so it's very important stuff."
Before the discovery, historians could only deduce what 17th century winter houses were like based on examples from the 19th century, but the Sunnyside dwelling was a lot different from anything 200 years younger. While 19th century winter houses were small, temporary structures, the Sunnyside winter house was large, measuring 10-by-18 feet, and the presence of a large stone fireplace suggests it was permanent.
The isthmus of the Avalon Peninsula was a meeting point of cultures in the 17th century. The English controlled the shores of Trinity Bay while the French dominated Placentia Bay from their base in Plaisance, present-day Placentia, and Beothuk had occupied the area centuries before either group arrived.
Gaulton says it's too early to say whether the settlers who occupied the winter house were French or English, though the pipes found match the style used by the English in the 17th century.
The head of a large aboriginal biface, or hand axe, discovered at the site suggests native peoples used the site before Europeans were there.
The excavation was a chance for grad students to get experience at an archeological site. Catherine Hawkins, a Memorial graduate student, was one of about half a dozen who worked at the Sunnyside dig. She says real-life experience gives her better chance for a career in archeology after school.
"It definitely will," she says. "The more experience I get, the better, especially on something so small scale. There were only five or six of us on site."
Hawkins and the Memorial team are still cleaning and cataloging the artifacts uncovered during their latest field trip, but so far they've identified bones and seeds that can describe the diet of the early settlers.
A lot more excavation has to be done, according to Gaulton. They've only spent a total of two weeks digging there in the past three years, but already their work has added important details to the historical record of 17th-century Newfoundland, an era that left few written documents or physical artifacts.
"We know next to nothing about where or how these 17th-century settlers lived during the fall and winter months," he says. "This is why the ongoing excavation near Sunnyside is so important, it is basically helping to fill a six-month gap in our understanding of daily life in the 17th century."
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