Salvaging coastal history

by Emma Smith

  • <p>EMMA SMITH PHOTO</p><p>Dr. Matthew Betts gave an update to his eight-year E&#8217;se&#8217;get Archaeology Project in Liverpool on August 21. E&#8217;se&#8217;get is a Mi&#8217;kmaw word that means to dig for clams.</p>
  • <p>EMMA SMITH PHOTO</p><p>Dr. Matthew Betts is part of a new working group that&#8217;s trying to find and document archaeologically significant coastal sites before they&#8217;re eroded due to climate change.</p>

The history of southwestern Nova Scotia that's buried precariously on the coast is at risk of being lost to erosion, says archaeologist Dr. Matthew Betts.

The curator at the Canadian Museum of History is trying to salvage what he can before it's too late. He's part of a new working group of archaeologists, indigenous groups and governmental organizations in Atlantic Canada that calls itself Community Observation Assessment and Salvage of Threatened Archaeological Legacy or COASTAL.

He was in Liverpool on August 31 to give a talk to a room in the Astor Theatre made warm by the 70 plus bodies packed tight.

"Really with climate change and with development it's a modern problem that we have to address soon," said Betts. "The erosion of these archaeological sites is the erosion of Mi'kmaw rights and the erosion of Nova Scotia history. And we can't recover it once it's gone."

Betts says archaeologists don't know where significant deposits of artifacts are along the coasts, and that's why "any project like that has to rely on local people to help locate sites."

Relying on help from the community comes naturally to Betts - he's been doing this kind of collaborative work ever since he partnered with Acadia First Nation in 2008 for the E'se'get Archaeology Project.

The project had him and his team digging through millions of clam shells collected centuries ago in shell middens, or giant garbage heaps, in Port Joli Harbour. The calcium carbonate in the shells helped preserve everything around them, such as animal bones, tools and clay pots.

Port Joli includes Thomas H. Raddall Provincial Park and an area protected by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, making it a perfect place to piece together a past that's been relatively untouched.

After analyzing some 22,000 artifacts, Betts discovered that the Mi'kmaq who called Port Joli home didn't always travel from ocean to interior with the seasons, but rather stayed closer to the coast year round.

"And that sort of sent a seismic tremor through archaeology of Nova Scotia because the traditional model is that the Mi'kmaq were living in the interior in the winter time, travelling to the coast in the summer, and they did that all their lives all the time. But that's not true in Port Joli," he said.

One of the most significant finds are five clay-lined clam shells that were used by women to gently carry the flame from one camp to another.

Now, as Betts' work in Port Joli is wrapping up and he prepares to put it all into a book next year, he's casting his gaze closer to the coast. While Port Joli's archaeological history dates back 1,600 years, he says if you want to find earlier remnants you must venture to the outer coast.

But these coastal areas are also threatened by climate change, which brings heavy storm surges and erosion.

Betts showed a photograph of Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton where one storm washed away about two metres of land. There's a similar problem happening in Newfoundland and the Arctic, he said, and it has real implications for First Nations.

"Recent Supreme Court decisions put the imperative on the Mi'kmaq to demonstrate long-term and recurring use of land and resources to establish their rights. How do you do that when your sites are being washed away? So coastal erosion isn't just the loss of archaeological sites. In Nova Scotia it's the loss of Mi'kmaw rights at the same time."

Betts' visit to Liverpool last week was one of several he's made over the eight years he's worked on the E'se'get Archaeology Project. Community engagement is a big part of what he does and he's going to need the community if he hopes to find and protect significant sites on the coast.

"If they're not salvaged soon and if they're not salvaged in a scientific way, all that knowledge is going to be lost forever," he said.

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