The replacing of the Eel Weir bridge at Kejimkujik National Park led to a collaborative excavation and discovery of thousands of Mi'kmaq artifacts along the Mersey River.
It's just one of many sites in Kejimkujik and one of hundreds of indigenous sites along the Mersey River from Annapolis right down to Liverpool. After it was determined the Eel Weir bridge needed replacing, around 50 dig sites were studied and excavated earlier this summer in partnership with the Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn Mi'maq Rights Initiative (KMKNO) and Parks Canada.
"It's really spectacular when you have thousands of artifacts in such a concentrated area," said Kaitlin MacLean, assistant archaeologist with KMKNO.
Parks Canada archaeologist Charles Burke says the Eel Weir site became a bit of a manufacturing site for the Mi'kmaq. Most of the artifacts found were projectile points from spears, arrow heads, broken tools, knives, as well as scrapers for taking flesh off hide. "For over a millennium it was a place they would bring their stone, and chip and make their tools," said Burke regarding the amount of stone flakes found in the area.
Most of the artifacts are made of the stone - Chert, which was also historically used as flint. There were also some quartz artifacts found and much of the stone material came from the Scot's Bay area.
"It's pretty fascinating that they would quarry it there and then much of it would be brought here to make their tools," said Burke.
The artifacts date back as far as 6,000 years ago.
Surprisingly the site didn't render any pottery or organic matter, even though those living there were using the narrow part of the river to fish and hunt. The era that the majority of the artifacts are from is known as the "woodland" era, which would generally yield pottery.
"We haven't found any pottery at all in 50 test pits that were done here," said Burke. "That's unusual, but that could simply be where we placed our tests; we could be six inches away from an intact pottery vessel."
Burke says Parks Canada has known since 1972 that both sides of the river in the area are rich in artifacts so when it came time to replace the bridge, an opportunity arose to look into the site more.
The site is known as the Eel Weir because when water levels are low, old remnants of a 19th century eel weir are visible.
"A wide range of artifacts have been found here since 1972," said Burke, adding that some post European contact artifacts used by Mi'kmaq peoples used were found at the site back then, but none have been found since.
Construction has since begun on the bridge now that the digs have been wrapped up.
Collaboration with Parks Canada and Mi'kmaq communities
MacLean says that collaboration between KMKNO and Parks Canada was important for alleviating Mi'kmaq concerns around the excavations but also in improving practices.
"For us the whole process of this bridge (replacement) is very important because it was an opportunity for Parks Canada and for us to work together to make a better archaeological practice going forward," said MacLean.
The site has also meant a lot as far as a bigger picture of Mi'kmaq life and settlement in Nova Scotia.
"The broader context of this site is that it just shows the extent of occupation of the Mi'kmaq people," said MacLean, adding that the waterway was, and continues, to be an important corridor of travel.
Burke agrees, saying that there are an estimated 250 known indigenous archaeological sites along the Mersey from Annapolis to Liverpool.
"When you know that 25 per cent of all the known indigenous sites are within this corridor it makes what's here even more significant to us, it means we have to pay much more attention and do much more active management of those sites because this is a protected area, but there are great stretches of the Mersey that aren't protected," said Burke.
The artifacts have been sent off to the Woodside Parks Canada Archaeology Lab for cleaning, cataloguing and processing. The lab recently saw a reprieve after its closure was announced in 2012. Artifacts would have then been sent to Quebec for keeping and processing, a move led to wide spread criticism particularly from the Mi'kmaq and Acadian communities.
"The artifacts are really tied to the land. There's this link, you can't separate one from the other," said MacLean. "As an archaeologist, to be able to hold something in your hand that no one else has touched in thousands of years and that belonged to someone, to have that connection is really astounding."