Mysterious structure unearthed in Ferryland

By Craig Westcott | Irish Loop Post

After 27 years of digging at the Colony of Avalon in Ferryland, archaeologists are still discovering mysteries that have yet to be solved.

Chief archaeologist Dr. Barry Gaulton outlined a couple of them during the Colony of Avalon Foundation's annual general meeting held earlier this month at the site’s Visitor Centre.

Gaulton said one of the areas that got attention this past summer dates back to the earliest period of the Colony in the 1620s when George Calvert founded the settlement. The other site that got scrutiny dates back to around the time of the French raid on Ferryland, and other Newfoundland settlements, in 1696.

"The first area is a real anomaly, for several reasons," said Gaulton. "One of which it's located about 30 metres outside of the original fortified settlement."

The area, which appears to have some kind of building devoted to metallurgy, was even located outside the settlement's fortifications, a very unusual occurence given the establishment of a new community in the frontier that was the New World. "It's not protected for some reason," said Gaulton. "We didn't find it 20 years ago when we excavated that area, I don't know how, but we didn't, and it's a really, really interesting and important structure."

What Gaulton and his team found when they started work on the area in 2017 was a massive deposit of collapsed wall rocks, basically the remains of a collapsed stone building. "And when we worked our way down, we found an equally substantial layer of slate roof tiles," he added. "So clearly, this was a stone building with a nice slate roof."

At the end of the 2017 dig season, the scientists managed to find snags of the building's walls, one at the north end, the other at the west, along with the beginnings of a cobblestone pavement.

"We expected at the time it was the beginning of a hearth or a fireplace for that building," Gaulton said. "So, our plan this year was to return to that site, expand our excavations and try and find out when exactly and for how long that building was used, what it was used for and what the dimensions of the building were. All sorts of very basic questions, but certainly very important questions."

Among the notable objects found in the collapsed wall, Gaulton noted, was a well-preserved axe head and some 17th century clay tobacco pipes. That's along with the slate tiles, enough to fill more than 20 large beef buckets when the archaeological team members gathered them. But the team is not finding many artefacts outside the perimeter where the building stood.

"In terms of the architectural evidence, there's lots of interesting stuff going on here," said Gaulton. “The building had stone walls and a slate roof, but the floor is just earth, a simple, hard-packed earth floor. We found the door and it's actually really wide compared to most of the other openings at the Colony of Avalon from the 1620s. It's about four feet wide and most of the door openings are around three."

The floor of the fireplace is beautifully preserved, Gaulton said. "It's exactly five feet wide by three feet deep and nicely floored over in cobblestones."

Gaulton said it doesn't look like the structure was a domestic building. "There is very little domestic refuse," he explained. "We are finding quite a few clay tobacco pipes, all of which are quite, quite early, from around the 1620s period, some ceramics, a fair bit of glass, window glass and other types of glass, and things like glass beads and things."

There are a number of features which make the structure particularly interesting for Gaulton.

The first is that tucked away in the north end of the structure was an oval shaped furnace or oven. "I'm sure this was used to heat, or to melt or to manufacture something," Gaulton. "What that something was, we're not really sure, but in the furnace and on the floor outside, and in particular outside the structure, we're finding hundreds upon hundreds of tiny pieces of residue or by-product with regards to whatever was a going on in there, whatever was being manufactured or processed. We're also finding crucible fragments. Crucibles are basically a form of refractory ceramics, which are typically used to smash up and bust up minerals and to test it for mineral resources - gold and silver and things like that. So that is sort of giving us a clue as to potentially what might have been going on in this structure back in the 1620s."

In the last two hours of the last day of excavation this summer, the crew found a third wall, Gaulton said.

"We can now say how big the building was," he said. "It's 21 feet by 21 feet on the outside, or 16’ by 16’ on the inside. I think this is particularly interesting, because in the 27 years of working here, it's the only square building we've ever found. All the other structures are rectangular in shape, they're longer than they are wide. This is a square. So, it's unusual in terms of the size and the shape, it's unusual because of the furnace, it's unusual because of all the stuff - the byproducts and residues found outside, so what is it? Our tentative interpretation is that this is some sort of early industrial building at Ferryland located outside the village proper, so it's away from any kind of accidental fire, because there was a lot of heating and burning going on in there. It's possible that this is some kind of assay shop or alchemist's laboratory for people coming in and testing the resources in and around the Avalon back in the 1620s looking for gold and silver and precious metals and other things. It's common enough in terms of early European settlements. In happened in Jamestown (Virginia), it happened in Quebec City, it happened in other early colonies, English and French, in North America and now it appears it happened here. There's no historical reference to this ever happening in Ferryland, but here we have what looks to be this fairly convincing evidence for some sort of industrial structure. The difference between the Ferryland stuff and the stuff in Jamestown and Quebec City is that they have a few scattered traces and here we have the whole building, all of the refuse, all of the artefacts, everything well preserved, everything in-situ and all dating from the 1620s. I think it's a spectacular find and certainly for the next year, and possibly into 2020, we have a lot more work to do. We have to continue to uncover that structure, test more outside the door at the north end of the building to see what other kind of refuse we can find, and I think that's going to lead us up close to the 2021 (400th anniversary) celebrations. It's just another interesting find among 27 years of interesting finds here in Ferryland. There still continues to be all kinds of great surprises on this site despite being here almost three decades doing archaeology."

Posted on January 9, 2019 .