Digging into history: UNB students uncover stories from Louisbourg burial ground

Last summer, students went to the Fortress of Louisbourg to dig up bones, a burial ground for more than 1,000 people who lived at the Cape Breton fortress in the 18th century. Now they're studying what they've excavated.

Fortress in Cape Breton is a burial ground for more than 1,000 people from the 18th century

Students from the University of New Brunswick sort through materials gathered from a burial ground at the Fortress of Louisbourg last summer. (George Mortimer/CBC)

Anthropology students at the University of New Brunswick are poring over bones they dug up from a graveyard at the Fortress of Louisbourg, where more than 1,000 people from the 18th century were buried.

The dig was necessary because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have placed the historic site on the southeastern coast of Cape Breton at risk.

The students brought back the bones of 25 individuals from the burial ground last summer and have been examining this winter in a UNB lab.

"We're really starting to get into the initial nitty-gritties of the research that we're doing," said Amy Scott, a professor of anthropology at UNB.

They group is gathering bio-profile information on two individuals, looking at their sex and age, any evidence of disease or trauma, skeletal and historic data and artifacts found with them.

"From there, we'll take that information and try to piece it back together to really tell a story of who these people were," Scott said.

Louisbourg is a massive reconstruction of a fort built by the French in 1703 and destroyed in the 1760s.

The UNB project has been yielding some interesting results of what life was like during the decades it was a busy centre for fishing and trade.

"It's a really fascinating opportunity to really look at what life would've been like for those living at the Fortress of Louisbourg," Scott said.

"We know it was a really important french colonial site in Atlantic Canada."

UNB anthropology students say picked up valuable excavation and field techniques on the dig. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

After the bones are amassed and examined, they'll be returned to Parks Canada and another burial site.

Scott said the researchers respect a protocol at the site to make sure the bones are treated ethically and properly.

"They are human remains and we do need to look after them and take care," she said. "Any associated artifacts … that were buried with the individual we'll work back into the ground with the individual."

Stories to tell

Although the group won't likely be able to identify specific individuals, with each body, stories do emerge.  

One individual from the burial ground was a man between 30 and 35, who was found with unique buttons.

The French once used flat copper buttons on all their uniforms, Scott said, but these buttons were moulded pewter buttons. It turned out they belonged to someone from the Swiss mercenary regiment recruiting in parts of Europe.

UNB's Amy Scott is one of the researchers learning from the bones at a burial site at the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton. They study artifacts, and dig into the history of the fort to piece the "giant jigsaw puzzle" back together. 9:59

"It looks like, through isotopic analysis, this individual actually originated from part of southwestern Germany," she said.

"Quite a remarkable story. We can go from burial artifacts in the form of buttons and do biochemical analysis on the remains to really tell this story." 

Scott said students will look further into population trends once more individuals are examined.

"For right now, we get to focus on just the individuals and their stories," she said.

"We have a unique opportunity to look at the individual experience."