An archeology student made a small discovery on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula earlier in July that has made a big splash for early Canadian history.

Anna Sparrow, an undergraduate student at Memorial University in St. John's, unearthed a 400-year-old copper crucifix at the site of the former colony of an early Newfoundland governor, Baron George Calvert of Baltimore, in Ferryland.

Anna Sparrow

Archeology student Anna Sparrow unearthed the copper crucifix during a dig in early July at the site of an English settlement. (CBC)

She spent hours painstakingly sifting through dirt at the site, and while there are plenty of broken pieces of pottery and glass there from the 1600s, Sparrow's discovery is unique.

"As I was sifting, I was cleaning off a clump of dirt and in that clump of dirt was this crucifix — this little tiny crucifix," Sparrow said.

"I wasn't expecting to find something quite so spectacular, especially not in my second week. It was very exciting."

The copper cross is just three centimetres wide, with the top portion missing. It depicts the crucifixion of Christ on one side and the Virgin Mary on the reverse.

'My heart sort of stopped'

But while the artifact is small, it garnered quite a response from her professor Barry Gaulton, who said the Catholic cross in an otherwise English settlement is a significant discovery.

Barry Gaulton

Barry Gaulton, an associate professor of archeology at Memorial University in St. John's, says the discovery of the crucifix is an important part of North American history. (CBC)

The colony was originally settled by Calvert in the early 1600s as a place where Christians could openly practise their religion without fear or persecution, making the colony the birthplace of religious tolerance in British North America.

"When Anna first found it, my heart sort of stopped for a minute and I knew it was a crucifix," he said.

"Back in England, you could be fined, imprisoned or put to death for practising Catholic faith, so Calvert had different plans for Newfoundland and one of his plans was religious toleration, religious freedom. This artifact is a direct manifestation of that toleration, so it's an important part of Canadian history."

Decades of work remain to uncover what is considered the best preserved early English colony in North America, but this new discovery has created more motivation in students like Sparrow to continue digging.

With files from Vik Adhopia