For 15 years, archeologists have been searching for what remains of a 17th century Acadian parish church in Grand Pré. 

And by using modern archeological techniques, including equipment that searches for the "magnetic footprint" of a building, researchers believe they are getting closer to the site of the long-ago destroyed church.

The research is lead by Jonathan Fowler, the president of the Nova Scotia Archeology Society and an associate professor in anthropology at Saint Mary's University. 

The Grand Pré National Historic Site memorial church, built in the 1920s, was thought by its builders to sit on the ruins of the original.

Fowler and his team are testing that theory by analysing the soil on the site. In addition to digging up physical artifacts, the team uses electromagnetic sensing equipment (the EM38B), which measures the ability of the soil to conduct a magnetic force.

Clay wall fill (daub), hardened by fire, detected by the EM38B. Likely the remains of an Acadian bui

Clay wall fill (daub), hardened by fire, was detected by electromagnetic sensing equipment. It is likely from the remains of an Acadian building from the pre-deportation period. (Jonathan Fowler)

The device was developed by retired geophysicist Duncan McNeill, who volunteers at the site. Soil, he says, "can, to an extent can be magnetized." Which means a building that burned many years ago can still leave traces.

"Burning soil increases this magnetic property of the soil, and soils which might not have been detectable before being burnt can often be seen after the event," he says.

"Our surveys in the Grand Pré area suggest that, yes, indeed there is evidence of burning and we're picking it up geophysically." 

Search for Acadian villages

As well as the church, the team is looking for evidence of Acadian villages that once stood in the area. Fowler says there were approximately 3,000 Acadians who lived in the area before 1755.

"Piece by piece we'll put it together," he says. "And in each new piece we add gives more context and more meaning to the next piece.

"Overall, the intention is to try to map this destroyed community. There were about 30 villages in that area in 1755. Not just in the national historic site, but in the broader landscape. We know where almost none of those are. Very little work has been done."

McNeill, who has been volunteering at the site for 15 years, says the work is "extremely exciting".

"It looks like we're actually finding the real locations of where these buildings are and thus are able to learn more about the occupants by virtue of doing the archeology," he says.

"It's a very, very exciting thing to help elucidate the past. There's much to be learn of that site. And bit by bit we hope to put together a useful picture of how the Acadians lived."

Fowler says there's a science dimension, but also a "heritage dimension and a value to knowing where these things were and being at a place where important historical events took place. It's a powerful thing."