Centuries-old graves being dug up near Louisbourg before they're lost

Parks Canada and the University of New Brunswick have joined forces to save the skeletal remains found in more than 1,000 graves near the Fortress of Louisbourg that are in danger of being washed into the ocean.

Students from UNB are helping Parks Canada save skeletal remains at risk of being washed away

Students from the University of New Brunswick sort through materials gathered from gravesites near the Fortress of Louisbourg. (George Mortimer/CBC)

An unusual archaeological dig is taking place near the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia.

Anthropology students from the University of New Brunswick are removing the remains from approximately 1,000 coastal graves dating back to the 18th century before they wash into the Atlantic Ocean.

Parks Canada has partnered with UNB on the project.  

David Ebert, a strategic adviser with Parks Canada, said a number of interesting items have been found since the dig began this week, including a crucifix.

David Ebert with Parks Canada says the dig has already uncovered important artifacts. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

'Treasure trove'

"One of the burials had a number of buttons in it, so you can just imagine the elaborate coat the person would have been wearing when they were laid to rest," he said.

"The skeleton is a treasure trove of information."

Ebert said skeletal remains can reveal how old a person was, how tall they were, even where they came from, their diet and whether they were under stress when they died.

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

Amy Scott, field director of UNB's department of anthropology, said before the students begin digging they are taught to treat the remains with respect.

"It's just a really unique place to be doing this hands-on training," said Scott, who is heading the dig.

"You really can't ask for anything better."

18th-century DNA

Scott said the ancient bones can reveal a lot about the people who lived at the fortress in the 1700s.

"What we'll be looking at is overall health patterns," she said. "We will also be looking at elements of trauma, infectious disease, migration patterns, even potentially ancient DNA."

The remains will be taken to UNB for scientific analysis over the winter. Scott said the findings should be published next year.

Meanwhile, Ebert said Parks Canada is looking for an appropriate spot to rebury the remains "and let them resume the rest they've been on for the last 300 years."