Unique chapter of Quebec history being lost at Cap-Rouge, archeologists warn

Soil acidity and rodents are putting artifacts dating back hundreds of years. The site sits at the mouth of the Cap-Rouge River, where French colonists first tried to settle in North America in 1541.

Soil acidity, rodents are putting artifacts dating back hundreds of years at risk, they say

The Cartier-Roberval site is where French colonists made their first attempt to settle in North America. (Richard Fiset and Gilles Samson)

Archeologists say they need to resume excavating a parcel of land at the mouth of the Cap-Rouge River, in Quebec City, so that they can stave off the destruction of centuries-old treasures already found there.

The Cartier-Roberval site is where French colonists made their first attempt to settle in North America and where a fortified village founded by Jacques Cartier in 1541 once stood.

Discovered in Quebec City's Cap-Rouge area over a decade ago, the site was only partially excavated between 2006 and 2008, before archeologists had to abandon it when they could no longer fund the dig.

Now, experts say they are witnessing an entire chapter of Quebec and Canadian history disappear before their eyes.

"It's not only a rare site, but it's a unique site," said Richard Fiset, the archeologist who led the previous dig at the site alongside his colleague, Gilles Samson.

"There is no other site dating back to this period. If we lose the information contained [there], that's knowledge that will be lost forever," Fiset said.

Dig carried out over 336 square metres

Archeologists excavated 336 square metres at the site between 2006 and 2008, but the area was larger than expected, with fortifications discovered above and below a raised parcel of land near the water.

They believe 80 per cent of what could be excavated in the area remains underground, in what is now a wooded area in the Cap-Rouge nautical park.

If we lose the information contained [there], that's knowledge that will be lost forever.- Richard Fiset , lead archeologist

In 2008, the archeologists had to close the site because funding dried up with Quebec City celebrating its 400th anniversary that same year.

The Commission de la capitale nationale du Québec, a semi-public body that was created by the National Assembly in 1995 to help develop, promote and encourage people to discover the Quebec City area, says it's still studying the project.

While archeologists have asked to resume their work at the site, the financial backing they need has still not been secured.

Acidity of the soil, animals pose a risk, experts say

When they were forced to abandon the dig, they covered the overturned soil with wooden structures and sheeting, a preventative measure that was meant to protect the artifacts for about five years. 

Now, nine years later, the archeologists say they're worried the artifacts will suffer irreversible damage.

At the request of the archeological team, experts on soil content and preservation specialists came to examine the area.

Groundhogs, which look for places to hibernate underground every fall, have been using the partially excavated site in Cap-Rouge. (Rapport sur l’état de santé du site Cartier-Roberval: court terme et long terme)

They reported that high levels of acidity in the soil had destroyed all the organic material that had not yet been carbonized and continue to deteriorate any metal objects in the ground there.

During the previous dig, from 2006 to 2008, archeologists discovered crossbow bolts, currency, and other metal objects at the site. Many of them were already in poor condition.

In a report presented to the Commission in February, experts also pointed to another problem: rodents have been coming to the abandoned dig site, causing damage to the protective structures and destroying some of the artifacts.

Béatrice Carrier, a biologist and master's student at Université Laval, said groundhogs have been using the site to hibernate.

Rodents, such as groundhogs, mice and chipmunks, have built their nests and stored food in the archaeological dig site. (Rapport sur l’état de santé du site Cartier-Roberval: court terme et long terme)

Every fall, the animals look for places where they can burrow 1.5 metres below ground, so "for a groundhog … an archeological site [like the one in Cap-Rouge] is perfect," she said. 

Chipmunks, mice and voles, another small rodent, have also been using the site to build their nests and store food.

Carrier said the animals broke some of the protective structures, and caused mushrooms and moisture to accumulate on the wood.

Based on a translation from Radio-Canada