Canada

Archeologists advance toward proving Acadian burial site at Annapolis Royal, N.S.

Archaeologists say they've made a promising discovery at Fort Anne, Canada's first national historic site, by using ground-penetrating radar to explore a burial ground. Fort Anne is located in Annapolis Royal, N.S., and became a national historic site in 1917.

Ground penetrating radar used to search for burial ground at Fort Anne

Archeologist Steve Garcin used ground penetrating radar to explore what's believed to be an Acadian burial ground at Fort Anne National Historic Site. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Archaeologists say they've made a promising discovery at Fort Anne, Canada's first national historic site, by using ground-penetrating radar to explore a burial ground.

Fort Anne is located in Annapolis Royal, N.S., and became a national historic site in 1917. It's considered one of the most hotly contested sites in North American history, having changed hands seven times, between the Scottish, British and French.

Fort Anne, Canada's first national historic site, is located in Annapolis Royal, N.S., on the banks of the Annapolis River. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Ted Dolan, Parks Canada site manager, says it's also the birthplace of the Acadian culture, since governor Charles de Menou d'Aulnay arrived there in 1636.

"The colonists that came with him, within two generations, stopped identifying themselves as French and started identifying themselves as [Acadians] and they lived all along these shorelines," said Dolan, standing at the edge of Fort Anne, overlooking the Annapolis River.

There are 234 headstones on the site in what's believed to be the British cemetery. The earliest stone was erected in 1720 and is the oldest known gravestone with a British inscription in Canada. 

But it's also believed there are 2,000 people buried at Fort Anne in an Acadian burial ground with no visible traces.

The Garrison Graveyard at Fort Anne is one of the oldest in Canada. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Alan Melanson, a local resident and 10th-generation Acadian, believes his ancestors are buried at Fort Anne, and he says it's important to know for sure.

'Arbiter of history'

"I've read parish records, I've heard oral stories, but I find the arbiter of history is archeology," he said.    

That's why a team of archaeologists explored the area in early December using ground penetrating radar (GPR). They're working in partnership with Parks Canada and Map Annapolis, a community-based organization that uses maps to learn more about places they care about in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.

"People seem to be becoming more and more interested in where they came from," said Map Annapolis project manager Heather LeBlanc.  

Archeologist Sara Beanlands, left, and Map Annapolis project manager Heather LeBlanc review the map of the Garrison Graveyard at Fort Anne. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Sara Beanlands, principal and senior archeologist with Boreas Heritage Consulting Inc., explained that GRP can explore what's beneath the surface without disturbing sacred ground.

"It sends electromagnetic pulses into the ground, and if it hits something below the ground's surface, the reflections will be sent back to the instrument," she said.

Processing the data 

Collecting the data is relatively easy. An archeologist pushes a piece of equipment that looks like a lawnmower back and forth in straight lines, creating a grid. But processing the resulting data is time consuming.

Two weeks after the team collected the information, they produced images showing anomalies beneath the surface. A series of wave patterns showed up at the same depth —  about a metre below ground — in a row, evenly spaced.

Archeologists Beanlands and Garcin review the images produced by the data they collected at Fort Anne using ground penetrating radar. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

Archeologist Steve Garcin said it could mean two things.

"Either we could be seeing graves as these physical anomalies, or the spaces in between could be grave shafts that have been dug out," he said.  

The archeologists don't like to call it proof without actually digging up the site, but they say it is strong evidence of what Acadians have believed all along, that their ancestors are buried at Fort Anne.

Fort Anne became a national historic site in 1917, making it Canada's first. (Kayla Hounsell/CBC)

"This is the cradle of Acadia," said Alan Melanson. "Anybody who's Acadian in the world traced their roots to this particular area."

They agree the latest discovery beneath the earth is one more level of authenticity that identifies the final resting place of the dead and keeps a piece of Canadian history alive.

  

About the Author

Kayla Hounsell

Senior reporter

Kayla Hounsell is a network reporter with CBC News based in Halifax. She covers the Maritime provinces for CBC national news on television, radio and online. She welcomes story ideas at kayla.hounsell@cbc.ca.