New Brunswick

Digging into what an archeological assessment will look like at Officers' Square

Officers' Square in Fredericton will undergo an archeological impact assessment to protect possible artifacts in the downtown park, but what does that mean exactly? 

Archeological impact assessment of the historic site in Fredericton could take a year and a half

Fredericton heritage activists previously called on the province to put the project on hold and review the character-defining elements of the historic park. (CBC)

Officers' Square will undergo an archeological impact assessment to protect possible artifacts in the downtown park, but what does that mean exactly? 

"It's to protect them for New Brunswickers, protect them for posterity," said Darcy Dignam, president of the Association of Professional Archaeologists of New Brunswick. 

"It's so we don't destroy them unknowingly."

The city wants to add a skating rink, performance stages and a water feature, among other things, to the park under a $9.1 million revitalization project.

But the project has had trouble getting off the ground, partly because of public reaction to the fate of trees and an old wall along the square and the potential loss of heritage and archeological resources underground, especially any important to Indigenous people. 

Recently, the city announced the project will go through an archeological impact assessment. There will also be consultations with First Nations.

"The province consults with them and asks possibly what accommodation they would like," Dignam said. 

The land near the St. John River was used for centuries by the Wolastoqiyik. A military compound was established there in the late 18th century, and the square was a training ground for British soldiers until 1869. Now the popular gathering space is used for entertainment, festivals and other events and is also home to a museum. 

Finding out what's there

The province, the city and the University of New Brunswick have already conducted two ground-penetrating radar studies of the Officers' Square site. 

Dignam said four phases are involved in an archeological impact assessment.

The first phase includes desktop research, where an archeologist reviews local, historical, archeological, geological and Indigenous research. This includes looking at reports, maps and historical photographs.

"It's to find out via research what is there or what could potentially be there," he said. 

Knowing what to look for

Next, an archeologist does a visual survey of the area using the desktop research as a guide. 

For example, an old house may be pictured in a photo from the 1930s but is no longer on the site being assessed. 

"Now you're walking around and you're looking for evidence of this house," Dignam said.

In another example, he said archeologists might do research on a place where a bridge or highway is going to go. Then they will examine the surface of that particular area.

"You're just looking to see, are there any features here? Are there any artifacts on the shoreline?  

"Is there anything that as a professional archeologist I see that would indicate either a site or potential for a site?" 

Stay clear of excavating 

Once it is determined there is potential for an archeological resource, such as something historical or related to Indigenous people, the archeologists will move into phase three, which is a field evaluation. 

From there, they will have to rely on ground-penetrating radar or a magnetometer to determine what kind of artifacts are underneath the surface.

The City of Fredericton plans to save eight mature trees under its revised plan for the historic downtown park. (Submitted/City of Fredericton)

"These are things that, without disturbing the ground, you can possibly see features underneath that would indicate an archeological resource."

A more common route would be shovel testing, where field workers set out a grid and dig over an area that has a high potential for artifacts.

Not just about the artifacts 

The final step involves mitigation and conserving the area as much as possible. 

"You want to avoid the resource if you can," he said, explaining the goal is not to disturb the underground artifacts. 

Archeologists can document what they've discovered, so future archeologists will not have to dig up the site.

If archeologists can't avoid excavation, they can try to limit the impact or the project can be changed so it doesn't threaten what's underground.

CBC News has asked to speak with the consultant hired for the Officers' Square project and was told the archeologist is not doing interviews. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Fraser

Reporter/Editor

Elizabeth Fraser is a reporter/editor with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She's originally from Manitoba. Story tip? elizabeth.fraser@cbc.ca

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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