Nova Scotia

Young girl's remains reveal the day-to-day struggle at Fortress of Louisbourg

A Parks Canada historian says the discovery sheds new light on what life was like for some fortress residents.

'We're able to learn so much more about these individuals whose stories were not recorded'

The King's Bastion is shown at the main entrance to the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

No one knows her age, race, or even her hair colour. But archeologists say her bones show that she led a life of heavy labour.

The young girl's skeletal remains have been found at a cemetery at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site by a team of archeologists from the University of New Brunswick.

The group is trying to preserve the skeletal remains that are being threatened by coastal erosion.

"To think of someone who's maybe 12 years old, who is a woman at that time, having that kind of musculature, it's just not something that we necessarily portray [as costumed animators]," said Parks Canada historian Sarah MacInnes.

"This work is just so incredibly meaningful on a level that's almost hard to describe."

Preliminary analysis shows the girl was doing heavy labour with her upper body before her death.

MacInnes said a kinesiologist has been working with fortress staff to uncover tasks from the 18th century that could have caused such muscle wear to the girl's upper body.

"We may know, or at least we'll be able to put together a theory," MacInnes said.

Amy Scott, a bioarcheologist from the University of New Brunswick, left, is shown with Parks Canada historian Sarah MacInnes. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

The site being excavated is known as Rochefort Point, a narrow peninsula extending just beyond the King's Bastion at the main entrance to the fortified town.

It is believed that more than 1,000 people were interred at the burial ground that was established in the late 1730s. The remains of 121 people have been found.

"History is like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle, but 800 of the pieces are missing," said MacInnes. "Every piece of information that gets unearthed is something that could potentially shape the way that we tell the Louisbourg story."

MacInnes said the history of the fortress is well documented, but usually by the same class of people. 

"It's people who are in a place of privilege, and it's written exclusively by men for the most part. To be able to come out here and literally unearth these stories, we're able to learn so much more about these individuals whose stories were not recorded."

Amy Scott's field notes show a rough sketch of what has been excavated at Rochefort Point. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

A bioarcheologist who has been working on the project since its early days says laboratory testing confirms that fortress life was marred by illness and disease. Bioarcheology is the study of human remains in the context of archeology. 

"The average age at death for these individuals that we've excavated so far is about 28 years, so incredibly young when we're thinking about what life was like and how difficult it was," said Amy Scott, an associate professor at UNB.

"We have lots of trauma, so broken hands, broken ribs, broken feet, broken legs. And again, these are things you would expect to see when we know that the living conditions were tough here."

Scott said the excavation is expected to continue for the foreseeable future and typically includes the work of 12-15 students each year from UNB's bioarcheology field school. 

The team starts by identifying colour and texture changes in the soil. Once a burial is found, they photograph and map the location before digging. Each individual's remains are assigned a burial number that follows them through excavation, cleaning, cataloging and analysis.

Amy Scott and Sarah MacInnes say the skeletal remains that will be taken to a lab for examination before being properly buried at a site that is not threatened by erosion. (Erin Pottie/CBC)

Scott, who just spent a few weeks excavating at the fortress, said she has seen the effects of erosion worsening over time. 

"When I come back every year, and I bring the staff back, we walk the coast and we can see the drastic changes," she said of the disappearing coastline. 

"If I was ever to make an estimate, you know, I would say we've got decades left. And that's really not that much when you think about sort of the time and how long it's been here." 

Scott said that the remains found will be brought back to the fortress where they will be reburied at a site away from the shore.

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