Nova Scotia

Mystery vault at Province House not so mysterious to archeologist

Although the find sparked international interest, the mystery chamber discovered at Province House is less interesting to Nova Scotia's archeology curator.

Katie Cottreau-Robins believes it's either a powder magazine or sewer catch basin

Descend into the living-room-sized vault that was a 'total surprise' to archeologists at Province House

4 years ago
Duration 1:04
The subterranean dry-stone-laid chamber was discovered in August 2018 during part of the work to remodel the grounds at the Nova Scotia legislature.

A stone vault uncovered in 2018 at Province House might have been an unexpected find, but it's no great mystery, according to an expert.

Katie Cottreau-Robins, the province's archeology curator, said there's nothing too exciting about the chamber, which is the size of a living room, found during work to beautify the legislature grounds.

"It is very interesting but I wouldn't say it's unique or shocking or mysterious," Cottreau-Robins said during a telephone interview Friday. 

The chamber was discovered after a backhoe punched a hole though its ceiling when crews were digging a trench to install a new electrical system and run audio and video cables. 

News of the discovery, first reported by CBC News, generated international interest. But Cottreau-Robins doesn't consider it a major find.

'This is a feature that likely is elsewhere in the city'

"As an archeologist who's been working here since 1983, and is very familiar with the archeology of Halifax, I didn't find this an unexpected, mysterious find," she said. "This is a feature that likely is elsewhere in the city." 

Archeologist Katie-Cottreau Robins says there is nothing overly mysterious about a chamber discovered under Province House. (Province of Nova Scotia)

Research suggested it might have been a powder magazine, which Cottreau-Robins said would have been common at the time Province House construction was being planned more than 200 years ago.

"We're talking about Halifax in the 18th century — a city that had four citadels at the top of the town and lots of military here all the time," Cottreau-Robins said.

She said it might just have been a catch basin.

"Sewage problems were a real problem in early Halifax in that downtown core," said Cottreau-Robins. "Everything came down the hill and it pooled.

"It pooled and it was a stinky mess and there had to be ways to alleviate that problem."

Although the province isn't ready to delve deeper, a Saint Mary's University archeologist is interested in using the chamber for a course he will run this spring.

Possible learning opportunity

Jonathan Fowler teaches remote sensing,  which involves using a variety of technologies to map the earth, above and below the ground.

He thinks the site would be an ideal place to teach students how to use ground-penetrating radar and, at the same time, provide the province with a clearer picture of the chamber.

"My sense is we would get a better sense of the thickness of the walls and what kind of additional structure might exist around it," he said.

"I think this would be a good test case, and certainly a fun one for our students, to be able to try the equipment over a known feature and just see what comes up."

Fowler would need a provincial permit to do the work and permission to use the Province House grounds.

Cottreau-Robins said she would like to see that kind of electronic mapping go ahead.

"It'll be really interesting to see what they show," she said.

Lots of glass and pottery

During the work at Province House, crews unearthed 1,534 objects, many of them glass or pottery. Some of the fragments have been pieced together to form half-finished bowls, goblets or basins.

It's the ceramics, rather than the underground vault, that excited Cottreau-Robins.

"They really provide an image of the past, of the period and what was happening at that particular piece of land," she said.

She is working with April MacIntyre, the principal archeologist on the Province House dig, to create an online publication of artifacts uncovered at the legislature grounds and during other downtown excavations. 

Cottreau-Robins is hoping for that to be ready within the next year or two and that a companion exhibition can be mounted.