Nova Scotia

Province House gardens could prove fertile ground for archeologists

The Province House gardens are undergoing an extensive redesign this summer and those grounds, mostly untouched since the founding of Halifax, may be rich with artifacts, according to an archaeological assessment.

Garden redesign work will proceed under watchful eye of preservation experts

An archeologist will oversee the renovations at Province House's gardens as there are expected to be artifacts dating back to Halifax's founding in the soil. (Robert Short/CBC)

When excavators roll onto the Province House grounds to begin a major garden project, an archaeologist will be there keeping a keen eye on each shovelful of dirt.

Because despite its location in downtown Halifax, Province House's south garden and its Hollis Street parking lot have remained relatively undisturbed since the founding of the city.

That means there could be relics from 1749 beneath the soil.

This map shows what Halifax harbour looked like in 1746. Province House now sits in what was the centre of some of the early settlements. (Source: Province of Nova Scotia)

"There's a "high potential for intact archeological resources," according to a report prepared by archeological consulting firm Davis MacIntyre and Associates. "The potential exists for archeological remains on the site which may yield tangible information, not only related to 18th and 19th century government operations, but also civilian occupation, and interrelationships between the two."

Trying to preserve history, however, can make even a simple renovation that much more complex.

"It takes a lot longer, of course, to do an exterior digging — because every bit of ground you remove in an excavator bucket or whatever, has to be gone through at least a cursory glance," said Ron Jeppesen who has overseen roughly a dozen renovations and restorations at Province House.

Halifax's founding

The retired project manager said that if something gets found that section of earth gets taken to another location and sifted through.

"It slows your work but you know going in that it's going to slow the work — but it's also very interesting."

Although the province's archeological resource impact assessment also lays out the history of the region going back 11,500 years, it's unlikely that any First Nations artifacts will be uncovered in this dig.

What workers are more likely to unearth is material from the mid-1700s to the 1800s, including:

  • Tools

  • Broken bottles and windowpane glass

  • Tin cans

  • Ceramics and crockery

  • Cartridge casings and bullets

  • Toys

  • Electrical and plumbing fixtures

The archeological report suggests that items could be recovered dating back to the city's founding in 1749. (Source: Province of Nova Scotia)

Amateur historian and author Dianne Marshall was excited at the prospect that the work will uncover a piece of Halifax's history.

"I've always been curious about that site in particular because I worked at Province House for a number of years," she said. "The early history of Halifax — and the early history of Nova Scotia — a lot of it depended on what went on in that square."

Whenever someone unearths an artifact, people want to know about its history.

"It just brings them more to life. The fact that these things actually existed. And you know when they do these excavations they come across lots of things we didn't even think about."

Human remains?

Although it's a remote possibility, workers may find bones during their digging.

If that happens the work has to stop, the bones must be covered and the archeologist will alert the appropriate people, according to the archeological report guiding the excavation. That could include the provincial medical examiner, First Nations representatives and Communities, Culture and Heritage officials.

If it turns out to be human remains of an archeological nature "negotiations will follow to determine how the remains will be handled."

Jeppesen said bones have been found during other excavations at Province House and elsewhere downtown.

"We found bones digging at Government House and some of them are obviously a pork chop bone, but sometimes it could be a politician or a poodle. You're not quite sure which," he said with a chuckle.

The bones unearthed at Province House, however, turned out to be sheep and chicken bones.

An archeological report suggests that toys, ceramics and tools could be buried beneath the gardens at Province House. (Robert Short/CBC)

The south garden will be completely redesigned, including regrading it to provide proper drainage. Most of that work will require some digging and it's in those excavation trenches that archaeologists expect to find material of historical value.

And there are also thought to have been two outhouses on the site.

Jeppesen recalls digging in an area where one was thought to be.

Drawn to outhouses

Old privies are of interest to archaeologists because it's where people would often discard no longer needed or broken dishes, pots and glassware.

"It's a good place to get rid of it," said Jeppeson. "Just throw it down the hole and it's gone."

Halifax's downtown core has a rich history. A French map dating back to 1746 shows a number of tents and the notation "lieu ou l'on a campe" [the place where we camped] in the city centre.

"The Province House property would be the site of two public water pumps until at least 1830, making it a highly trafficked and often squalid gathering place within the city," says the report.

Province House, which took eight years to complete —  at a cost more than double the original estimate — held its first legislature on Feb. 11, 1819. Next year's 200th anniversary is the driving force behind the revitalization of the grounds

Anything of value unearthed during the construction may become part of that commemoration.