Nova Scotia

Saving Mi'kmaq artifacts before they wash into the sea

Archeologists are working with Acadia First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia to uncover and document sites where First Nations people once lived.

Canadian Museum of History teaming up with Acadia First Nation as erosion threatens coastal sites

An old shell midden (waste heap) is investigated at Port Joli, N.S., as part of the E’se’get Archaeology Project, which ran from 2008-2012. Archeologists are trying to preserve more sites on the South Shore before they're claimed by erosion. (Matthew Betts/ E’se’get Archaeology Project)

Archeologists are on the hunt along Nova Scotia's coastline for old Mi'kmaq sites, part of an effort to preserve artifacts that date back thousands of years before waves and tides wash them into the sea.

Archeologist Matthew Betts, from the Canadian Museum of History, is working with Acadia First Nation in southwestern Nova Scotia to uncover and document sites where First Nations people once lived.

"We've known that the coastal erosion problem has been an issue for about 30 or 40 years," Betts told CBC's Information Morning.

"With the increase of large storm events and sea level rise we know that the coastal archeological sites are being impacted, we just actually don't know right now how badly they're being impacted."

Those sites at highest risk will be excavated, while those currently less prone to erosion will be monitored. Some spots may already be too far gone for much work to take place.

Exchanging knowledge

The project will start by focusing on areas surveyed decades ago. But with so much of the South Shore's coastline left to cover, guidance is being sought from members of Acadia First Nation and other local residents on where to look next.

"We don't know the local topography and the local history as well as some residents do, so this is really going to help us, save us some time and find those sites and help us to rally our resources to saving the most important sites," Betts said.

This collaboration is focused around an event, scheduled for Tuesday, at which residents can bring their collections to the Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre in East Port L'Hebert and learn more about those artifacts from archeologists. In turn, archeologists will learn more from residents about where those artifacts were found.

'It's our history'

Judy Boutilier, the cultural officer for Acadia First Nation, said like many others in the community she grew up exploring the area and collecting what she believed to be arrowheads and other artifacts.

She said if people with collections share what they know at the discovery centre event, it could help researchers make progress on an urgent issue.

"Its very important that people come out and share their stories so that Matthew can get a sense of where to go from here," she said.

"It's our history here … just for instance, for land claims you have to prove traditional use and occupancy of the land, so without these sites that will become more difficult." 

An arrowhead found during the E’se’get Archaeology Project (Matthew Betts/ E’se’get Archaeology Project)

Erosion reveals sites

The work that's been done already, focusing on sites surveyed in the 1970s and 1990s, suggests a sobering degree of damage. Two-thirds of sites visited so far show the impact of erosion, Betts said. 

He said every time there's a storm or other weather system, such as the swells and rip tides Hurricane Gert brought to Nova Scotia waters, he worries about archeological sites. 

"We know these waves will be eroding sites [but] it will actually probably help us find these sites because they'll be impacted by these waves."

With files from CBC's Information Morning