Nova Scotia

How this mysterious structure buried in the sand is now shedding light on Nova Scotia's history

A mysterious structure on a Cape Sable Island beach in southwest Nova Scotia is revealing its secrets, thanks to the actions of dedicated locals and a young archeologist.

Archeological work shows structure could date back to the 17th century

This structure poking out of the sand at the Hawk, a beach located on Cape Sable Island at the southernmost point of Nova Scotia, was long assumed to be a sheep pen or other enclosure. (Linda Symonds/Facebook)

A long-standing mystery in Shelburne County, N.S., is one step closer to being solved, thanks to the dedication of locals and the help of an archeologist.

For years, people on Cape Sable Island have wondered about a peculiar structure poking out of the sand at the Hawk, a beach at Nova Scotia's southernmost point.

Explanations have ranged from the remnants of a sheep's pen to a Viking fortification, but ultimately the site contained more questions than answers.

Recent archeological work has pushed those questions closer to a resolution, with preliminary results suggesting a fishing stage or a wharf.

"All of this time, I've known in my heart … there's something historically significant here," said Cape Sable resident Linda Symonds.

It's important to preserve sites like this and understand them, she said.

"And I wonder how many more of these places are around."

A close-up view of the pegs between the stakes at the Hawk. (Submitted by Tanya Schnare)

Symonds said she first became aware of the structure in the 1990s, while working as the town clerk for Clark's Harbour, on the other side of the island. She asked people what they thought the structure was.

"People would say, 'Oh, it's like a salt-extraction thing, where you'd let the tide come in and the water would evaporate and you collect the salt,'" Symonds said. "And I'm like, 'This is foggy Cape Sable Island, how much evaporation are you going to get? There's no sun here.' So that didn't really satisfy me."

Like Symonds, Tanya Schnare had long wondered about the structure at the Hawk, since she'd first seen it emerging from the sand two decades before.

"The initial part that came out was a straight line and then more round lines came out," she said. "It's just been baffling."

In 2017, Schnare was helping out on an archeological excavation in nearby Fort St. Louis. While volunteering, Schnare saw her chance.

"I was like, 'You know, there's this site at the Hawk, and it's washing out and people don't know what to do,'" she recalled. "So I was like, 'I'll take you there. I just need someone to look at it.'"

'Kind of eye-opening'

That someone was Memorial University PhD student John Campbell, who had been assisting with the Fort St. Louis dig.

"The site was covered in sand and it looked like it had been taking a beating due to the weather," Campbell said. "But still it was enough to pique my interest."

Campbell returned the following year to conduct a drone survey of the site, as well as do GPS mapping and exploratory digs.

Having analyzed the findings, Campbell said initial results indicate a fishing stage or wharf, built sometime in the 17th to 18th century, suggesting either early Acadian settlers or fishers from Massachusetts.

Archeological work taking place at the Hawk in 2018. (Linda Symonds/Facebook)

"The odd part is where it's located — it's actually really open. So maybe there's an inclination of who built it, based on that," Campbell said.

Digs at the site also yielded red roofing tiles, similar to those found off the Iberian Peninsula of southern Europe, as well as along the North Atlantic coast.

"That could be pointing toward an earlier occupation than the 17th century … but the cultures associated would most likely be Portuguese, Basque or Spanish."

Results changing understanding of the area

Campbell is currently waiting further dating analysis to confirm his hypothesis. Once the dates are confirmed, he'll start compiling a broader picture of the history of the site and the region.

"It's kind of an eye-opening project to see this is what exists," he said. "And then the question becomes: what else does in the region?"

In the meantime, Campbell said the experience at this site highlights the importance of drawing on local knowledge, like that of Symonds and Schnare.

"Sometimes local community members know about these kinds of things … and I just wanted to say that they should come out and talk to us, and see what archeologists can do for the recording of the information and the data set that we could create.

"That would be really good for the history of the province, and not only the province … most likely the country as well."

Having analyzed the findings, a PhD student from Memorial University said initial results indicate a fishing stage or wharf, built sometime in the 17th to 18th century. (Derek Jones/Facebook)

In Schnare's case, she said the findings are helping to shed a new light on both the history of the area and her own family's connection to the island, which dates back to settlers from New England.

"To me, we've already changed the understanding of the area," she said. "I walk on the Hawk now and I think, 'Who has walked here before? Was it French here? Was it Basque?'

"I share this connection of this land with somebody and I'd like to know who."