Young researchers are working against the clock to dig up 300-year-old human remains before they’re washed away by the sea – and the project lead says what they found so far could give us a new perspective on what life was like in the 18th century.
Experts have said there could be as many as a thousand bodies buried at Rochefort Point, the main burial site at Cape Breton’s Fortress of Louisbourg, once a popular seaport and the site of two sieges between the French and the British in the 1700s.
The narrow peninsula extending into the ocean just beyond the fortress’s east gate is now under a siege of its own: rising sea levels and coastal erosion pose a distant threat to the centuries of history buried beneath its surface, said Parks Canada spokesman David Ebert.
“As we face climate change and we have bigger storms that have gotten more energy, that can accelerate the erosion problem,” he said in a phone interview.
“But we think that doing this type of work before it’s an imminent threat, while it’s still a lower level threat, we can do this in a respectful manner.”
According to historical maps, it’s estimated Rochefort Point has shrunk to only about half of its original size thanks to coastal erosion, Ebert said.
Parks Canada, which owns and operates the partially reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg, teamed up with the University of New Brunswick last year to create a yearly summer program for students across the continent to help excavate and study the remains.
Once the remains are analyzed, they will be moved and reburied at another burial site.
“It’s important to treat these remains with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Ebert said.
University of New Brunswick bioarchaeologist Amy Scott is the project lead for the excavation group, which consists of 15 students from different universities throughout Canada and the United States.
Most are from bioanthropology programs, but Scott said their degrees span a number of anthropological and archaeological fields.
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This year, the students unearthed the remains of 31 people, and Scott said most of the remains were male, as men – many of them soldiers – greatly outnumbered women at the site in the 1700s. The average age of death was 24.
Last year, the group only found adult remains, but this year they uncovered six child burials, which suggests they may have found a new section of the centuries-old graveyard.
Scott explained the French primarily used the graveyard for their soldiers, but the New Englanders used it for both soldiers and civilians – including children.
She added that child mortality in those times was quite high.
“Life was tough at Louisbourg for the adults, and even more so for the children,” she said.
Many of the remains show signs of blunt force trauma and fractures on their faces and hands, suggesting quite a bit of brawling went on at the fortress during the tumultuous time in Canadian history.
Scott said unearthing and studying these remains can help us make connections to a time period that seems almost alien in the 21st century.
“Sometimes there’s this misconception that people in the past were vastly different than what we are today in terms of their daily experiences. And yes, of course, during that time period, things would’ve been different; they would’ve been eating different things and wearing different things,” she said.
“But at the end of the day, we’re all still just people.”
During analysis, she’s found bodies with signs of fractured limbs and cavities in their teeth: afflictions that people in the present day can relate to.
Seeing these connections with her own eyes has been a humbling experience for Scott, who said wanting to know who we are and where we came from is a near-universal question.
While the main goal of the project is to rescue the bodies from the vulnerable peninsula and give them a proper burial, she said the experience of analyzing the remains has been a reminder of the resilience and strength of mankind.
“We think about how challenging life would’ve been for these folks, and the fact that they were able to carry on and live their lives without a lot of medical intervention in most cases makes us think about what our lives are like, and how we’ve benefitted from these medical interventions that can help us,” she said.
Haylee Meloche, who is going into her fifth year of forensic science and criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, said the on-site experience and historical aspect is what drew her to the project.
While experts are hesitant to predict how long Rochefort Point has left before it’s swallowed by the sea, Meloche stressed that time is of the essence.
“Preserving the history, especially in a place like Louisburg where there is such rich history, losing that all to the coast would be such a loss to our heritage as people here,” she said.
“Even though I’m not from this area, just the fact that there is a set of history that we can still discover, it just can’t be lost.”
Another group of students will be back to continue their work next summer.