Piecing Together Domestic Fragments
“The civilian defenders of this island watched in sorrow as the French under d’Iberville burned Carbonear to the ground,” says Florence Button. As project coordinator and one of a team involved in an archeological research project conducted on Carbonear Island in 2010 and 2011, Button catalogued the many artifacts left by the settlers who held out against the French. “I feel the sorrow of these courageous people as they watched their homes, fishing stages, and boats disappear in flames and smoke from the cliffs [of Carbonear Island].” The island was the only one in the area to hold out against the French attackers during this time, and it wasn’t until war resumed in the mid- 1700s that the French finally defeated the settlers, burning and ransacking the island—and destroying their military defences along with their household effects.
Although the historical details of the battles that besieged Carbonear Island are clear, it wasn’t until an archival research project conducted in 2004 by St. Philips, Newfoundland-based archeologist Roy Skanes that the island was documented as a historic site of considerable significance.
“It’s a unique spot in that it’s a civilian defence area,” says Skanes, which is unlike some other sites excavated in Newfoundland that have turned up many military artifacts. Not only was Carbonear Island primarily a civilian community, but it’s been relatively undisturbed over time, Skanes explains. Despite some farming and a seasonal fishery, the impact on the original seventeenth-century settlement has been low—making it an unusually untouched site for archeological exploration.
During two summers of excavation in 2010 and 2011, fieldworkers unearthed more than 5,500 artifacts, including fragments of ceramics, glassware, tools, and even tobacco pipes. But the work had just begun for Florence Button and lab assistant Linda Saunders, whose tasks were to record the exact location of each piece, and then examine the fragments, identifying, describing, and documenting the type of materials and likely provenance of each before painstakingly trying to piece together the hundreds-years-old shards. To identify the ceramic pieces, Saunders, a trained production potter, would examine the type of clay—whether it had traces of mica or quartz or iron—its colour, and the glazes used. These were valuable clues as to the origin of the household items used by the settlers. Among the shards found on the site were the distinctive blue, salt-glazed Westerwald pottery from Germany. From Northern Italy, the site revealed samples of slipware, a decorative technique whereby a watery clay “slip” was applied to the outer surface of a vessel, usually in a contrasting colour, and either swirled with a feather, for example, to create a marbled effect, or by using the “sgraffito” method of scratching a design or pattern onto the surface.
Still other pieces hailed from Portugal, an important trading partner of the Newfoundland fishery town of Carbonear. In return for salt fish, the Portuguese ships sent wine in onion-shaped glass bottles—the pontil marks at their bases telling of the hand-blown techniques used in their making. Portuguese tin-glazed pottery was also discovered on the island, its distinctively bright-yellowglazed surface a popular—and cheap—way of imitating the fine Chinese porcelain that was beyond the reach of any but the wealthy. “It was the Tupperware of years ago,” says Saunders. The most exciting find for both Saunders and Button was the beautiful and distinctive agateware, a style developed in England that dates from the early 1700s. To produce the agateware found on the island, solid pieces of different-coloured clay were pressed together and cut into strips, and then placed into two-part molds, explains Saunders. After firing, the various colours of the clay formed distinctive patterns both outside and inside the vessel. This is a complex technique that fell out of fashion in the late 1700s, and here it was on Carbonear Island.
“This was a fishing community,” says Saunders, “You’re not expecting to see some of this fancy pottery.” Unfortunately, agateware shards were just beginning to be found when the archeological dig of 2011 came to an end, and so only a few fragments remain housed in Carbonear’s Railway Station Museum, which records the history of the island.
The most complete vessel Saunders was able to piece together was an amphora jar in a design typical of the Iberian Peninsula. “These were Spanish olive jars that came to a point almost like a seashell,” Saunders explains. Determining which fragments belonged to a single vessel required lots of patience, she admits.
“It’s not like a jigsaw puzzle where you have all the pieces,” explains Saunders. “You might have to wait: I put some together one year, and when they found other pieces the next year, I was able to fit those into what I had started the year before.” Nor is it an exact science. To hold the pieces together, Saunders used watereddown school glue because it’s water soluble, making it easy to take apart sections of an item if a new shard needs to be inserted or an existing piece must be removed because it was later discovered to belong to a different vessel.
Because of the clay material common to these jars, the fragments may seem to be from the same pot, but to distinguish one from another, Saunders would look for telltale marks of the potter, including fingermarks and the way clay would form patterns when thrown on a wheel. “You can see where the potter’s hand rested and you could almost put your hand there,” says Saunders. “You are touching something that somebody put together 400 years ago.”
Through the thousands of fragments found on the island, the team slowly pieced together the lives of the small community that took refuge on Carbonear Island so many hundreds of years ago. “It was pretty harsh,” says Skanes. Buildings were rough-hewn and the chimneys dry-laid without mortar. Until further funding for the project comes through, though, the site holds merely the tantalizing promise of further discoveries.
Lorraine Flanigan is a Toronto-based writer and editor who visited Carbonear, Newfoundland, in the summer of 2015.