Uncovering Innu history

Derek Montague editor@thelabradorian.ca
Published on November 21, 2013
This is believed to be a stone scraping tool, used by the Innu to scrape fat off caribou hides. The age of this artifact is unknown.
Derek Montague photo

More than 40,000 artifacts discovered at Muskrat Falls

For thousands of years, the Innu people have used the Muskrat Falls area for seasonal encampment. This is made evident by the approximately 40,000 Innu artifacts that have been found in the Muskrat Falls area over the past couple of years.

The artifacts range from 3,500 years old to 150 years old. During a presentation in Sheshatshiu on Nov. 19, Senior Archeologist Dr. Fred Schwarz showed some of the most impressive pieces found in the Muskrat Falls area.

Although most of the 40,000 artifacts found are stone chips, Schwarz said he was in “awe” of the craftsmanship found in some of the stone tools. On rare occasions, the archeology team would come across artifacts that were perfectly intact, such as a stone knifepoint, or a scraping tool.

All the different artifacts, combined with other features such as fire pit sites, provides a large picture of how the Innu used Muskrat Falls hundreds — and even thousands — of years ago.

“It’s all about the context that the artifacts were found in,” says Schwarz. “The context of the artifact really tells us the story. It tells us how old they are, what they were used for. It tells us what time of the year people were camping there… how they lived their lives.

“What we’re attempting to do is remove the cultural materials from these sites, in such a way that we can reconstruct through photographs…and 3D models, the camp sites. So we have to record every rock that we find.”

Amongst all the artifacts and features found during the archeological digs, there was some very surprising finds that may shed new light on how the Innu once lived in the pre-contact era. One of the big surprises was the discovering of pottery pieces.

“One of the things that is potentially interesting for us is the presence of First Nation pottery. It is very rare in Labrador in pre-contact sites,” said Schwarz. “It is not unknown; pottery has been found in other sites. But it is generally very rare… mobile hunting and gathering people generally try to avoid using heavy pottery.”

Some of the finds raise more questions than answers.

Schwarz and his team found some interesting stone features in the area, which has led Schwarz to form a theory that some canoe building took place in the Muskrat Falls area.

“The context of the stone features that we find…we appear to have some evidence for canoe building, at least two of the sites that we excavated to date,” said Schwarz. “And that’s interesting, I think, to see how canoe building is built into the seasonal round of people living in Labrador thousands of years ago.”

It’s also interesting to see what kind of stone materials the Innu used to make their tools. As expected, one of the main rock types used in quartzite, which is very common in the upper Lake Melville region.

“But there’s also some materials that are a bit more exotic. We find some glossy, colourful stone…called Saunders chert.  We find implements of Ramah chert, which comes from the Torngat coast.”

‘Historical resources’

The archeology project is part of the Muskrat Falls Historic Resources Recovery program, which aims to recover historic artifacts before the Muskrat Falls project would make it impossible to do so.

The recovery program began in the 1990’s, when the Muskrat Falls hydro project was getting serious consideration.

“We knew from the history of the area, from the traditional knowledge that we had gained from the elders, that there is a high historic resources potential in the area,” explained Nalcor’s Environmental Assessment Lead, Marion Organ.

“So from that we knew that there were sites within the (hydro) project footprint. For us, we certainly would not proceed with any construction until those sites had been fully recovered.”

The early surveying work revealed 33 sites within the project footprint; 25 on the southside of Muskrat Falls and eight on the north spur. The other sites are located within the reservoir, and will be recovered before the area is flooded.

The archeological team that’s doing the fieldwork includes several members of the Innu community. Schwarz said that it’s important to have them onsite because — after all — it was their ancestors who used the tools.

“I think it’s hugely important…and it’s very enjoyable to have Innu youth working (with us),” says Schwarz. “They’re generally very excited about the work that they do…and I find it very pleasurable to share in that excitement.”

Even though they try to get all the artifacts before construction begins, Organ admits there’s a chance an artifact can be found during construction. Organ says employees at the Muskrat Falls site go through environmental awareness training, which helps them in identifying potential artifacts.

“We would minimize the risk of something being inadvertently found during construction by surveying…that’s our first line of defense,” says Organ who adds that environmental monitors are also on site when construction work is being done.

“That being said, there is always a risk of inadvertently — during construction — we would find something…we teach and train every single person who comes on site…to be aware of historic resources. What they look like and what sort of things would be indicative of an artifact.”

Organ says that on only one occasion was an artifact found by accident during work. That happened on the North Spur. Organ said proper procedures were followed upon the discovery of the artifact.

“When that happened…we shut down the site…we were able to identify that (archeological) site and recover all the artifacts.”