Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Change Islands Cache

Change Islands Cache Bifaces
Late last summer, a Newfoundland and Labrador couple stretching their legs at the Change Islands ferry terminal unexpectedly made a spectacular archaeological find.  In September 2010, Neil White and Marion Adams discovered a tighly packed cache of 32 large rhyolite bifaces.  The stone artifacts were buried standing on edge stacked together "like a deck of cards".  A few biface fragments were on the surface and caught Neil's eye.  He recognized that the stones were flinknapped from watching survival TV programs.  The tip of one of the points had been exposed on the surface long enough that it was spattered with paint from nearby construction. A backhoe used in the construction had stripped several inches of debris and soil over the cache and when the White's found them they were very near the surface.  Not realizing the size of the cache, the White's pulled the bifaces out of the ground one after the other.   As they slid each one out of the ground they could hear it rasping against another one still in situ.

Beautifully worked rhyolite
Neil and Marion immediately recognized the significance of what they had found and they didn't want to disturb the whole cache, but they were worried about its security if it was left partially exposed.  Neil said that the entire cache came from an area in the ground no bigger than an apple crate.  Originally, the bifaces may have been wrapped together in a leather or bark bundle, or buried in a small hole.  They decided to gather up the bifaces and contact an archaeologist.  They took the bifaces to the nearest museum - the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd's Cove.  Karen Ledrew-Day knew that this was something very special and contacted the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).  Ken Reynolds drove out to the Change Island's to meet the Whites, further excavate the findspot, and collect the bifaces.  Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the whole story is the selflessness of Neil White and Marion Adams, whose first thought was to report their find and donate the artifacts to the people of the Province.  They deserve a lot of credit for how they reported the find.

An awe inspiring visit
Lori and I had the opportunity to see and photograph the bifaces when Ken brought them back to the PAO for cataloguing and analysis.  We've been waiting for the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation to publicly acknowledge the White's find before we mentioned the cache here.  Disappointingly, that never happened, but the cache was reported in the Provincial Archaeology Office's annual archaeology review earlier this week (Volume 9 for 2010 Field Season), so Lori and I can now share our photos of the bifaces.

For their size, they are very thin
Although they vary in size and 4 of them are wide flat platters, the 32 bifaces are remarkably uniform in style.  They are all made from the same material and are equally thin and well finished.  Everyone who sees them feels that they were all made by one person.  There are some breaks, but between the White's initial collection and Ken's subsequent excavation of the findspot, many of the missing tips and corners were found.  It appears that the bifaces were perfect, whole, and unused when they were originally cached.  These are not preforms in the midst of transport, or blanks prepared for heat treatment, but completed tools, that were never used.  If the larger bifaces were bifacial cores, then they were used up and the edges carefully finished.

The cache at the PAO
The exact age of the cache is uncertain and will be the subject of future research, however, there are a couple likely candidates.  The Maritime Archaic Indians and Recent Indians both made large bifaces from Rhyolite and could have left the cache.  Given the location of the find very close to the modern shoreline, I feel that the Recent Indians are the more likely candidates.  The shoreline in this part of Newfoundland has undergone several metres of submergence since Maritime Archaic Indian times, which means that an Archaic cache at this spot would likely be underwater, unless it was placed at an unusually high elevation.  If it is a Recent Indian cache, then the earlier Cow Head or perhaps Beaches complexes (ca. 2000-1000 BP) seem more likely than the Little Passage or Beothuk, because such large stone tools are rare in the more recent periods.

Some were very large
The source of the stone will also be more fully researched as there are several rhyolite outcrops and quarries on the Island that might have provided the stone.  When Ken was in the area, he revisited the Rhyolite outcrops and workshops at Brimstone Head, near Fogo and collected samples that are a very good visual match for the artifacts in the cache.  Its the closest known rhyolite source to the cache and seems like the most likely candidate for the rock.  Researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland are doing non-destructive testing on the bifaces to attempt to determine the source of the raw material.

The Change Islands Cache (click to enlarge)
For more information on the Change Island's Cache - check out the Provincial Archaeology Office's Archaeology Review, Volume 9 for 2010 Field Season, pg 137-140.

Here are the photos of the 32 bifaces that Lori and I took last fall.  You can click any of the images to see a larger version.  Thanks to the PAO for letting us see these unique pieces and especially to Neil White and Marion Adams for sharing this amazing find with the all the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast
Edited April 6, 2011 to correct Marion's name.


  1. Completely Amazing!

  2. Interesting similarities to a cache of more than 300 blades from North Hadley, MA, that we have in the Haffenreffer Museum's collection and another, smaller but professionally excavated in the 1990s, and reported by Kenneth Feder, from the Connecticut River valley in Connecticut -- there dated to the late Middle Woodland, ca. AD 600-800. Somewhat comparable blades, called Petalas blades in the Hudson River drainage, were also found as burial offerings in the Island Field site, Delaware, again dated to the late 1st millennium AD.

  3. Kevin, those are interesting references. If these are Recent Indian, as their form, elevation and the Relative Sea Level history for the area seem to suggest, then they would date to the same general time period.

    A precontact site was found in an earlier survey not far from the cache and some of the flakes from that site are a similar material to the bifaces. In a perfect world someone will return to that site and find A) something conclusive that ties it to the cache, B) something culturally diagnostic, and C) something that can be dated.

  4. These are beautiful pictures of the artefacts but when you actually see them in person its just like wow. I got to see them when Neil and Marrion brought them to the Beothuk Interpretation Centre in Boyd's Cove. When I first saw them i was struck by how flat these tools are and how thin they are. To me i would have assumed they were too thin and fragile for use. I imagined that if these were used as lances for hunting caribou they would break quite fast. If they were used for knives to butcher them i thought the same thing. But i guess with the softer tissue of seals and whales they may have served for the purpose of killing and butchering. Also that it was found in a marine environment points to that as well. What are your thoughts? Would these tools break easily? What would they possibly be made into, Lances, large knives or something else?

  5. Its hard to know why they were made or placed together in a bundle. My hunch is that they were made to be used in a cache buried in the ground; that the way the White's found them was the way they were intended to be used. Its not the sort of use that puts meat on the table, but it might have fulfilled some other important role in the society of the person who made them. A ritual or ceremonial act.

    I didn't examine all of the edges of every tool, but on the ones that I did look at carefully, I didn't see any sign of wear along the tips or cutting edges and there didn't seem to be any grinding around the base to facilitate hafting. Generally, they are symmetrical, which favours a projectile or stabbing function over a cutting function like a knife. The narrower points could have been hafted as spears, but they don't seem to have been hafted or used in that capacity. They went into the ground instead.

    The wider ones seem outside the range of functional tools. Its difficult to imagine using them as they are and they seem too large to haft. Their inclusion in the set makes me lean away from thinking that the others are purely functional spear points made for later use.

    Rhyolite is a tough material, but still they would be relatively fragile. Even so, the narrower ones could have been hafted and used and normally wouldn't have been discarded until after they have been broken or reworked. I didn't necessarily get the impression from looking at them that they were too thin to have been functional sear points. For me, its the fact that all 32 bifaces appear to have entered the archaeological record in a pristine, unused and undamaged condition that moves them out of the "functional" category into the "ceremonial" category.

  6. I thought that it may have served a ceremonial purpose as well. But in the provincial Archaeology report it says that they were probally not ceremonial, because no red ochre was used and because they were not broken. I guess we will never really know. But whoever put them there had some reason i am sure.

  7. Yes, well, archaeology presents almost limitless opportunities to disagree with your friends and colleagues. That can either be a perk or a curse, depending on your personality.

  8. The North Hadley and CT caches were also aligned in groups with tips and bases reversed in groups.

  9. Wow....Amazing find indeed.....Kevin Smith..My name is John...are you an archeologist? I live in Northampton,MA and VERY interested in pre contact peoples of the area..I would love to pick your brian

  10. What beautiful pieces! I am always so excited to see more chapters in the story of our first peoples come to life.

    I'd like to weigh in on the ceremonial vs. non-ceremonial question. Maybe they were teaching tools. From what I've studied, the recent indians (in a lot of cases) had specific duties to learn and master. Many believe that once this accoplishment was recognized, was when they recieved their pendants. Maybe these bifaces were teaching tools prepared by those who would eventually supply their unit with the smaller, hafted pieces that would be used in the hunt.

    Whatever the purpose, a find such as this certainly warrants a closer look. The possiblity exists that if these bifaces are similar to those found in North Hadley, we may be able to connect the Beothuk to our friends below the border with more than the Rammah chert pieces already connected.

    Just a thought.....

  11. That's an interesting thought Connie. The set certainly demonstrates a competence with knapping that is rarely seen. Their maker would have possessed a lot of knowledge that they'd be able to pass on to the next generation.


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