Friday, February 22, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Dominic Lacroix Researching Maritime Archaic Indian Landscapes and Collections

Dominic Lacroix visiting the
multi-component site of
Stock Cove, eastern Newfoundland
(photo by John Erwin 2010)
Dominic Lacroix is working towards a PhD in Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He's trying to make sense of the Maritime Archaic Indian presence in Newfoundland through the artifacts that they left behind and by reconstructing the landscape that they occupied.  Its cool work, and whenever Dominic speaks about his research I try to listen.  Now, after reading his responses to the Plans and Profiles questions, I look forward to reading about his efforts as well.  You don't have to be an archaeologist to appreciate Dominic's search for answers to his many questions about the Archaic period in Newfoundland, so pour yourself a coffee, get comfortable and enjoy...

Plans and Profiles #10. Dominic Lacroix, Maritime Archaic Indians in Newfoundland

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

A variety of objects dating to the Archaic period from
 various regions of the island. (photo by Dominic Lacroix 2013)
My project focuses on the very first Newfoundlanders, a group of Amerindians we call the Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI) that settled and made the island of Newfoundland their home for thousands of years starting some 6000 years ago. Although a number of amazing sites dating to this time period have been excavated on the island, we actually know very little about these people in contrast to other groups that have since followed in their footsteps. Through my research, I’m attempting to flesh out our understanding of what it was like to live on the island of Newfoundland so long ago, in a world very different from our own. To do so, I blend artifact analyses with historical and palaeoenvironmental data, and computer models to explore notions of group identity, homeland, mobility, and interaction amongst various Archaic communities. In contrast to other Archaeologists you’ve featured so far in your Plans and Profiles, my project does not rely on an excavation program. Instead of focussing on a single site, I’m interested in the big picture, landscape patterns present at the scale of the entire island. So for my project, I’m relying on data that already exists, whether it is to be found in digital form, in historical records, or as items now curated in various local, provincial, and federal collections.

An important aspect of looking at the big picture is putting all the information we have in its proper historical and cultural context. One factor strongly affecting our understanding of the Archaic is sea-level change, which has had a dramatic impact on certain coastal regions of Newfoundland over the last 6000 years. To use an example right out of Tim’s MA thesis, the sea has risen by more than 10 m along the south coast since the Archaic. The coastal landscape people would have inhabited in this region is now almost completely submerged, except for high points which are now islands. In contrast, the Northern Peninsula has been rising out of the sea over this same period, so Archaic coastal sites in this region are now hundreds of metres inland, like the Archaic sites from Bird Cove that have already been featured in this blog. As a result of these changes, the location of a site today may be extremely different from the location that was selected by the families who occupied it so long ago. By incorporating palaeoenvironmental data, including records of sea-level change, the physical landscape inhabited by these people can be reconstructed using computer models and a bit of imagination.

Interactive 360 degree panorama showing the major
landscape features surrounding the site of
Stock Cove in eastern Newfoundland.
(panorama by Dominic Lacroix 2010)
However, working with sea-level alone only tells us about the places people inhabited, not the people themselves. These reconstructed environments must be placed into their proper cultural context, as far as it can be inferred from the practices of those who inhabited them. These practices include things like technology, foodways, campsite selection, burial rituals, and travel. Technology is an integral part of people’s identity and tools can tell us many things about the people who left them behind. Tools are part of our daily life. They are extensions of our body and, as such, make various statements as to the type of person we are. Just think of people using a Mac instead of a PC, or having a set of chopsticks instead of a fork as their main table utensil. Artifact collections allow me to look at the similarity and differences between large numbers of tools people have made and used across vast regions. They provide an important background from which to compare human-tool relationships between various regions. Food is another aspect of daily life to which we identify strongly. It also tends to be very culturally specific and is usually linked to a variety of social rules. Think how uncomfortable you may have felt the last time you were placed in front of a new food, especially if it came without instructions on how to proceed. I’m using the various food opportunities that different regions of the island offered to explore the variety of foodways that may have been present in each region. Home is where we choose to live, and how we connect with these particular places is also an integral aspect of who people are, so the way Archaic families chose specific places to inhabit and the way they interacted with these places is yet another source of information I am exploring. Death can be a difficult transition to deal with. The loss of loved ones, old or young, changes our lives. How people approached this important transition during the Archaic and the way they interacted with their departed ancestors is another important aspect of my research. Movement is also something we do every day and impacts where we get things and how we keep in touch with others. Since Newfoundland is an island, I’m exploring how this would have impacted families moving across the Island itself and to adjoining mainland regions when all they had was their feet and people-powered watercraft.

Circular panorama showing the major landscape features surrounding the site of Stock Cove in eastern Newfoundland. This is a 2D image of the interactive Quicktime panorama above. Click to Enlarge.  (panorama by Dominic Lacroix 2010)

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem?

Ever since I took an undergraduate course on the Archaeology of Eastern North America at the University of Calgary, I’ve been fascinated by the impact sea-level change has had on our collective cultural heritage. Throughout the majority of human history, global sea-levels have been on average 40 to 60 m lower than they are today! In places along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, as elsewhere in the world, this can translate into many kilometres of submerged landscapes, one example being that coastal places that were inhabited during these periods are now underwater. Until a few decades ago, it was generally believed that coastal resources only begun to be a major source of human focus roughly 5000–7000 years ago, as evidenced by a sudden worldwide increase in the number of sites with a clear coastal focus. We now know that this actually corresponds to the period when sea-levels began to stabilize near their current position. These observations have remained in the back of my head ever since, waiting to materialize in the form of a great research project.

I actually selected the topic of my MA with the purpose of gaining invaluable experience in interpreting geophysical data, an important skill for submerged archaeological landscape research. For my PhD, I wanted to combine my new interpretive skills to a context that involved sea-level change. Parks Canada has been involved in very interesting work incorporating sea-level change into our understanding of the early history of the West Coast for a few decades already, but in eastern Canada few projects have combined modern ocean mapping technologies to archaeological knowledge in order to gain a better understanding of the landscapes inhabited by our earliest predecessors. Archaic Newfoundland seemed like a perfect case study to reflect on the impact of sea-level change on archaeological preservation and site visibility, as well as the effects such coastal changes would have had on the lifeways of those who experienced it first hand.

Dramatic changes in landscapes due to sea-level change. This is Atlantic Canada around 8000 years ago, roughly the age of the oldest Archaic sites in Labrador. PEI is part of the mainland, the Magdalen Islands are quite large, and areas of the offshore banks are dry land. Newfoundland’s west coast is highly indented, with other important changes at a more local scale. (image by Dominic Lacroix 2012)

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

Most definitely yes! In all fairness, when I began this project I only had a very fuzzy idea of what I wanted to do other than to somehow blend sea-level change with people. As I became more accustomed to the models used to describe the Maritime Archaic period, I began to realise how the type of research I wanted to do could be used to answer new questions about these people. In Newfoundland, interpretations originally proposed for a few well-excavated sites have often been recycled and applied everywhere on the island, often without proper justifications, leaving us with very limited and sometime simplistic ideas about how Archaic people lived on the island. By taking a landscape approach and looking at the big picture, it allows me to see varying patterns of landscape use at a regional scale. This gives me the opportunity to test if things were done differently in different regions and better positions me to understand the regional context of any given site, without having to over-stretch my interpretations. So my project rapidly began to expand (perhaps too much according to my supervisors!) from a fuzzy blend of sea-level and people to incorporate more recent social theory, and integrate sea-level change with other forms of landscape patterns, like the type of relationships people had with their food, their ancestors, their places, and their routes of movement. As a result I’m now able to target questions that had previously been neglected to flesh out aspects of life during the Archaic.

Dominic conducting a ground-penetrating radar survey at the
site of Point Riche, northwestern Newfoundland.
(photo by Rob Anstey 2010)
Just like Mike Parker Pearson mentioned with regards to the Stonehenge Riverside Project, the changes to my project didn’t come all at once, and I think this is true of most projects. They were gradually incorporated as I stumbled into some new observation that raised a number of new questions. In order to do any form of submerged landscape archaeology, you need a cultural context in which to place the landforms you are studying. This context is currently very thin for Archaic Newfoundland. One of the first things I did was to visit a large number of sites to get a better ‘feel’ for their location and better understand how the model of site location developed by my two co-supervisors, Trevor Bell and Priscilla Renouf , actually translates itself on the ground. During these visits, I realised that Archaic families from different region of the island seemed to bury their dead differently. The importance of this particular observation was actually pointed out to me by a colleague after a presentation I gave at a conference (Thanks Chris Wolff!). I then realised this pattern extended to adjoining mainland regions of the Maritimes and Labrador. While going through the literature on the Archaic, I started noticing that certain types of objects also tended to be concentrated in certain regions of the Island, regions that roughly overlapped with the two separate burial patterns I had already observed. This is when I began to realise that Newfoundland was likely shared by more that one group, and that although they were closely related to each other and adjoining mainland groups, they did things their own way. If all the worldviews of these groups were slowly morphing into each other from northern Labrador to New England, this means that people had to stay in touch, even if infrequently. Because Newfoundland is an island, this turned my attention to seafaring and the skills involved in maintaining these networks of relations. While looking at artifacts, I also became aware that some of the most unusual material came from interior regions. This got me to look more closely into the vast landscapes of interior Newfoundland. Even if people focussed their living on the coast, the interior would have played an important role as a travel corridor between various coastal regions of the island. Finally, a paper written by my co-supervisors suggested that a link may also have been present between resource concentrations and site locations during the Archaic. This led me to include foodways into my research in order to compare how regional patterns of food procurement interplayed with my other observations. So my project has progressively increased in complexity to better explore how the first Newfoundlanders interacted with their close and distant kin, their ancestors, their homeland, the sea, and how climate change impacted their lives.

4) What’s the one question about your research that you never want to hear again?

Humm, I don’t think there is one! I like chatting about my project and each person I talk to seems to take something a little different from my research, depending on what their particular interests are, which often leads to very different types of question. I think the one question I maybe get the most is not really related to my project at all. On hearing that I used to be an engineer, people want to know why I switched to archaeology. I have all sorts of ideas as to where my burgeoning interest in archaeology came from (see below), but really, the switch just felt right. I have never regretted it.

5) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

Dominic, in company of Dominique Lavers at Point Riche, 
northwestern Newfoundland. 
(Port au Choix Archaeology Project Photo 2010)
By looking into various aspect of people’s life in the past, I couldn’t help but to analyse my own life and dwell further into what makes us humans. I have become increasingly aware of my own connections with the world, from the particular experiences, feelings and memories tied to my landscape, to the particular flukes of history that brought me to where I am today, and even to the way the food and the products I routinely use are made and arrive at my house. Through this constant dialogue between past and present, I have learnt to apply my own brand of critical thinking to all sorts of information, archaeological or not, and, as a result, I have become progressively more critical of the way we do certain things today. Our ‘modern’ society has adopted a very special and detached view of the world we inhabit, a way of seeing things that has come to artificially separate us from and put us above the world we inhabit. The more I think about the past, the more I realise how connected everything truly is and that we need to rethink, as a society, how we approach a number of things. As feedback into my own research, I now realise that even simple questions cannot be explored without having to follow connections into multiple directions, and that, however much data we may have, we’ll only ever expose part of the story. I now see my job as an archaeologist as presenting the glimpses of our shared heritage I have uncovered to the public and use those to nudge people into rethinking some of the assumptions and the pre-conceived ideas that remain an integral part of our modern identity.

6) Why did you choose MUN?

Given the particular blend of ocean mapping technologies and archaeology I was looking for in a PhD project, very few places in Canada were able to match what MUN had to offer. The Department of Geography is a leader in coastal geomorphology and marine habitat mapping which offered the expertise and access to data required for the more technical aspect of my research. The Department of Archaeology is a leader in North Atlantic archaeology. But, when it really comes down to it, it is my two co-supervisors, Trevor Bell and Priscilla Renouf who really tipped the balance for me. I knew of Trevor through a few scholars from Ireland I had been in touch with. They were part of the Submerged Landscape Archaeological Network (SLAN), which Trevor was instrumental in creating. This network brings together researchers in academia and government agencies from both sides of the North Atlantic with expertise linked to submerged landscape archaeology. In turn, Trevor put me in touch with Priscilla. The two of them had already been working together on a number of projects that combined archaeological site location with sea-level change. The more I talked to and read about them and their research, the more excited I became with the idea of collaborating with such amazing people. Plus St. John’s and Newfoundland are such beautiful places that after our first visit to the Island, my wife and I fell in love with this place, it felt like home, so the choice was an easy one!

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

I like how you use the word unwind, because you can never really get away entirely from your research. As Patty Wells was mentioning in her profile, even when she drives around she can’t help but keeping an eye out for things that relate to her research. I think this is especially true when you study people and their landscape and all you do in your own life is interacting with other people and your surroundings! For me, it seems that some of my best thinking occurs when I’m not focusing on a task directly related to my project, like shovelling my car out of a snow bank. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately! However, I find that putting my research in the background is quite easy these days. I have young children that are extremely good at making sure they remain the centre of my attention as soon as I’m in the room, so as soon as I get home, I’m taken to a fantastic world filled with princesses, pirates, fairies, and knights, quite removed from my own work! I also love to cook, or just sit back and read or watch interesting stories, real or not.

8) When did you realize that you might be an archaeologist?

Dominic recording an Inuit sodhouse’s architecture in 3D at 
the site of Guukbuuq, Northwest Territories. 
(photo by Charles Arnold 2007)
Let’s face it, what kid wouldn’t like to be able to search for ‘treasures’ in the sand for a living! However, I don’t think I ever woke up one day and suddenly decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. For me, it has been a long a gradual process, the culmination of a number of experiences spanning many decades. The earliest experience I can recall which stirred my interest about old things buried in the ground was finding an old toy truck while helping my dad work in our garden. I remember how strange it felt to hold something somebody had lost years before and wondering how it might have got to the place where we found it. Later, my brother and I also kept finding all sorts of things (e.g., a watch, old shoes, metal utensils) while swimming in the river in front of our cottage, where we spent most of our childhood summers. Meanwhile, I got really interested in ancient societies as a result of my TV education. As a kid during the 80s, I was watching this weekly cartoon called “Les Merveilleuses Cités d’Or,” which took place during the ‘discovery’ of the Americas. Although the plot line had absolutely no basis in reality, it was always followed by a short documentary on the real places, people and things we had seen in the episode, from Machu Picchu to Teotihuacán. This is what got me to begin reading about amazing things groups like the Mayas and the Incas had accomplished without the help of power tools! My interest in other cultures continued to expand from there and many years later I found myself in Southeast Asia and then in the Ecuadorian Andes towards the end of my undergrad degree. I remember getting shocked (in a good way) constantly by things I witnessed and this really got me thinking about how different communities around the world can do things very differently based on their people’s history. Then I got to learn more about archaeology through an Egyptologist I met while living in Toronto. This got me really interested in this profession. At the time I was working towards a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and, after hopping through some hoops, I was granted permission to take an out-of-program undergraduate introductory course in anthropology. I loved it so much I decided then and there that I was going to become a shovel bum on archaeological digs once I retired from engineering. Fast forward a few years and I’m in South Korea teaching English in a Middle School (Junior High) for a year, surrounded by amazing archaeological sites, and needing to figure out what I was going to do when I got back to Canada. My wife and I decided to move back to her hometown, Calgary, where one of the largest archaeology department in Canada is located. Once we were settled, I decided to retire from engineering early, enrolled at the University of Calgary, and began my training as an archaeologist. The rest is history.

9) What books or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

For people interested in the Archaic period of Newfoundland, I strongly recommend Jim Tuck’s 1976 Ancient People of Port au Choix (published by Memorial University) is an insightful yet extremely approachable book on the excavation of one of the largest Archaic burial grounds in the Northeast. It offers very intriguing glimpses into various aspect of the life of the people who buried their friends and family in Port au Choix over 4000 years ago. It’s accompanied by beautiful pictures and drawings (if you can, get a hold of one of the original prints, the reprints just don’t do justice to the images), and remains unmatched for anything relating to this time period of Newfoundland, although a few chapters of Priscilla Renouf’s new edited volume The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix (published by Springer, 2011) add new interesting dimensions to the topic. For a quick source of information, The Rooms (Newfoundland’s provincial museum, archive and gallery) has a great overview of the Maritime Archaic, as does Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage, both written by Tuck. Newfoundland’s Provincial Archaeology Office also maintains a blog that has multiple interesting entries relating to the Archaic period.

For those interested in an exiting introduction to the possibilities of submerged landscape archaeology, I’d point them towards Europe's Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland by Vince Gaffney and two of his colleagues (published by the Council for British Archaeology, 2009). It presents, in an approachable format, research relating to the vast regions of the North Sea that connected England to the European mainland until the early Mesolithic. For archaeologists looking to go further into this subjects, I’d suggest taking a look at the book Submerged Prehistory edited by Jonathan Benjamin and three of his colleagues (published by Oxbow Books, 2011). This one presents the results of a variety of recent research projects from around the world. The SLAN, of which I’m part, produces an online newsletter discussing our most recent endeavours and links to our publications.

For recent research done in Canadian waters, the volume entitled Haida Gwaii: Human History and Environment from the Time of Loon to the Time of the Iron People, edited by Daryl Fedje and Rolf W. Mathewes (published by UBC Press, 2005), is a wonderful example of submerged landscape archaeology. Parks Canada’s website also has multiple links to various research programs linked to underwater archaeology particularly and our National Marine Conservation Areas more generally.

My own research in just on the verge of beginning to be published so interested readers will have to be patient… any updates will be posted to my page.

Finally, visiting the various links provided throughout the text, many produced by Elfshot!


Would you like to see your work profiled here or the work of one of your colleagues or students?  Send me a note and I'll send you some questions.

Photo Credits: As noted in photo captions

1 comment:

  1. There has been some tremendous work done on the Maritime Archaic in this province, but its been done primarily at the site level. I think Dominic's approach is going to help us to fit those sites into larger scale patterns. He's already seeing some surprising connections between regions in the artifact collections. This is definitely a research project to follow.


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