Monday, March 4, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Chris Wolff, Don Holly, and John Erwin Researching Human-Environment Interaction at Stock Cove, Newfoundland

Chris Wolff, Don Holly, John Erwin
reflecting on Humans, the Environment and Stock Cove
Chris Wolff, Don Holly, and John Erwin are three archaeologists with diverse interests and backgrounds sharing the workload of investigating a multi-component site at Stock Cove, Newfoundland.  Chris is an assistant professor of anthropology at SUNY Plattsburgh with field experience ranging from Texas to Iceland to Alaska and Newfoundland.  Don Holly is an associate professor of Anthropology at Eastern Illinois University and is one of the world's foremost scholars researching Newfoundland's Beothuk Indians.  John Erwin works for Newfoundland and Labrador's Department of Tourism, Culture, and Recreation and has helped shape a wave of archaeologists from this province through several seasons of field schools that developed out of his PhD research into the Palaeoeskimo soapstone quarry at Fleur de lys.

They're the Cream... the Travelling Wilbury's of Newfoundland archaeology and the work that they are doing at Stock Cove is adding to our understanding of the pre-contact history of the Island.

Plans and Profiles #13. Chris Wolff, Don Holly, and John Erwin, Human-Environment Interaction at Stock Cove, Newfoundland.

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Don and John excavating at Stock Cove
Chris: I started working at the Stock Cove Site in 2008 while trying to find a new project following my dissertations research. I was particularly interested in finding a site that had some degree of faunal preservation that could potentially address some of my questions about human-environment interaction on the Island of Newfoundland. I got interested in historical ecology during grad school, and wanted to try and find a site where I could do a long-term study. So, while at Ben’s having a few beers I got to talking with Ken Reynolds, one of the Provincial Government’s archaeologists, about the potential of various sites, and he brought up Stock Cove, which hadn’t really been systematically examined since the 1980s. I started looking into it and never really looked back. I tested the site and saw the potential and in 2009 asked Don Holly and John Erwin to join me at the site and develop a research project to answer several questions. For me, the most interesting questions involved the abandonment of the island by several of its prehistoric and historic cultures at different periods and how it may relate to environmental or climate change; something that has also been important to modern communities on the island. And the best aspect of Stock Cove is that it has evidence of all of those cultures, from Archaic to Europeans, so I hoped, and still hope, that I can begin to address these questions at a single location. I’ve never been that happy focusing on a single culture, and have always been drawn to issues that cut across cultures and that may have modern relevance. But I quickly realized that this site is too big for a single researcher and I always wanted to work with Don and John, never thinking they would agree. It’s worked out pretty good, and we all bring different perspectives to the project, but also have a lot of shared interests. We’ve now been to the site a few times over the last few years, and continue to be amazed by it.

Don: Chris started this project in 2008. I was invited to join it in 2009. At first, I was happy enough to just work at the site, even if much of the material we were apt to find there would be related to the Dorset, and not to the Beothuk and their ancestors (a particular interest of mine). But when we started excavating at Stock Cove it quickly became apparent that the site contained a significant Little Passage component too—and maybe even some hope for an early historic Beothuk presence. Doug Robbins had recognized the importance of the Little Passage/Beothuk presence at Stock Cove in the 1980s when he was excavating at the site, but the Dorset component became the centerpiece of his well-known Masters’ thesis, and so most people came to think of Stock Cove as only an important Dorset site. I soon realized that the Little Passage/Beothuk component had a lot to offer too. And then we found the Stock Cove West site.

Feature at Stock Cove
The Stock Cove West site was found in the course of digging the kind of hole one excavates after morning coffee. It was a lucky strike, and its discovery effectively closed off an entire section of the woods that we had set aside for our morning walks. But it was worth it; the site immediately intrigued us. For one, none of the subsequent test pits in this area yielded Dorset material. This was odd considering the quantity of Dorset artifacts we were unearthing nearby. Our test pits at the Stock Cove West site also produced classic Little Passage/Beothuk stone tools in association with flakes of ballast flint, pipe stems, and pottery. Thus, we figured that the site could represent a single component early historic Beothuk site. We no longer think this is the case. Excavations at the site the following year (2010) suggest that the Beothuk occupation occurred in the 14th century, and then the site was visited later by Europeans. Nonetheless, the site turned out to be quite interesting in a number of unforeseen ways. Our excavations in 2010, for instance, yielded a few Maritime Archaic artifacts, including a large “net-sinker;” we also recovered some faunal and an odd rock feature associated with the Little Passage occupation, and 17th century European artifacts. We are now trying to figure out what it all means.

John: I was also invited by Chris to join the project in 2009 while he was conducting lithic research at The Rooms Provincial Museum that winter. My previous work, on the Baie Verte Peninsula focused on the Dorset Soapstone Quarry in Fleur de Lys, where I had spent 10 seasons investigating the Dorset Palaeoeskimo culture. The opportunity to participate in the investigation of one of the province's other important Dorset sites was one which I would not want to pass up – plus it provided an opportunity to continue my work with two good friends in Chris and Don.

The project at Stock Cove provides an opportunity to not only study a particular archaeological culture, but also to compare their various occupations and adaptation to a most complex and long used site. Likewise the site provides opportunities to the study of a unique expression of Dorset culture, not to mention that there are preserved faunal remains (a rare occurrence on the Island of Newfoundland with sites of this age), and perhaps the chance to investigate a Dorset longhouse (as suggested by Robbins)

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

Stock Cove, Newfoundland
Chris: My main research questions first began to develop while a grad student at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) working with Lisa Rankin in Labrador, and sitting in Priscilla Renouf’s Newfoundland Prehistory class. I first got interested in Newfoundland and Labrador while an intern at the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) at the National Museum of Natural History in 1999 working on Rattler’s Bight material with William Fitzhugh, and while there Fitzhugh and others always talked up the Archaeology program at MUN. So, I somehow got accepted in to that program and increasingly became interested during my coursework in the relationship between prehistoric demographics and climate change. After finishing my M.A. at MUN I went on Southern Methodist University for my Ph.D. work and got interested in historical ecology and coastal adaptations more generally while working with Torben Rick and David Meltzer. To me, the Stock Cove project is natural combination of these interests, while working at one of my favorite places, Newfoundland.

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

Chris: The project has expanded a bit since the early days of research, and includes work at a neighboring site, the Stock Cove West Site. I think we all like to work in a small team, which logistically is easier, not to mention you don’t have to manage as many personalities, but we have slowly been expanding our interest. Last year, I collaborated with Tommy Urban from the University of Oxford to conduct geophysical examination (ground penetrating radar and magnetometry) of the site so that we can be more efficient in our use of time and resources. We have really interesting results that will be the focus on next year’s excavation and sampling of the site. Also, although we were all familiar with the site we didn’t really realize the extent of the site. It is much larger and richer than we anticipated which has changed our field strategies a bit. We are trying to keep our collection sizes manageable instead of simply continuing to accumulate artifacts without having time to analyze them between field seasons.

Don: One of the great things about archaeology—perhaps more so than other fields—is the potential for research to spin off in new directions. It is really a discovery science. This issue came up at a meeting we had with the members of the nearby community of Sunnyside. Some expressed hope that our excavations might yield material that could be connected to John Guy’s famous voyage through the area in 1612. It hasn’t (not yet anyway). But it has produced new stories (and potential research leads). As already mentioned, for instance, we discovered a Maritime Archaic occupation at the Stock Cove West site. We are also learning more about the diet of the Dorset at Stock Cove proper and the extent of their occupation (it is much larger than previously thought). So, in many ways the project has changed. This is what makes fieldwork so exciting—if sometimes frustrating too.

John: The site's richness and diversity of occupations offers so many opportunities for investigation, that it is not surprising that it has provided so many lines of potential research. For an archaeologist working on the Island of Newfoundland, it's like being a kid working in a candy shop. What candy should I eat first?

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?

in situ deposits
Chris: My main question would be, why Stock Cove? What made this place so attractive to almost every culture that lived on the island. We have some faunal remains that suggest that the Dorset people who occupied the site were hunting various seal species and some small mammals, but not the caribou as Doug Robbins hypothesized when he worked there in the 1980s. But Stock Cove is well away from historic distributions of large seal herds, and the size of the site suggests that ample resources would be needed to support a substantial population. We are still working out the contemporaneity of the site features, but early evidence suggests there was likely a large group occupying the site, at least during the Dorset period. Could there be another reason people aggregated here associated with social or ceremonial purposes? It’s interesting to think about.

Don: John Guy apparently observed a small Beothuk encampment in Stock Cove in 1612. I’d like to ask the Beothuk who lived there how they got along with the fishermen. We have a pretty good idea of the state of later relations (poor), but the first century or so of contact is not very well understood at all. I think Bill Gilbert is right to suggest that encounters between the Beothuk and Europeans could be friendly, but it also seems that they were tense—unpredictable. And then the Beothuk vacate the area by the middle of the 17th century. We still don’t really understand all the factors that contributed to this, or the conditions on the ground in the 16th century. After that, I’d like to just listen to some Beothuk elders reminisce about the old times.

John: I think this is a question that a lot of archaeologists think about, especially while working on site. One which immediately springs to mind is for the Dorset. Where did you get all this white chert, and what's with all the ground endblades? I'd also ask them if they'd ever been to the soapstone quarry up the coast and see where the conversation went.

5) If an extra $50,000 appeared in your research budget tomorrow, how would you spend it?

Chris: Personally, I would love to spend some of it on expanding our geophysical investigation of the site, hire some students to excavate some key areas, and set some aside for systematic radiocarbon dating of the site. I think a high-resolution chronology of the site is essential to our understanding of it.

John, Chris, and Don arriving at The Rooms after the 2009
field season. They had to return this research vessel or pay
late fees. (photo by Lori White)
Don: Research vessel. Better field food. Also, a larger crew; one of the great challenges to excavating at Stock Cove proper is the amount of material that is there. There were several times in 2009 that we stopped excavating with a trowel and just collected endblades with our hands. It was as if there were more artifacts at the site than dirt. This makes it difficult to open up large areas at one time and see the big picture. I suppose another downside is that it gives young field students an unreasonable expectation of archaeological work in the Province.

John: A research vessel/lab facility would greatly enhance our ability to work at the site – particularly the ability it would provide to undertake basic lab work on-site.

6) You've been collaborating on this project for several years now – what is the best thing and the worst thing about being a co-director on a project?

Chris: The best thing is working with really bright people that you can trust to pull their weight both in the field and with analysis and writing. Because I don’t worry about these things it reduces the stress I think I would feel if it was all on my shoulders.

The worst thing is that they expect the same of me, and I feel I need to step up my research and writing to be on par with these guys. It’s not easy.

Don: I only see an upside to this sort of collaboration. I really enjoy being able to bounce ideas, ask questions, and work through problems (logistical, interpretive, etc.) at the site with other experienced excavators. I think it would be far more challenging to make all these decisions on one’s own. And Chris is funny, as I am way behind on writing up the Stock Cove West material, among other things. We are all trying.

John: Collaboration is the best and most rewarding part of working at Stock Cove. The worst thing is that I have not been able to be as involved as I initially was due to other work commitments this past year.

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

Don working in the woods
Chris: Probably the thing I do most to unwind is play and write music. But I also like to just get out and go for hikes or ski depending on the season, and I’ve really got into kayaking this past year. Oh, and there’s always meeting at the neighborhood bar for a few drinks.

Don: Long hikes in the woods with my dog. Playing disc-golf (Newfoundland and Labrador is the only Province without a course). Wine with my wife.

John: I like to run, and participate in 5 and 10K runs here in Newfoundland, that is, when I'm not watching movies and blogging about them.

8) If you had to give up one beverage until this project is over, would you rather do without beer or coffee?

Chris: That’s a tough one. I think I could do without beer before coffee, which, I know, is not archaeological of me, but I’m actually more of a Scotch and Bourbon drinker anyway. Coffee is a necessity.

Don: Beer. I drink much more wine. Now if the question was alcohol or caffeine….I’d rather die.

John: Coffee – I enjoy my morning beer ;)

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?

Chris: For general interest, one of my favorite books is Human Impacts on Ancient Marine Ecosystems: A Global Perspective edited by Jon Erlandson and Torben Rick. It is an edited volume of case studies of coastal peoples and their interaction with their environments. Lots of good chapters I find useful, and use in my classes as well, particularly my Coastal and Aquatic Archaeology course. I also really like Don’s book that he co-edited with Kenneth Sassaman, Hunter-Gatherer Perspectives as Historical Process. There are also lots of good articles about prehistoric peoples of Newfoundland. I really like the work that Priscilla Renouf and Trevor Bell and their students have been doing primarily on the west coast. As far as web content, what I probably read the most (besides your blog of course) is the Provincial Archaeology Office of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Annual Review that they put out each year. It is great to see what everyone in the province is working on.


Are you collaborating on an archaeology project with your peers or friends?  I'd love to hear about your research.  Let me know and I'll send you nine questions about your work:

Photo Credits:
Chris Wolff unless otherwise noted in the photo caption.
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White


  1. I think the collaborative nature of this project is one of its strongest features. Aspects of the research at Stock Cove are showing up in a lot of the new research being done in Newfoundland. Its a good model to follow.

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    2. Hi, White Hair - Thanks for your comments, I passed them on to Don, Chris, and John. I'm sorry to hear about Gerard Pike, that's a very tragic situation.

      Regarding the protection of the site: As a registered archaeological site in the Province it is protected by the Historic Resources Act. There are fines and even jail terms for disturbing or damaging a site. Beyond that there is the Provincial Historic Commemorations Program which has recognized archaeological sites in the past, including Dildo Island, The Beaches Site and the Blood Bay Cove Quarry. Stock Cove seems like a good candidate for that recognition. I'm not sure if that designation comes with any additional protection, but it would help raise the profile of the good work that has been done there and the thousands of years of history that make it such a unique place. There is information on nominating sites here:

    3. Tim is correct, Stock Cove, like any other archaeological site in the Province is already protected under the Historic Resources Act.

      The Commemorations Program does not offer additional protection, but could raise the profile of the site and the work that has been done there.

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    6. I agree, considering the relatively small numbers of Beothuk during this period, it is likely that most of the groups were related, though establishing this from the stone tool assemblages is challenging at best.

      Still, these are the kinds of questions that we will eventually get at. For now, the research team is continuing to establish the foundation of understanding across all of the culture groups at Stock Cove and Stock Cove West.

      As for the Commemorations Program, I believe these are usually community led, though, as researchers, we would happily support such nominations.

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    1. I don't work for government or the Provincial Archaeology Office, so I may be wrong, but its my understanding that applications for cabin licenses are sent to the PAO for review. If a cabin is proposed to be built on a known archaeological site then the license will not be granted. If the development is in an area with high archaeological potential with little or no previous archaeological survey then approval for the cabin may be withheld pending the outcome of an archaeological assessment of the area. Since the potential impact is at the choice of the developer or cabin builder, then these literature reviews and surveys would be at their expense. If archaeological resources are found in the area, it is usually cheaper to move the cabin location by a few dozen metres to avoid the site rather than pay to have it scientifically investigated. If someone knows of an archaeological site and chooses to build over it, then the Historic Resources Act does give the PAO the power to issue stop work orders and seek fines and even jail terms. Intentionally damaging a site or ignoring the laws in place to protect our heritage resources isn't worth it, when the problem can often be completely avoided by a very small alteration to the placement of the proposed cabin or infrastructure.

      In terms of actually monitoring the sites on a day to day basis, the province simply doesn't have the resources to police every site. However, that doesn't mean that they aren't cared for. There are local heritage foundations across the Province that help protect the archaeological and historic places within their communities. In the 1980s, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Amateur Archaeologists had a monitoring program underway. The NLAAA no longer exists, but we do have a new Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society looking for projects to undertake. On the natural side of things, there is a new research project in the Province called Coastal Archaeological Resource Risk Assessment that is endeavouring to track and protect sites from coastal erosion.

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    1. If you haven't already, it would be a good idea to contact the PAO about your plans regarding the plaque. As you said, more coordination between the PAO and local communities is a good thing. I'm sure they'd be grateful for the consideration and consultation.

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    1. I don't have much experience with bronze plaques, but I've seen and heard good things about the Newfoundland Bronze Foundry:

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  7. Several comments in this thread were removed at the request of their author.


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