Jemseg River Crossing, 1996. (Photo courtesy of Susan Blair)

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Ramona Nicholas’ journey into the forest near Sisson Brook began 120 kilometers southeast across headwater streams and marshes at the mouth of the Jemseg River. There, a modern highway construction crew ran into thousands of years of history at an ancient Wolastoqiyik settlement.

In 1996, the new $585-million four-lane highway from Fredericton to Moncton was the largest construction project in the history of New Brunswick, designed to replace an old dangerous stretch of two-lane highway. The new highway would pass across the Grand Lake Meadows, an ecologically sensitive wetland in the valley of the Wolastoq.

Archaeologists had been doing survey work in advance of the highway construction along an area they call the footprint, which is the terrain that’s going to be covered by pavement and bridge piers. The footprint is where there will be damage to underlying archaeological materials. The archaeological team’s job is to recover information from the footprint, with the understanding that the excavation itself is a form of destruction. But the recovery of artifacts and archaeological information, such as dwelling floors, food remains and cooking hearths, allow the team to record information before the archaeological record is destroyed.

As members of a survey team prepared to build a bridge across the Jemseg River, they discovered an archaeological site unlike any in the Maritimes.

Chris Turnbull, the manager of New Brunswick’s Archaeological Services Unit, recognized this site might raise issues larger than the practicalities of excavating a few artifacts before building a bridge.

“Obviously in Canada there’s a fault line, a major, major, humongous fault line between Canadian society and the Indigenous peoples of this land,” said Turnbull.

“Archaeology happens to be on the grinding edge between these two different views of Canada. And that means that when projects like this come up there is a lot of potential conflict between rescuing the material, working on it without permission or cooperation of the First Nations communities involved.”

“Those who have practiced archaeology are not without blame. We intruded into these struggles with narrowly-focused academic eyes. Archaeologists have been reluctant or, at least, slow to recognize the role that the Wolastoqiyik of today must play in any excavation of their history.”

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Archaeologists had traditionally seen themselves as  givers of knowledge, scientists who collected information and transmitted the results to Indigenous communities, more often than not keeping the original materials in government storage facilities and museum archives. Despite archaeology’s efforts to record the history and knowledge before the evidence is destroyed, the problem still remains that the vital interpretations are being made by people foreign to the way of life they are recording.

“We are not givers of knowledge,” Turnbull said. “We are people who are meant to work with other people on their history and their culture.”

From the beginning, Turnbull decided that the Jemseg Project presented an opportunity to do things differently. He enlisted the help of two Wolastoqey community members with a long history of involvement in Indigenous heritage, Patrick Polchies and Karen Perley.

Then on August 26, 1996, Turnbull, Perley and Polchies visited the site with a graduate student in archaeology named Susan Blair. She happened to be on maternity leave and might be available manage the project on short notice.

“I remember it was one of those late summer days, warm and sunny, and there were frogs and snakes, and all sorts of wildlife and critters and the river was flowing by,” recalled Blair, who is now a University of New Brunswick professor. “It was beautiful. But I remember being struck by that feeling that something’s coming and in a sense that this whole system was going to be so impacted. What was our function? Why were we there?”

Polchies, who is now a member of the Kingsclear First Nation Council responsible for fisheries and economic development, recalled a similar sensation during the first site visit.

“I had a real feeling at Jemseg that we were at an ancient site. People had been there for a long time.

“A lot of that comes from understanding the environment, where exactly it is geographically. It’s the centre basically of the mouth of Grand Lake and as you can imagine that always put them in a very valuable [position] in terms of economy and a lot of things that people could take advantage of there to feed themselves.”

Polchies remembers visiting the Jemseg site with officials from the Maritime Road Development Corporation, the public-private partnership building the new highway. As they toured the field, someone asked Polchies if he could find artifacts for them to see. He walked down to the front end of the site and in short order picked up 30 or so flakes and a Normanskill projectile point that was about 6,000 years old. He remembers one of the officials asking, “You found all that?”

“Of course it gave a fair amount of significance of what they were trying to understand about the Jemseg site about how rich it was in artifacts and how important it would ultimately be for the overall picture of Maliseet history in the province,” Polchies said. “So bringing in the artifacts compelled them to move forward.”

The Jemseg River provided plentiful resources for the Wolastoqiyik, “the people of the beautiful river.” Its connection to other waterways made it a crossroad allowing travel to other parts of the province, from the north through Grand Lake and south toward the ocean down the Wolastoq. Evidence points to the site as a meeting place for trade and gatherings. The running of several fish species and the surrounding flora and fauna made the site a source of food, medicine and materials for toolmaking.

The Wolastoqiyik were and are the quintessential river dwellers. They built lightweight bark canoes with which they navigated the 675 kilometre river system and all its tributaries, spanning a drainage area of 55,000 square kilometres.

This entire area was glaciated during the last ice age. The remnants of these glacial features can still be seen in the terraces, deltas and plains. Toward the end of its journey to the sea, the Wolastoq widens, and at Jemseg is flanked by gently sloping banks and broad and fertile floodplains.

Before she arrived, Blair had been told that the site was relatively recent and small, the kind of site a small team could excavate in about 12 weeks.

“It was sort of framed to me that there was this site, it was fairly shallow, it would be fairly straightforward to work on and there would be this really exciting opportunity to collaborate with First Nations communities and individuals in the work,” Blair said.

She soon realized the site was much larger than anyone had expected. It was about 180 metres long, beginning with a series of gradual slopes toward the river, then crossed a wetland to a raised hill next to the water where silt and sand had been deposited and pushed back by the ice. Some of the field had been plowed by farmers, and fill from a previous road building project had pushed material into a pile at the back. She didn’t know what was under that pile of fill.

“This is a monstrously large area for an archaeological project,” she said. “What we found is that there was archaeological material in every part of that site.”

Blair prepared a budget and told Polchies she thought they should ask for $1.2 million. Up to this point, her largest budget request for a project had been about $10,000. She and Polchies met with MRDC and provincial Department of Transportation officials in a Fredericton boardroom and presented the budget.

“I recall Susan and I sitting at one side of the table and all these suits on the other and they really wanted us to cut right to the chase of, you know, how much money is this going to involve,” Polchies said.

“And so we kinda looked at each other and I think I actually spoke the words, ‘It’s gonna cost about $1.2 million.’ Of course we didn’t realize it at the time but the people sitting at the other table didn’t even blink. They just looked at us and said, ‘How long before you can start?’ And I think both of us started into, ‘Well, we need a million because ’ and then we were like ‘What did you say?’ ‘When can you start? When can you do this?’”

The team began working began in late August, with a deadline of May 15, 1997.

“The first unit we put in produced an artifact that, by all our estimates, ranged from seven and nine-thousand years old, so not recent, and it was 150 meters back from the water’s edge,” said Blair.

They found material 90 centimetres below the surface, all the way down to the water table, almost a metre and a half down.

“Suddenly we realized we had one of the largest sites that we’d encountered, and we had nine months.

“The real problem though, the biggest challenge, was none of those things. Those are all archaeological issues and certainly they are potentially show-stopping archaeological issues, and we could problem solve them. But the big problem was that we didn’t have time to talk to people. The consultation that needed to happen, the building up of an awareness, a respectful kind of thing that would involve listening to people, not just telling them. That takes time and we didn’t have time to do that.”

And smack dab in the middle of the time they had left loomed a New Brunswick winter.

(With files from William Cumming, Troy Glover, Alyssa Gould, Sekou Hendrickson, Vincent Jiang, Mitchell Peardon, Tiziana Zevallos.)

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