Helping dig up Grand Pre's past

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BY TREVOR NICHOLS

When the most exciting part of your day is finding an old fork in the dirt, you must be an archeologist.

Jonathan Fowler was ecstatic July 20 when someone found a perfectly intact, bone-handled fork at his dig site in Grand Pre.

Fowler and his fellow archeologists have been at Grand Pre for weeks now, literally uncovering the history of the Acadians who lived there before the infamous deportation in 1775.

“What we're interested in as archeologists is getting back to the people,” Fowler says.

He stands next to the replica of the old Acadian church at the Grand Pre National Historical Site, in one of a maze of perfectly rectangular pits. About 20 people kneel around him, scraping the rough dirt with trowels.

Although they are officially looking for the original Acadian church, Fowler explains, in archeology, every little thing is important: it all helps create a bigger and more detailed picture of the people who lived here before us.

Rob Ferguson, who works with Fowler at the Grand Pre site, agrees.

“Artefacts are a natural culture,” he says, “and everything is an artefact. Even though some of it may not be attractive, or go on display in a museum, it's still important information.

Jeff Turner, a masters student at St. Mary's University, volunteers with the dig. He says there is so much you can learn from all the tiny pieces of pottery, nail and forks you find at the digs. Every little scrap provides a little more understanding, or puts something into better perspective.

“It's like a painting,” he explains. “You stand back and see the whole picture but, if you get up close, you see all the little details.”

Ferguson says it was important for the team to let the public experience all those little details by helping with the dig.

Getting people involved helps them see exactly what the archeologists are doing: firsthand experience transforms the work from something obscure meant for museums to a vibrant and interesting way to experience history.

Ferguson also says, without the extra hands in the dirt, the Acadian digs likely wouldn't happen. Because they only have about three weeks each summer, having the public along for the ride allows the team to get more digging done

This is especially important, Fowler explains because, each year, they have to fill in all of the digging they have done. Uncovering it again the next year can take up three or four precious days.

Barbara Whitby is more than happy to oblige. She is an archeology enthusiast who has been getting her hands dirty at the digs since they started this summer. She has been doing it herself since she was three, digging up her own “treasures” in the garden.

“I suppose it becomes a kind of passion after a while.”

She keeps coming back because she feels deeply connected to the people whose lives she has been uncovering. The story of the Acadians touched her, and she feels like she somehow knows them.

“I feel (connected to them) every time, even if you find a little piece of pottery. It brings you so close to the fact that people were living their lives out, just like we are.”

She loves finding personal items, like buttons, because they help her get a better idea of the people's stories.

“It's such a sad story, and I'm very conscious of that. When I'm digging, I'm thinking about them,” Whitby says.

An important part of uncovering the Acadians’ story is preserving it, which is why the Societe Promotion Grand-Pre hopes to have the Grand Pre Historic Site designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Executive director Victor Tétrault says the society has been working on the proposal since 2007, and are only two months away from presenting their case. This makes the archeological discoveries at Grand Pre even more important.

Fowler thinks the UNESCO idea is great, but there is still a lot to learn. Throughout the site and surrounding area, there are likely several more important discoveries waiting below the soil - but no one really knows exactly what or where they are.

“We have to know what the heritage is before we can protect it,” he explains.

With the dig finished as of July 23 however, Fowler's team will have to come back again.

“We still haven't solved all of our mysteries,” says Ferguson.

To find out more and look for future opportunities to join in on an archeological dig, see the program's website.

Organizations: Acadian church, St. Mary's University, UNESCO Societe Promotion Grand-Pre Grand Pre Historic Site

Geographic location: Grand Pre

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