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Grand-Pré National Historic Site
Grand-Pré, Nova Scotia

Historical Background
Landscape Setting
Archaeological Research
   Operation 28
   Operation 29

Historical Background

Acadian French settlers from Port Royal first colonized the land surrounding the Minas Basin in the 1680s. By the turn of the 18th century, the Minas communities had surpassed the parent settlement in terms of population and agricultural production to become the heartland of old Acadie. Uncertain of the loyalty of its Acadian subjects on the eve of an international war, Britain's colonial government in Nova Scotia ordered the deportation of the Acadians in 1755. In August, Col. John Winslow and over 300 New England volunteers arrived at Grand-Pré to execute the government's orders. Winslow took command of the Church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines, using the presbytery as his headquarters. After erecting a wooden palisade around his camp to 'prevent a surprise', Winslow ordered all Acadian men and boys over the age of ten to attend a meeting at his camp at 3pm on September 5th. Over four hundred showed up at the appointed hour to hear the king's wishes, only to be placed under arrest. The Deportation at Grand-Pré had officially begun.

Over the next four months, British and New England soldiers deported several thousand Acadians from the Minas Basin settlements. Most of their villages were burned to deny refugees any shelter from the approaching winter. In all perhaps 15,000 people were deported and displaced as a result of this operation that took several years to complete. Most of the deportees were scattered along Britain's Atlantic seaboard colonies, though many would subsequently make their way to French territory in Louisiana, Quebec, the Caribbean, and France. Others would return to Atlantic Canada, only to find their old lands occupied by English speakers.

In the summer of 1760, hundreds of New England colonists arrived in Nova Scotia to settle the vacated Acadian lands. Grand-Pré was renamed Horton Township, and the land was resurveyed and apportioned to its new owners. Oral traditions among these New England Planters, many of whose families still live here, speak of rotted carts and furniture found on the shoreline upon their arrival, abandoned by a deportees hastily embarked upon overcrowded transports. Surveying their surroundings, the Planters must have seen an overgrown landscape dotted with the burnt shells of homes and barns. In other parts of Nova Scotia, travelers' journals speak of abandoned Acadian orchards gradually being reclaimed by the forest, though still bearing fruit a generation after the Deportation.

The New England Planters continued, and ultimately expanded on, the Acadian tradition of dyke land agriculture in Horton Township and elsewhere. Primary documents indicate some fugitive Acadians actually assisted the new arrivals, teaching them the technology needed to build and maintain the elaborate network of dykes and drainage systems needed to old back the tides. In the 250 years since the Deportation, the energies of succeeding generations have almost entirely rewritten the Acadian landscape, masking almost all evidence of the old Acadian settlements.

Landscape Setting

Grand-Pré National Historic Site of Canada occupies a picturesque setting on the Minas Basin, near the center of Nova Scotia. The site lies at the foot of a gentle slope overlooking the great meadow from which the community of Grand-Pré derives its name. First colonized in the 1680s by the dyke-building Acadians, the landscape was forever altered by a massive engineering project aimed at wresting the great salt marsh meadow from the sea. This task was accomplished in a piecemeal fashion by successive generations of Acadians, and today the patchwork quilt of farmland they secured from the tides dominates the site’s northern view shed.

Archaeological Research

Folklore among the New England Planters and their descendants living at Grand-Pré has long associated the field now occupied by the national historic site with the pre-Deportation Acadian Church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines. According to popular rumour, Acadian hands planted the venerable stand of willows bordering this field. By the late 19th century, when the popularity of Longfellow's Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie helped spur a local tourism boom, treasure hunters and antiquarians flocked to the site in search of 'French relics'. Though they left little or no record of their activities, they managed to uncover the foundations of at least one large building, a well, and exhume at least two human graves (the occupants of which were put on display at the nearby railroad station and at a local inn). In the early 20th century, the Dominion Atlantic Railway developed the site into a tourist destination. It subsequently passed into the hands of the federal government, and is today an important National Historic Site. The stone church on the site was built during the 1920s by the Acadian community, reputedly on the site of the original Acadian parish church, and commemorates the events of the Deportation.

In 2000, as part of a larger research project, we began actively searching for archaeological resources within the national historic site. An extensive survey of primary and secondary documentation produced an inventory of high potential areas within the site, and geophysical surveys were subsequently conducted with the assistance of Duncan McNeill and the Em-38 by Geonics. The geophysical data revealed anomalies consistent with buried stone, and beginning in 2001 these anomalies have been the object of careful study.

The current archaeological research program at Grand-Pré, now in its fifth season, is a collaborative effort between The Société Promotion Grand-Pré, Parks Canada, and Saint Mary's University. The project, directed by Jonathan Fowler, is a field school that offers students an opportunity to learn archaeological methods in a hands-on environment. To date, three geophysically anomalous areas have been probed: Operation 28 (2001) west of the memorial church, and Operation 29 (2001-2004) east of the memorial church, and Operations 30-36 (2004).

Operation 28

The 1x7 m exploratory trench was introduced bisecting the geophysical anomaly. This excavation unit revealed a rubble-strewn area of stone and brick (sub-operations D-F), and a hardened clay-rich surface (sub-operations A to C), all of which was found very close to the surface, the maximum depth of excavation not exceeding 40cm. Although the perspective offered by our narrow excavation unit is limited, these features appear to represent the ruins of a small building, though one that has been heavily disturbed.

Sub-operation H, located in the narrow space between the ramp and the N-S hedgerow, yielded a surprisingly complex stratigraphic sequence comprised of five distinct event horizons. This suggests that the area of disturbance associated with the construction of the memorial church in the 1920s may not be much larger than the actual footprint of the memorial church

The weight of the artifactual evidence associated with these features points to a post-Deportation (i.e. Planter) occupation.

Operation 29

Excavations on the east side of the memorial church have located the remains of at least one pre-Deportation era building, evidenced by three dry stone foundation walls and a stone-filled cellar. These features are neatly sealed by two early 20th century fill events, each one capped with a fine layer of crushed stone, the uppermost being impregnated with building debris and thus probably associated with the construction of the memorial church in the 1920s.

Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that this structure was built by Acadian hands prior to the 1755 Deportation. While the upper layers of cellar fill contain artifacts from the later 18th century, the lowest fill layers, which constitute the initial destruction and fill events, contain only artifacts from the pre-Deportation period. By mere chance, our excavations uncovered portions of a stone drain leading north from the cellar. Clearly, the Acadian builders were well aware of the area’s high water table. While we have seen evidence of similar drainage systems from archaeological excavations at Acadian domestic sites at Grand-Pré in the 1970s, the major significance of this feature at Operation 29 was its ability to provide us with a sealed ‘construction context’. If this drain was built at the same time as the building itself (a logical assumption considering that it clearly functioned to channel water away from the cellar), any artifacts found in the back-filled drain construction trench could be used to date the occupation of the building. Interestingly, all of the material recovered from this drain construction trench was dateable to the pre-Deportation period, and not one object clearly dating to the post-Deportation period was found. This is among the best evidence available to date this structure to the Acadian occupation.

Aside from who built it, what else can archaeology tell us about this structure? One unique find came to light while clearing the late 18th century fill from the cellar. It appears that the New England Planters who farmed this land from the 1760s had little interest in leaving gaping holes in their fields where Acadian buildings once stood. Archaeologists often find these old cellars filled with stones and other debris. While clearing out this fill, we began to discover thin fragments of blue slate, some of which gave the impression of having been worked in curious ways. Our suspicions were confirmed in 2003 when a substantial fragment was recovered that could only have been a slate roofing tile. This is the first evidence of such roofing on an Acadian domestic site and, given the absence of slate roofs in Acadia in the primary sources, it is a discovery that aptly demonstrates the importance of archaeological research. Dr. Ian Spooner, a Geologist at nearby Acadia University, has tentatively identified a site on South Mountain, approximately 10 km from Grand-Pré National Historic Site, as the source of the stone. If he is correct, this stone is a witness to the Acadians’ very intimate knowledge of their surroundings.

The presence of both charcoal and fire-hardened bousillage, or torchis, a clay wall infill commonly used by Acadians and found at other pre-Deportation archaeological sites, not only confirms our suspicions about the identity of the builders, but also indicates that the structure was destroyed by fire. In 2004, we made a very lucky discovery: a coin was recovered from the destruction layer in the lower part of the cellar. It is a British halfpenny bearing the date of 1734. It is not uncommon to find coins of this type in 18th century Acadia (it was, after all, a British colony after 1713). What makes this find particularly exciting is that its association with the destruction event effectively dates the destruction of the building to some time after 1734. Given that people then - as now - often carried around old coins in their pockets, this firm date now puts us within reach of the 1755 Deportation.

While this structure is interesting for all of these reasons, its greatest significance derives not from its own characteristics, but from how others have interpreted it. In the late 19th century, antiquarian researchers found ruins in this precise location: ruins they confidently identified as the remains of the old Acadian parish church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines. We have no substantial record of their work, nor any detailed explanation for the conclusions they reached. However, since archaeology at that time was still in its infancy, and since these early researchers did not have the benefit of training in excavation techniques or material cultural analysis, we have good reason to be sceptical of their conclusions. The narrow-walled structure we have found here, measuring only 5m in width and containing a root cellar, appears more like a private dwelling than a church capable of housing 400 or more people. This raises an interesting question: If this isn’t the church, where is it?


Archaeological evidence demonstrates that Grand-Pré National Historic Site of Canada is indeed centered upon the ruins of the pre-Deportation Acadian community of Grand-Pré. At least one pre-1755 Acadian building has been located by our research, though its scale suggests a domestic structure rather than the large parish church. During our next season, beginning in July 2005, we conclude our excavations at Operation 29 and continue our effort to locate the archaeological remains of the Church of Saint-Charles-des-Mines, which now appears to located well east of the memorial church.


2001 Crew
Danny Dyke (assistant), Bryson Crowe, Karen Drinkwater, Emilie Gilbert, John Harvey, Dylan Henderson, Sarah Kingston, Jonathan Kyte, Flannery Surrette, Aimee Teepell. Thanks also to Nicole Brown and Andrea Richardson, who volunteered their time and skill.

2002 Crew
Danny Dyke (assistant), Sara Carver, Manuela Dannbauer, Jasmine Folz, Jennifer Haigh, John Harvey, Lisa McIntyre, Rachel Roy, Emily Servant, Robert Shears, Flannery Surrette, Aimee Teepell, Manaf Zora.

2003 Crew
Joseph Cosgrove, Morgan Cowan, Erin Fletcher, Emilie Gilbert (assistant), Kelty Hillier (ninja), Michelle Hollett, Alex Howard, Natalie Ludlow, Mark Oliver, Alicia Sampson, Robert Shears (assistant), Flannery Surette (assistant), Heather Simmons, Brian Sutherland. Thanks also to Rob Ferguson and Rebecca Duggan for lending their expertise.

2004 1st Crew
Guy Allen-Hermanson, Jennifer Appleton, James Babbitt, Danny Dyke (assistant), Mike Gibson, Emilie Gilbert (assistant), Tamara Hurley, Jill McSweeney, Katherine Power, Robert Shears (assistant) Ashleigh Smith, Flannery Surette (assistant) Brian Sutherland.

2004 2nd Crew
Guy Allen-Hermanson, James Babbitt, Matthew Cloutier, Samantha Coutts, Sarah Cron, Naomi Doucette, Danny Dyke (assistant), Erin Fletcher, Mike Gibson, Emilie Gilbert (assistant), Thomas Peace, Robert Shears (assistant), Heather Simmons, Erica Skinner, Flannery Surette (assistant) Aimee Teepell (assistant). Thanks to Rob Ferguson and Rebecca Duggan for their assistance over the course of the summer.


Société Promotion Grand-Pré

Grand-Pré National Historic Site of Canada (Parks Canada)

Copyright© 2005 Northeast Archaeological Research