by Peter Pope and Bryn Tapper
An archaeology of the Petit Nord: the maritime cultural landscape of the French migratory fishery in northern Newfoundland
The transatlantic, migratory, salt-cod fishery is a dinosaur of economic history: once huge, but now extinct. From about 1500 to 1900, it played a key role in the European world economy by providing a storable, nutritious, protein-rich food. Crews came from Portugal, Brittany, Normandy, the Basque Country of France and Spain, the West Country of England and from Ireland to fish on Canada’s Atlantic coast. For centuries, migratory crews seasonally exploited the waters off Cape Breton, Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, the lower north shore of the St Lawrence, southern Labrador, and several parts of Newfoundland.
The early trans-atlantic fishery was dispersed among European ports and organized by custom, rather than being centrally directed. Fishing crews from particular regions returned again and again, in a seasonal rhythm, to particular coasts in the New World: the English to Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, the Basques to the Gulf of St Lawrence, and so on. From about 1510, until France surrendered its rights in 1904, migratory fishing crews from Brittany and Normandy used seasonal shore stations on Newfoundland’s Petit Nord. This fishing zone was the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. It stretched from Quirpon, in the Strait of Belle Isle between Newfoundland and Labrador, down to Cape St John, on Newfoundland’s northeast coast. The French Shore was defined diplomatically in 1713, by the Treaty of Utrecht between France and Great Britain, and redefined by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.
For centuries, fishing crews created seasonal shore stations on the Petit Nord, to salt and dry cod. They fished in boats rather than from the ships which brought them across the ocean. The dry salt cure used in the stationary shore fishery worked well in the temperate climate of Atlantic Canada and produced a stable food product, well-suited to markets in the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula. This was how Europe first made commercial use of North America – so the fishing stations of this region form one of the oldest persistent European landscapes in Canada.
An archaeology of the Petit Nord: the maritime cultural landscape of the French, seasonal, shore-based, salt-cod fishery in northern Newfoundland, 1510-1904, is an on-going research project, directed by Dr Peter Pope, a Professor of Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s. Our interdisciplinary research project has approached this coast as a maritime cultural landscape, evolving over four centuries. It represents the multi-cultural history of interaction among Breton and Norman fishers; the people of the Mediterranean and Portugal where they delivered fish; the Beothuk, Innu and Inuit peoples they encountered in Newfoundland; European competitors from Britain and the Basque Country; and, finally, the English and Irish fisher-folk who eventually displaced them.
We are recording archaeological vestiges of these fishing stations and putting them into documentary, cartographic and photographic context. We can then consider how such places were selected and constructed for resource extraction; we can look at their relationships one with another; and we can hope to trace their evolution through time, to create a record of an important maritime cultural landscape. Our research strategy is to look at the Petit Nord at several different scales, ranging from the features making up a specific fishing establishment; to the array of fishing rooms around major harbours; to the choice of harbours by fishers along the whole coast of the Petit Nord.
Extensive excavations in Cape Rouge Harbour, at the historic fishing room of Champ Paya, at Dos de Cheval in Crouse, have been the subject of a number of MA theses at Memorial University since 2004. These studies throw light on the archaeological structures, remains and material culture make up of a typical fishing room, providing a model for other sites which we have surveyed along the coast of the Petit Nord. Structures and features analyzed include fishing stages and associated cobbled drying areas, ramps and pathways, bread ovens, cookrooms and dormitories, as well as artifact assemblages– including ceramics, metalwork, glass and faunal remains.
Our updated website, hosted by NiCHE (Network in Candian History of the Environment) provides photographic highlights of our research and offers an interpretation of sites and features discovered and excavated.
Peter Pope is University Research Professor in Archaeology at Memorial University, in St John’s Newfoundland. He is principal investigator of An Archaeology of the Petit Nord and is currently working on a book about the maritime cultural landscapes of the French transatlantic fishery.
Bryn Tapper is a MA candidate at Memorial University. He is currently undertaking an archaeological analysis of the distribution of French fishing rooms across the Petit Nord.
Latest posts by Peter Pope (see all)
- Updated member project: An archaeology of the Petit Nord - February 24, 2014