'Rescue archeology' needed to save 300-year-old Louisbourg burial ground

Archeology students from the University of New Brunswick will be digging up the remains of people from 18th century Louisbourg this summer at a burial ground now threatened by coastal erosion.

Rochefort Point is a narrow peninsula extending just beyond the east gate of the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton and was a primary burial spot for inhabitants after 1739.

Parks Canada said the collaboration with a UNB bioarcheological field program will document what's at the site and carefully remove remains from areas most vulnerable to erosion.

"We don't know exactly how many burials there are but estimates have been as high as a thousand burials on the point," said David Ebert, a strategic advisory for Parks Canada's Cape Breton field unit.

The French created the settlement at Louisbourg in 1713 and it grew into a fishing port and fortress. Today the fortress is a national historic site.

Parks Canada said the archeology work will take time as remains will be treated with the "utmost respect, dignity and reverence." The agency is calling it "rescue archeology" because rising sea levels are narrowing the strip of land.

Many of those buried at Rochefort Point are unknown because there are no headstones to mark graves, Ebert said.

"The challenge for us is really knowing exactly who those people are," he said. "But I think what we're doing in this project is finding a way to respectfully treat these remains and to carefully excavate them to learn a little bit about them.

"When it's all done we'll find a spot that's not suffering from coastal erosion that we can put them back to the rest that they've been enjoying for the last 300 years."

'Unique glimpse on the past'

The 12 students and their professor, UNB field school director Amy Scott, will analyze the remains to better understand the life of people in the 18th century.

"We've got millions of artifacts here in Louisbourg, but human remains give a unique glimpse on the past and it will enhance Parks Canada's ability to talk about what the life of an average person was like," Ebert said.

Ebert said the students will stay in the Louisbourg area and get to enjoy summertime activities like Crabfest, the ghost tour of the fortress and camping at the fortress site.

The group of students will begin their four-week project in July. Parks Canada said the overall project will take several years to complete.