By Erin Isaac
I first reached out to Dr. Amy Scott (University of New Brunswick) about visiting her in Cape Breton in February 2020, after attending a public lecture she gave at New Brunswick’s Provincial Archives. In her talk, Dr. Scott told us about the things her team was learning about 18th-century disease, injury, and lifeways from the grave goods and skeletons they excavated at Louisbourg National Historic Site. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about their findings, but it was the first time I saw pictures and maps of the excavation site.
My first encounter with skeletal remains from Louisbourg was at the Bioarch Teaching and Research (BART) Lab at UNB during their Open Lab Day in 2019. Under the watchful eye of graduate students, myself and other visitors were allowed to glove up and feel bones for places where cancer had metastasized or breaks hadn’t healed quite right.
At the time, I was completing my Master’s in History at UNB, and was in the process of filming the earliest videos for my brand new YouTube-based project, Historia Nostra. Dr. Scott and I agreed that I would visit them in Cape Breton the following July, prior to my move from New Brunswick to Ontario, where I had recently accepted an offer from Western University and was looking forward to beginning my PhD.
Things didn’t go quite to plan. Lockdowns in response to the Covid-19 pandemic began a few weeks later. Dr. Scott’s field school was cancelled. The following year, while I was preparing for my comprehensive exams, the rescue archeology project went ahead with a skeleton crew due to continued concern about Covid. In 2022, Dr. Scott invited me out to Louisbourg to spend a few days with her crew before students from the field school arrived mid-July.
The years-long wait hadn’t dimmed my excitement to join them in Cape Breton, so I bullied a friend into coming with me to Nova Scotia for a few days last July. This was my first trip to Louisbourg and I was not disappointed.
The reconstructed parts of the Fortress of Louisbourg draw in a lot of visitors every year, but Dr. Scott’s team spend most of their time on outside of its walls, on a little peninsula that was historically outside of the Fortress’s Maurepas Gate.
Rochefort Point was the location of a popular graveyard in Louisbourg. Hundreds of individuals, potentially upwards of a thousand people, were buried at Rochefort Point. But today, the gravesites are at risk of being washed out to sea because climate changes have produced higher sea levels that carry away more and more of the coast each year.
Dr. Scott and her team are working to rescue as many of the individuals buried there as they can while it remains safe to work at Rochefort Point. For now, grave goods and remains are housed at the BART Lab, until they can be safely reinterred.
Dr. Scott’s team invited us to stay with them at their base for the field school while we were in town because, we were told, “part of the ship, a part of the crew.” We certainly felt like part of the team for the couple days they endured me following them around with a camera. They also gave us a few pro-tips—most importantly, that the apple turnovers sold at the café are not to be passed up when they’re available.