Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Search for the Lost Colony of New Acadia

Looking for a lost colony is not for the faint of heart. Unlike historical documents that might be archived in libraries or courthouses, the archaeological record is somewhere out there – buried beneath the ground. The “archaeological record” refers to artifacts, but not the kinds of things that you might think archaeologists want to find. The artifacts excavated at eighteenth-century colonial home sites are typically bits and pieces of dinner plates (ceramic sherds), pieces of broken brick, rusted nails, shards of bottle glass, and fragments of animal bone. These are the buried remnants of buildings and discarded refuse from past meals, also known as garbage – certainly not what treasure hunters hope to find. The particular arrangement of artifacts and alignment of dark stains in the earth (cultural features) are also an important part of the archaeological record, often even more important than any individual artifact.

Each sherd and every piece of glass must be carefully collected and placed in a bag with a record of precisely where it was found. This must all be done methodically and systematically, hundreds of times, even in sweltering heat (or rain) with wet feet and ravenous mosquitoes, with no assurances of success. The search for a lost colony should not be undertaken lightly. It might be comparable to looking for a small button in a sugarcane field – if the field extended for many miles.

One of many shovel test samples being collected in a wooded area along the Teche Ridge.

Could the original homesteads and associated graves really be found?

Given the enormous challenges and daunting tasks that must be done, could the homesteads and associated unmarked graves of the 1765 New Acadia colony really be found? If not, it would seem to be a futile and pointless waste of energy, time, and resources. One possibility that is often raised is that artifacts and bone will not remain intact or even be detectable after being in the ground for 250 years. The clays and silts along the Teche Ridge are not generally conducive for the preservation of bone.

Fortunately, ceramic sherds, cultural features, and most of the artifacts archaeologists routinely recover are preserved surprisingly well in the ground, even after 250 years. In fact, archaeological evidence of Native Americans from 1,200 years ago is often found alongside artifacts from the colonial period. Two hundred and fifty years is hardly a drop in the bucket. Native American sites dating from more than 2,500 years ago have preserved quite well and provide detailed information on what life was like millennia before written documentation. 

Artifacts from the Amand Broussard Site near Loreauville. Ceramic smoking pipe stems and sherds, some dating from the late 18th century.

One winter day not long ago, two ceramic sherds were found side by side among sugarcane stubble in a field. One was part of a plate manufactured in England within a few decades around AD 1790; the other was part of a bowl probably made nearby at least 800 years ago. Both were used for someone’s mealtime.

A more serious critique is that the archaeological record of New Acadia will be too ephemeral, too miniscule and too transient to be found. After all, there were only 200 or more people, seemingly scattered in small homesteads along miles of the Teche Ridge. This is essentially a methodological issue (How Do You Know Where to Look?), since by comparison to other commonly known sites, the archaeological record of colonial Louisiana is anything but ephemeral. 

Walking along a sugarcane field on the Teche Ridge and looking for artifacts from days gone by.

Archaeologists regularly find and excavate campsites where a hunter spent one or more evenings thousands of years ago, stopping to dress a deer and cook a meal. The amount and variety of material culture, buildings, and number of residents in the colony of New Acadia undoubtedly left behind a substantial archaeological record, even from the first few months or year. So where to begin? How do you know where to look?

How Do You Know Where to Look?

This is one of the most-commonly asked questions archaeologists hear, second only perhaps to “have you found anything?”

When archaeologists search extensively over large areas or an entire region to find a site, it is usually called an archaeological survey. Archaeologists working in cultural resource management (CRM) have come to call it a “Phase I” survey, in contrast to exploratory (Phase II testing) excavations at a site, or the more intensive, large-scale excavations (Phase III mitigation) that come to mind for most people when they think of an archaeological dig. Unless there are specific reasons to investigate only one spot, an archaeological survey typically draws on multiple sources and methods to locate and identify sites. 

In many cases it may be impractical or impossible to survey every square foot (or meter) of land in a project area. Besides time and funding constraints, some areas just might have a lower probability of containing intact archaeological sites.

There are numerous sources of information to assist in identifying areas of high priority for archaeological survey. Among these are:

  •      Historical sources, including cartographic (maps).
  •      Landscape and topography.
  •      Oral histories, interviews, and genealogies.
  •      Archaeological records and methods.
  •      Geophysical remote sensing.

Among the most important sources of information are prior historical studies, such as Carl Brasseaux’s The Founding of New Acadia (Louisiana State University Press, 1987) and primary sources such as archival documents in libraries and courthouses. The Letter by Jean-Baptiste Semer, an Acadian in New Orleans, to His Father in Le Havre, April 20, 1766, is an excellent example that has recently drawn much attention (Mouhot and Grieve, Louisiana History, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2007). 

Don Arceneaux has compiled and interpreted a wealth of primary information in his article “The Initial Acadian Settlement: A New Look at the Initial Acadian Settlement Location in the Attakapas,” recently published in the Attakapas Gazette.

Plat maps and early maps of the Fausse Pointe region showing Spanish land patents from the 1770s and the locations of towns are extremely valuable, as it becomes possible to compare this cartographic information with historical landscape use and modern topography. As mentioned in The Lost Colony of New Acadia, the Acadians traveled from New Orleans by way of Bayou Plaquemine and arrived at Fausse Pointe through one of the portages to Bayou Teche.

The locations of at least two portages are well-known and indicate general areas where the Acadians may have arrived at the Teche in 1765. High points or places of higher elevation along the swales of the Teche Ridge are prized today for modern homes on concrete foundations. As the lower-lying backswamp farther away from the bayou is more prone to flooding, the Acadian colonists also likely appreciated the value of dry real estate, even for homes perched on cypress piers.

Oral histories, interviews with local residents, and family genealogies can complement historical sources, sometimes corroborating archival documents and other times providing entirely new information. The involvement of local residents and people from surrounding communities in this research has gone far beyond the usual consultations and discussions to involve partnerships and planning. The New Acadia Project would not exist if it were not for the involvement of interested individuals and groups that have funded and supported it from the beginning. 

This is called Public Archaeology. The search for the lost colony of New Acadia can only succeed with continued public involvement. Among the most essential kind of involvement is permission from land owners to survey and excavate on privately-owned land. Without support and involvement from the public, the project would quickly end. Public outreach is an integral part of this effort and several upcoming events are already scheduled (see Projet Nouvelle-Acadie/New Acadia Project on Facebook for more information).

Among the most important information that has come to light by talking with residents is the existence of abandoned family cemeteries in the area. In one instance a small cemetery no longer in use is reported to be the burial place of Broussard children who are descendants of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard. In another, the Berard Cemetery, the grave of Jules Berard dates from 1888, almost exactly halfway between the founding of New Acadia and present-day.

Information on the locations of abandoned family cemeteries and who was buried there can be supplemented by archaeological survey and geophysical remote sensing to locate New Acadia. Archaeological survey techniques include collecting samples of artifacts by carefully sifting the soil from 30 centimeter (1 foot) wide holes (“shovel test pits”) excavated every 10 or 30 meters (33 or 98 feet). A less labor-intensive technique is slowly and systematically walking over plowed fields to inspect the ground surface for artifacts, such as tin-glazed ceramic sherds that might date from the 1700s.

While it was initially assumed that archaeological survey to locate the 1765 home sites could lead investigators to the associated burials, the inverse approach may be equally effective. With the assistance of geophysical remote sensing techniques such as magnetometry, the discovery of anomalies that may turn out to be unmarked burials in old graveyards can provide an indication of where to intensify the archaeological survey for the original home sites.

The hypothesis being examined here is the ritual-symbolic continuity of consecrated ground.  Assuming that the burials of the Acadians who died in 1765 continued to be recognized by family members and immediate descendants who remained in the area, these same graveyards would be reused by descendants, extended families, and local residents for subsequent interments. 

If this hypothesis is correct, abandoned family cemeteries dating from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries should contain earlier, unmarked burials, and these may include the interments of the Acadians who perished in 1765.  Identification of these unmarked burials might in turn lead investigators to the locations of the original home sites of New Acadia.