A pioneer in Arctic and North Atlantic archeology, Priscilla Renouf was a dynamic and intelligent researcher with a holistic approach to her discipline. She thought big, envisioning broad cultural landscapes and considering vast time scales, but was always able to present her findings as deeply human, connecting peoples. She studied hunter-gatherer tribes that formed small-scale societies that were fluid and family-based.
For the past three decades, she conducted research in Labrador, Arctic Norway and Greenland, but her primary focus was Port au Choix in northwestern Newfoundland. Her research spans the extent of Newfoundland’s human history, beginning 5,500 years ago. Her work there shed light on four distinct aboriginal cultures: two Amerindian groups – the Maritime Archaic and Recent Indian – and two Arctic-based – the Groswater and Dorset. She also helped illuminate the 18th- and 19th-century European occupation of the area.
Much of Dr. Renouf’s excavation took place at Phillip’s Garden, situated in the Port au Choix National Historic Site, where she began work in 1984. A spectacular spot, it is one of the largest Dorset sites in Canada and rich with as many as 135 small oval and rectangular house depressions and tens of thousands of well-preserved artifacts.
Phillip’s Garden was an important harp seal-hunting location and an economic hub, as the seals’ migratory patterns always brought them predictably and in great abundance to the beach twice each year. A large group would gather and engage in social activities, reinforcing family and community ties.
Dr. Renouf and her team had funding that allowed her and her students to investigate a whole range of research questions. The overarching aim was to understand as much as possible the nuanced social lives and interactions among the people who had lived in the province. The Parks Canada museum at Port au Choix draws heavily on her work.
“She headed the research [program] around the Port au Choix Archeology Project in an exemplary way,” Bjarne Gronnow, research professor in Arctic archeology at the National Museum of Denmark, wrote in an e-mail. Her research was a model of complex, interdisciplinary and innovative work that attracted worldwide respect and earned her “a central position in the international archeological research environment,” he said
Field work was a huge component of Dr. Renouf’s research, and resulted in her unique contributions to Newfoundland history. She would find new artifacts and new ways of interpreting existing material. She and her students and colleagues examined bone and stone tools, dwelling architecture and food refuse, and explored rituals. Her research questions were always anthropological in nature, as she sought to understand social practices and how people approached the opportunities and challenges of living where they did.
She was particularly interested in people’s relationship to their biophysical surroundings. This led to her long-time collaboration with Trevor Bell, a geographer at Memorial University Newfoundland. Together, they related the ancient landscape to human settlement patterns.
As an academic and teacher, Dr. Renouf was also highly distinguished, having earned this country’s highest honour in the field, a fellowship with the Royal Society of Canada, in 2010.
Dr. Renouf died April 4 in St. John’s. She had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November, 2010.
Miriam Alleyne Priscilla Renouf was born Aug. 8, 1953, one of four girls born to Harry and Miriam (née Suckling). They grew up on Forest Avenue in St. John’s, where several big Catholic families had adjoining backyards, and the houses were full of girls. Harry Renouf was the registrar at Memorial University. His three older girls earned doctorates and the youngest became a medical doctor.
“They were all very smart,” said family friend Maire O’Dea. (“Focused” is an adjective often used to describe Dr. Renouf.)
“Even as a preteen,” said Sheila Devine, another friend, “she spent hours sewing.” Priscilla won the Miss Singer Sewing Contest as a teenager, with a tennis costume.
“In those days, everyone was babysitting,” Ms. Devine said, “and she and my sister, Metz [Mary], saved up all their money, and we kept asking what they would do with it, and they said they’d decide later. One night they announced they were going to dinner at the Newfoundland Hotel. They were attired in two dresses each had made, carrying purses, so elegant.”
Along with her stylishness, another notable quality she had from a young age was her curiosity.
“Priscilla always had an inquiring mind,” Ms. Devine said. “She always asked, I wonder why that happens? I wonder where that happened? I wonder how come? Stock answers were not enough for her.”
Dr. Renouf earned her BA and MA at Memorial University and her PhD at Cambridge. She did her PhD on hunter-gatherer sites in Tromso, Norway, and returned to Newfoundland and a faculty appointment at Memorial in 1981.
Among her many achievements, Dr. Renouf was: Canada Research Chair of North Atlantic Archeology; 1992 recipient of the President’s Award for Outstanding Research; on the first Board of Trustees of the Canadian Museum of Civilization; inaugural board member and Chair of Newfoundland’s The Rooms; a member of the board of directors for the Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador; on the governing body of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and co-founder of the international research group LINK – a dozen archeologists whose goal is to answer questions relating to past societies and how they coped with long- and short-term climate fluctuations. She authored many papers for academic and general audiences, wrote the book Ancient Cultures, Bountiful Seas: The Story of Port au Choix (1999), and co-edited, with David Sanger, The Archaic of the Far Northeast (2006). She was curator of a multimedia exhibition of her work at a new Parks Canada museum, and was a popular speaker on national and international podiums.
For all that, her most valuable legacy may be her students. She held them to her own high standards and invested herself in their goals. “I once received a corrected paper with hair that she had pulled out of her head and taped to my page,” said Patty Wells, a postdoctoral fellow lecturing at Western University and a winner of the Governor-General’s Gold Medal for Graduate Studies. “She nominated me, she nominated many of her students for awards,” Dr. Wells said. “She was always promoting her students.”
Witty and funny, Dr. Renouf was also known for her adroit caricatures, her hand-drawn cards (sometimes decorated with New Yorker cartoons), and even performing such practical jokes as masquerading as a nun stranded by a car breakdown (the illusion held until she pretended to get the garage on the phone and expressed herself in language unbefitting of a nun).
She and her beloved husband Roger Pickavance, whom she married 15 years ago, enjoyed entertaining and had a great sense of occasion. “We loved to be invited to dinner,” Ms. Devine said. “If we brought a guest we would say, ‘There will be eight people and 16 conversations.’” They entertained at their home in St. John’s and their place at Red Cliff on Bonavista Bay.
“Red Cliff was a really important refuge for her,” Dr. Wells said. “She spent weekends there occasionally throughout the year, but she very firmly gave herself that time after her field work to have this period of relaxation with Roger and her friends, always the month of August. She and Roger sat out on their deck overlooking Bonavista Bay and watched the sun go down and the whales cruise by. Their house was small and airy, very comfortable. Friends would visit and enjoy the gracious and easy company.”
Her taste and good eye extended to Newfoundland artworks, which she collected. She was also very fit, one of her reserves of strength. Even as her illness worsened, Dr. Renouf kept to her routine. “She still had that application and discipline that made her such a success,” Ms. Devine said.
Predeceased by her parents and sister Deane, she leaves her husband, Roger, and sisters, Mary and Tia.
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