Researchers using ground-penetrating radar have found what they believe is one of the oldest European graveyards in Canada.
Archaeologist Sara Beanlands says there is compelling evidence to suggest the unmarked site in western Nova Scotia is the final resting place for Acadian settlers buried near a fort as early as the 1680s.
The radar images, gathered one day last month at the Fort Anne National Historic Site in Annapolis Royal, show neat rows of 19 ghostly green and red shapes.
“With respect to Acadian history, this was – and (nearby) Port Royal is – the cradle of Acadian civilization,” says Beanlands, senior archaeologist at Halifax-based Boreas Heritage Consulting.
“Many of the Acadians today who can trace their ancestry back to Port Royal, their ancestors will be buried somewhere in that Acadian cemetery.”
Originally built by the Scots as early as 1629, Fort Anne was later taken over by the French, before it fell to British troops in 1710.
“It’s one of the most contested landscapes in this part of the world,” Beanlands says. “People have been drawn to this area for thousands of years … This was home for the Mik’maq long before any European explorers.”
She says the underground anomalies picked by the ground-penetrating radar – a device that looks like an electric lawn mower – could be an extension of a nearby British cemetery.
The well-known Garrison Graveyard has 230 headstones that date back to 1720.
At the turn of the 17th century, the Acadians used wooden grave markers, which have long since rotted away.
However, church records and maps from the early 1700s indicate an Acadian cemetery was also located outside the walls of the star-shaped fort, a reconstructed fortification that became Canada’s first administered national historic site in 1917.
Beanlands’ research included the use of aerial drones and Lidar – short for Light Detection and Ranging – to produce an extremely accurate picture of the site’s contours.
The radar was used to produce a three-dimensional cross-section of the plot, which is about 10 metres by 18 metres and extends three metres underground.
“For the first time, we have been able to take this technology … into Fort Anne and see through a new set of eyes in a way that is completely non-destructive,” Beanlands says. “It gives us the ability to see things we have never been able to see before.”
Though the glowing anomalies don’t show much, their arrangement is unmistakable. At a depth of one metre, the irregular shapes appear at regular intervals – and they are aligned along a north-south axis that is in line with the British graves.
“We’re familiar with what burials look like in the data,” says Beanlands. “The most compelling evidence is … the patterning of the anomalies.”
However, the only way to confirm the presence of graves would be to conduct an expensive and time-consuming archeological dig. But that’s not going to happen, Beanlands says.
“So we could never know – we could never say with absolute certainty,” she says. “What we need is more data.”
An expanded search could start as early as next month, with help from Parks Canada, the Nova Scotia Community College’s Applied Geomatics Research Group and Mapannapolis, a volunteer organization that creates web-based maps of heritage sites.