The former residents of a massive 18th-century fort in Cape Breton have long since died, but David Ebert says they still have plenty to tell us.
Ebert, a strategic adviser with Parks Canada, is part of a team exhuming human remains from a large graveyard outside the gates of the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site.
"We have uncovered five sets of skeletal remains already and we've found a number of artifacts to go with them," Ebert said in an interview.
"One of the skeletons had eight buttons that were lying on top of it. Clearly, somebody had been buried in a fancy coat ... When you see someone buried in a fine piece of clothing, it obviously shows some love and respect for that individual."
Up to 1,100 residents of the French fort are buried at the site, which must be excavated because it is threatened by coastal erosion. Parks Canada has referred to the project as rescue archaeology.
"Skeletons can tell you a lot of things," Ebert said, citing the fact that malnutrition as a child can leave permanent marks on one's teeth. "They are marks you'll see right until the day you die ... There's lots of little hints that the skeleton gives you about what sort of life they led."
A dozen students from the University of New Brunswick's department of anthropology started digging last week. The five-year project will document and protect the burial grounds at Rochefort Point, where the shoreline has retreated about 90 metres over the past 300 years.
Ebert said the staff and students are well aware they are in a sacred space.
"Science isn't our number one priority," he said. "It's the respect and dignity that all people deserve in death ... I tell the (students), 'Remember, this is somebody's great, great, great grandfather or grandmother."
The fort, which is so big it is actually a fortified town, was built in 1713 and abandoned in 1760 after decades of fighting between the French and British. Even though only one quarter of the fortification has been rebuilt, it remains the largest of its kind in North America. Every year, about 82,000 people visit this site, a half-hour drive south of Sydney, N.S.
Amy Scott, project director of the bioarcheology field school, said the project is giving students the best kind of hands-on experience.
"It's so very special for us to be able to have this partnership with Parks Canada," said Scott, an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick."It's a very rich archeological site out here."
The students will stay in the field until Aug. 20, when the recovered remains and artifacts will be taken to Scott's laboratory for further analysis.
Testing will help determine the age, sex and health of each individual, data that will be given to Parks Canada for its interpretation and, hopefully, new insights into the fort's history.
Scott said visitors to the fort are being encouraged to walk to Rochefort Point, where they can take a closer look at the excavation and ask questions.
Jessica Hinton, a graduate student of anthropology at UNB, said working at the site has been thrilling.
"There are very few field school opportunities that are available to us, especially one with such a rich historical context," she said. "It's nice to be able to picture what it would have been like for the people who lived there at the time."
Part of her job is pulling back layers of the soil to determine where the graves are. It may sound like tedious, back-breaking work, but Hinton said she has already witnessed the unearthing of some valuable finds.
"It was extremely exciting," she said. "You get a tingling in your stomach ... But it's nerve-wracking as well because we want to make sure we treat them with respect and dignity."