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These fragments I have shored against my ruin.
—T. S. Eliot
The women crouch around him, two on the left, two on the right, another at his head. The ground is dry, reddish. The wind has picked up. There is red dust on their pants now, on their hands and arms. The women fall silent. It is afternoon and the day is drawing to a close.
They pull the earth toward their bodies, sweeping it into dustpans with trowels. Metal edges scrape against the small rocks. Outlines appear. The women pick up wooden sculpting tools: they are getting closer to the bones. They spoon earth out of the pelvis and skull and run wooden picks along the long bones, carefully loosening femurs, tibias, and ulnas from the red earth around them, the way a baker loosens a cake from a pan.
Amy Scott pulls a paintbrush out of her back pocket. She pauses, tilts her head and squints her right eye, appraising the work. Then she gently dusts the crumbs from the tops of the phalanges. They are long and elegant, reaching down.
The archaeologists have been digging for days, digging under the beach grasses and heathers at Rochefort Point at the eastern edge of Canada. It is painstaking work, tender: for a species that has always buried its dead.
In the excavation pit, Scott’s days are filled with not knowing: not knowing what the story is, what details will serve it. She sees only fragments, data that must be noted and mapped and collected. Only later will she begin to puzzle the pieces together, when her team has picked up the bones and carried them back to the lab at the University of New Brunswick, where she is an assistant professor of anthropology.
The earth slowly sinks around the skeleton and the bones seem to rise to the surface, like limbs in salt water. Smooth, light-colored.
Listen, says the earth as it moves around me. Scott’s words, spoken earlier in the day, come whistling back to me: “Earth that has already been disturbed sounds different when you scrape it. More hollow.”
To bury is human. So is digging things up. To understand, and to remember.
Nova Scotia knew the storm was coming. Environment Canada had issued a warning for the entire province. Winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour. Twenty-five centimeters of snow. Children were sent home early from school. Ferry service: shut down. Flights: canceled. On Cape Breton Island, at the easternmost tip of Nova Scotia, the storm of November 28, 2018, also threatened a valuable past.
The Fortress of Louisbourg is Canada’s largest archaeological site: it spans more than 6,000 hectares, which is roughly the same size as Manhattan. It’s North America’s most ambitious and expensive historical reconstruction project. About a fifth of the original town has been rebuilt over several decades. Parks Canada, the federal agency that manages the reconstruction, estimates it would cost CAN $25-million to replace.
The site is also very exposed. If you stand on the black rocks outside Louisbourg’s walls and look eastward—like the bald eagle that often perches there—you will see only the gray-green ocean before you: some 4,000 kilometers of uninterrupted Atlantic that end at France’s shores. Turn your gaze slightly north, and beyond the fortress walls juts Rochefort Point, an especially vulnerable spit of land.
The French first established the outpost on Cape Breton in 1713, when the English kicked them out of Newfoundland. Though the headland is exposed to the open ocean, Louisbourg’s harbor was narrow-necked, easy to defend, and large enough to hold all the ships France might want to anchor there. The location was close to the lucrative cod fishery at Grand Banks and to a source of high-quality coal that could be pried out with crowbars and loaded onto ships. It also guarded the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Quebec, then the seat of French power in North America. Louisbourg quickly became the third-largest French colony in North America. As the town’s value and strategic importance grew, the colonizers began fortifying it to protect their investment.
Weeks before the 2018 November northeaster hit the province, the Government of Canada issued a press release to remind the world that it was spending millions to protect its investment at Louisbourg. This time, though, the fortress needed to be protected from a very different kind of threat: climate change.
Canada’s federal government began rebuilding Louisbourg during the 1960s, a decade of frenetic nation-building. In 1965, the country finally got its own flag—the cheery red-and-white maple leaf. In the lead-up to the country’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1967, the government poured millions of dollars into projects across the country designed to promote unity.
The Louisbourg reconstruction had several goals. It would preserve and animate a piece of Canadian history that was meaningful for both English and French settlers (Quebec nationalist passions were also running high), and it would provide employment and bring tourists to one of the most economically depressed communities in the country. Cape Breton is coal country; in the 1960s, the coal industry was collapsing.
Proponents envisioned the reconstruction as a kind of living museum by re-creating the daily life of settlers: women in full skirts baking farmhouse bread in wood ovens, soldiers in uniform teaching visitors how to fire a cannon. “What could be more stimulating to the imagination or instructive to the mind,” asked the Honorable Ivan C. Rand, the one-man commission charged with alleviating Cape Breton’s socioeconomic crisis, than “a revelation of European life and … of the vicissitudes of North America’s development?”
To conjure up the life in an 18th-century fortress required considerable care, skill, and resources. Historians combed archives in Canada and France, studying architectural plans. Builders recruited European master craftsmen to train out-of-work miners: how to cut stone and wood by hand, how to twist and shape iron in an 18th-century forge. Even the nails for the site were handmade.
Sixty buildings and many decades later, the former colony is now a major tourist attraction. In 2017, an Indigenous interpretation center opened at the site to belatedly acknowledge another local presence, one that goes back thousands of years. Though there is little archaeological evidence of Mi’kmaw activity at the fortress itself, documents suggest Indigenous groups developed a strong relationship with the French and visited the settlement with some regularity after contact.
A major part of the reconstruction was the resurrection of a 577-meter-long wall to protect the many buildings from storm surge and sea level rise. The French had originally constructed the quay wall at a height of 3.9 meters. Louis Franquet, a military engineer sent to inspect the deteriorating walls in 1750 (between sieges), complained that the wall was too short to protect the fortified town from an assault—whether it came in the form of British soldiers or seawater. He thought the wall should be a meter higher. But the wall was never raised.
On February 16, 1968, as Canadian bureaucrats were planning the reconstruction of the quay wall, a consultant named Ronald Way reminded them of Franquet’s unheeded advice. He proposed they raise the wall by at least a meter, as Franquet had originally suggested. Sea levels had already risen significantly since Franquet’s time: by about 90 centimeters (nearly a meter), according to the positioning of some mooring rings archaeologists had recently discovered below the waterline. Way pointed out that the sea was likely to rise another meter or so over the next century—more than twice as quickly. But the bureaucrats equivocated. Changing the wall height could make it more difficult to join up with other architectural features. It would be historically inaccurate. Worse, it would spoil the view of the harbor for the tourists.
A month later, Way made his argument again. This time his plea was more impassioned. “In light of the sad fate of Venice,” he wrote in a memo dated March 21, 1968, “doomed in the opinion of the world’s most eminent engineers by a sea level which is steadily rising as the polar ice caps recede, it still seems sensible, to me, to make some accommodations … with the realities of today.”
But the bureaucrats would not be swayed: “It is felt that the unknown complications arising from raising the elevation are too complex to be considered.”
Fifty years later, the storms at Louisbourg had become increasingly violent and frequent. It was obvious to nearly everybody that the wall needed raising. The Government of Canada promised to invest $9.2-million to protect the site. “This work will help protect and preserve an important part of Canada’s history that is threatened by sea level rise and coastal erosion,” promised the press release issued several weeks before the November northeaster hit. Quibbling about how to join up walls and what might be historically accurate seemed increasingly irrelevant in light of rising seas and more frequent extreme weather events. Without a higher wall, there would soon be no reconstruction left to argue over.
Construction crews were in the midst of rebuilding the west section of the wall according to Way’s 1960s specifications when the November storm hit. Some 250,000 people across the province lost power because of the storm. A causeway to another island was washed out. At Louisbourg, pounding waves and surge breached the wall in three places, shredding its wood cladding. Seawater flooded the lower parts of the reconstruction. Buildings that had been restored over half a century ago were soon swamped. So was the pump house for the site’s sewage treatment facility.
Photos of the breached wall were soon circulating through Parks Canada’s administration office at Louisbourg, where Maura McKeough works as a cultural resource manager. The breach looked like a large waterfall turned on its side, rushing up and over the quay wall as if gravity no longer exerted a downward force. It was dramatic and eye-catching. The damage would be costly but a reconstruction could always be reconstructed. McKeough, however, had another, more macabre concern: what damage had the storm done to the bodies at Rochefort Point?
Rochefort Point has always been the most unprotected part of Louisbourg. There are no trees to break the wind or hold the soil. The narrow tongue of sand and soil and rock lies only four meters above sea level. The first settler made his home on the point because it was convenient: he could be close to his fishing fleet. Later, several more families built stone houses there. But when the French began fortifying Louisbourg in 1719, they left Rochefort Point outside the walls. Even in the optimistic 1960s, bureaucrats never considered reconstructing it.
Sea levels, of course, have been rising since the end of the last ice age; faster since the Industrial Revolution started pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But in Atlantic Canada, the coast is also sinking. Coastal subsidence doubles the effect of sea level rise. Erosion has further destabilized the shoreline at Rochefort Point, now half as wide as it was in the 1700s.
The growing colony of Louisbourg began burying their dead inside the walls of the fortified town, but those cemeteries soon filled up. Beginning in 1738, more and more bodies were interred at Rochefort Point, outside the walls in unmarked graves. Under British occupation, it became the primary burial ground for overwintering troops.
In 2006, another northeaster laid bare the stone-walled cellar of an 18th-century house, prompting Parks Canada to investigate it. More than 40 skeletons had been carefully laid out head to toe in the cellar, in two layers, most likely interred during an epidemic that had ravaged the overwintering New England garrison in 1745.
Louisbourg may be the largest reconstruction of its kind, but most of the site remains unknown: less than 20 percent of it has been excavated by archaeologists and studied by historians. Though this particular burial had not been recorded in Louisbourg’s 750,000 or so historical documents, the storyline of how it was found will be familiar to anyone paying attention to coastal burials. Up and down the world’s shorelines, cemeteries sink into the sea every time a hurricane or tsunami or storm surge hits. Gravestones have become useful tools for measuring and mapping our retreating shores. Etched with dates, they tell us exactly when the land was still dry. Geologists William J. Neal and Orrin Pilkey call them “silent sentinels.”
But the graves at Rochefort Point are all unmarked. Many of the bodies buried there were English; New England troops and their English masters did not leave as many records as the French. Parks Canada now estimates that there are 1,100 graves in its disappearing earth: men, women, and children who died of disease and starvation—and sometimes violence—at Louisbourg during the 18th century.
Every storm surge threatens to unbury more of them.
Some of the women at Rochefort Point are still on their hands and knees. Others have stretched out on their bellies. Those who stand upright are running buckets, climbing out of the pit with their heavy earth burden. The archaeologists walk carefully, never by the edge of the right-angled walls of the excavation, walls that have been measured with great precision and swept and tidied till they can see the faintest changes in the color of the subsoil. Earth of a darker, grayer color indicates some kind of a disturbance. Another burial.
A bucket runner tips the earth onto a screen for sifting.
The woman stops. Her gloved hand picks through the clumps on the screen. Her fingers grasp at a small piece of something. It is yellow and rough. Splintered like wood. Another bone fragment. It will be bagged and labeled and walked back to the lab tonight where it will be dry washed and wet washed and packed up for transport.
Meanwhile, the mess of earth and rock and tufted grass next to the pit grows higher.
A few days after the November storm, McKeough and Sarah MacInnes, a historian at the Fortress of Louisbourg, set out for a walk along Rochefort Point to inspect the coastline and assess the damage. Walks to monitor the shoreline at Rochefort Point were becoming more frequent and urgent: Parks Canada now sends someone out after every major storm. Human remains are not only irreplaceable, they are sensitive. Though the bodies themselves are nameless, it’s quite possible their descendants live nearby, and Parks Canada had promised the Catholic and Anglican dioceses that it would give bodies at Rochefort Point the care and dignity they deserved. This was easy to promise when the bodies were in the ground; it is much harder to do when the ocean keeps exposing them.
McKeough worried about the site because the headland was open to the public. What happened if an unsuspecting tourist came across a pile of bones? If they decided to take home a grisly keepsake? If the bones washed up on the other side of the harbor and a local mistook them as evidence of foul play?
McKeough grew up on Cape Breton Island and has spent nearly her entire career—29 years—at Louisbourg. She knows the shoreline well. Trained as a conservator, she began restoring old metal at the fortress. Next she moved on to wood. She liked the intimacy of handling things that other people had worked and worn before her. Once she picked up Alexander Graham Bell’s jacket, readying it for an exhibit at another Parks Canada site on the island. She caught a whiff of his tobacco: “You can’t get any more intimate than that.”
The two women began their inspection on Rochefort Point’s ocean side, the exposed side of the fortress, where even in fair weather the waves roar and crash in periodic rhythm against black rocks that are a billion years old. They crossed the spot where tour buses used to park: now it was barely big enough to fit a bicycle. They passed a heap of rubble, the remains of an 18th-century bastion and armor stone that Parks Canada had installed in 1980 to defend the bastion from the sea. That barrier failed a year or two later. The bastion was no longer salvageable.
McKeough and MacInnes rounded the treeless point. Across the water they could see the modern town of Louisbourg, a town forgotten by industry and revived by tourism. The first settlers had come there to fish cod; later the ice-free harbor developed into a busy port for coal exports when nearby Sydney Harbour froze over. A large seafood processing factory dominates the waterfront, but work at the plant has limped along since the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992. Flags along Main Street promote Louisbourg’s motto: “Where the past is present.” Some reminders of the past are more celebrated than others.
The women noted the changes to the beach that rings Rochefort Point. So much cobble had been swallowed by the sea. A wooden dock and some lobster traps had been tossed high up onto the grasses. Waves had ripped out the soil: plant roots now hung down, pale and wizened and exposed, white strings with nothing to tie onto. The turf slumped over the new undercut, like a carpet of sod cut too large for a suburban lawn.
They stopped at the cement foundations of an old signal tower. The tower itself had disappeared long ago. So had a nearby pair of 18th-century limestone kilns. “They’re underwater archaeology now,” McKeough would later observe. Then they saw it, tucked in behind the crumbling foundations: the head of a femur poking out from the undercut. If they left it, the sea would likely claim it before Scott and her team returned for the 2019 summer field season.
“At that point we were on the phone pretty darn quickly,” recalls McKeough. Scott walked them through the extraction process. The women carefully removed the femur that was peering out and covered and padded the rest of the remains to protect them from future winter storms. Then they tucked a tarp over the burial and piled beach cobble on top for safekeeping and walked back to warmth and shelter, hoping for the best.
Before Scott arrived at Rochefort Point in 2017, most Parks Canada excavations were rescue operations. A storm would uncover some remains and a team would be dispatched to extract the bones before they were destroyed or lost or discovered by the public. If they couldn’t extract them without damaging the burial further, they would shroud the remains and cover them with stones until they could come back in summer when the ground had thawed.
This is the best most coastal communities can do. Along the Atlantic, Chesapeake Bay fishers now catch tombstones. Coffins float out to sea in Louisiana. Salt marshes have overtaken North Carolina cemeteries; only a handful of markers still break the surface.
Few communities have the resources to mount a major excavation and rescue project. Done carefully, a single burial can take several days to uncover and map. Often, the only feasible response is to document what is being lost; to photograph and map the cemeteries before they are swept away. Some communities try to raise funds to build a sea wall or another barrier to protect their dead. But this is only a stopgap. The ocean keeps advancing.
“It’s kind of overwhelming when you think about it,” says Scott, “not just the cemeteries but the archaeological sites that are being destroyed by climate change.”
Scott wanted to take a more proactive approach to Parks Canada’s bodies-falling-into-the-sea problem. Scott, who grew up in Ontario and studied anthropology, first heard about Louisbourg’s coastal erosion problem when she was auditioning for a job as professor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in 2015. She had spent five years in Poland, four of them running a field school; she hoped to do something similar in New Brunswick. A field school would give archaeology students valuable experience in the field and allow her to conduct research on a much larger scale.
Scott was fascinated by what the shape and biochemistry of skeletons could tell her about the stress and health of ancient populations. Sometimes, though, she wondered if she wanted to spend her life excavating human remains: disturbing what was meant to be eternal rest. “I have to be able to live with myself,” she says.
Archaeologists who specialize in human remains—bioarchaeologists—face a conundrum. To do their research, they need to excavate skeletons, but times and sensitivities have changed considerably over the past few decades. Archaeologists are held to a much higher ethical standard than they once were. There are often conflicts between archaeologists and cultural groups—especially Indigenous groups—who object to the disturbance of their ancestors.
In its principles of ethical conduct, the Canadian Archaeological Association (CAA) now acknowledges that “conservation is a preferred option” and “excavations should be no more invasive/destructive than determined by mitigation circumstances or comprehensive research goals.” Archaeology is a destructive science: in documenting the archaeological record through excavation, an archaeologist must destroy it. The CAA calls human remains “finite, fragile, nonrenewable, and unique.” From an ethical standpoint, then, the ideal bioarchaeological project involves remains that are already at risk of disappearing.
Scott liked the idea of working on a rescue operation: it would make an excavation less ethically fraught. She called Parks Canada and proposed a partnership. The UNB field school eventually opened in 2017 with five staff and more than a dozen students.
The field school didn’t entirely solve the fortress’s problem. Scott had to start her excavations inland, away from the shore’s edge, because excavating the most vulnerable remains—the ones already sliding into the sea—would only expedite the erosion process. Those skeletons, like the one McKeough and MacInnes found, would still have to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.
The ocean can undercut kilometers of coastline in a matter of hours during a violent northeaster. It takes two seasoned archaeologists several hours to dig out a few hundred centimeters of earth by hand. Halfway through the 2019 field season, Scott and Mallory Moran began opening another half-meter unit in the site’s western wall. Scott’s ponytail swings out as she uses the full force of her body to drive the shovel into the topsoil. She looks like she is on a pogo stick. Moran, who is dressed exactly as you would imagine an archaeologist to dress (brimmed hat, collared shirt, khaki pants), is the historical archaeologist on Scott’s team. She’s responsible for all the things that were never alive: the corroding wrought-iron nails, the charred floor beams (because the French burned down their houses before the English arrived), and the broken piece of green-and-blue ceramic that they will find during the three days I spend with the team.
This year’s dig is intended to capture remains at the northwestern edge of the cemetery, which is already teetering on a slope. When Scott drew her boundaries at the beginning of the season, she had counted on the simple logic that people generally prefer to bury their dead on flat ground. But a student has found a bone sticking out of the western wall, which means the burials go farther west than she had anticipated, and she is determined to leave no one behind. “The thought of losing these individuals,” Scott says, “it’s gut-wrenching to me.”
Scott is fiercely protective of the burials. She has a strict no photography rule unless it’s specifically for her lab’s research, and the first paper her students must write is about ethics. “I’m motivated by a high ethical standard of looking after humans, whether they are alive or deceased,” she explains. She is also bound by a disposition signed by Parks Canada, and the Anglican and Catholic dioceses of Nova Scotia, which requires the remains to be treated with dignity. The disposition also requires Parks Canada to reinter the remains with a marker after Scott’s lab has analyzed and documented them. For now, though, the bones sit in cardboard boxes in Scott’s lab. Parks Canada is still looking for a suitable site: one that won’t be threatened imminently by the rising sea and doesn’t disturb something else with archaeological significance.
In three seasons, Scott’s team has dug up 104 remains. That leaves nearly 1,000 still in the ground.
“Don’t do the math,” she chides me as I open my mouth. I close it again. Lines from Lewis Carroll’s beach poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” float into my head:
If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?’
When she comes to the end of her career and hands over her shovel to a successor, Scott jokes, the team can just roll her into one of the empty graves.
Each burial takes several days to uncover and map and carefully document.
As the soil level drops, the archaeologists must take care to remove it at the same rate for each bone: if a skeleton tips down to its left, so must the soil. Rocks lodged inside the ribcage, the cranium, the pelvis must be removed without damaging or moving a single fragment. Scott attempts to document all of the bones undisturbed, in their original placement, in photographs and maps.
“Once you pick up the bones and take them back to the lab, you lose the context of the burial,” she explains.
“This context is what creates the story, the lived experience we strive to understand and articulate through our research,” writes Scott and her collaborators in a 2018 paper that investigates the burial of what might be a Swiss mercenary. The evidence: three pewter buttons found underneath the pelvis. French soldiers didn’t wear pewter buttons but Swiss mercenaries did—at the back of their jackets. Isotope analysis linked the individual to the soil and water signatures of Switzerland or the German lowlands. The shape and condition of the bones spoke to a well-muscled individual who had been in good health. Documentary evidence told them that French soldiers often complained that Swiss mercenaries at Louisbourg were better fed and required to do less physical labor.
On its own, documentary evidence can be limiting. Often it reflects who and what 18th-century record keepers of the day thought was important to preserve and remember, not what 21st-century investigators want to know. A lab that tests the burial for parasite eggs such as roundworm or tapeworm and analyzes tooth enamel and isotopes can begin to build a very intimate profile of an individual. Another 2018 paper from Scott and collaborators describes a skeleton with ribs that had been broken—probably during a single traumatic event—and then healed. The authors wondered if the man had been injured, like so many workers, during the construction and repair of the fortifications: the sandy loam soil is unstable. Falls were common. Moreover, the oblique angle of the fractures on his hand suggested trauma from manual labor rather than from a drunken brawl.
“We want to get at the everyday, the unremarkable,” says Scott. The man had also suffered from gout and possibly an infection in his lower legs. “This individual would have been in immense pain with limited mobility,” write the authors. “Healed fractures in their right hand and multiple ribs suggest a heavy labor occupation, likely associated with reconstructing the fortification after the first siege.”
It is fragments—pieced and puzzled together in some kind of order—that make a history come alive.
Next to the burial ground, the swell of the ocean grows louder. Shorebirds probe between the sea-smoothed stones, searching for invertebrates. Their elegant legs carry them toward the sea and away again as the waves advance and retreat. A blue rubber glove lies upturned on the beach, its fingers grasping at empty air. East, someone has built a large cairn. To the west, along a well-nourished barrier beach protected by groins, eight large piles are arranged in largest to smallest materials: lumps of old concrete skewered by iron cables, rocks, cobbles, soil. Materials of destruction and construction. Farther down, an orange machine the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex eats away at a large pile of dirt, and men in hard hats shore up the new quay wall. It will be taller, stronger.
His skull tilts down and away, toward his right shoulder, to the empty space where the head of the humerus fits neatly between the collarbone and scapula. I reach up to tuck a lock of hair behind my ear and consider the movement of those same bones and the muscles that knit them together. A miracle how these different parts work as a whole.
Four hands hold the cranium now, as carefully and delicately as a midwife holds a newborn. The owners of the hands reassure each other they are ready. It is difficult to keep balance in the pit, crouched on the thin line of undisturbed earth between burials. There is a sharp intake of breath. The hands lift the skull, cradling it. They gently place it in a gray airport security bin lined with packing material. A white cover of geofabric slips over top. Half a dozen bins will be filled by the end of the day, but it is this skull I will remember as I watch the women walk away from the site, silhouettes against the empty horizon. Each carries their bin in solemn single file to the makeshift lab in an 18th-century house that they share with the construction crew that is rebuilding the sea wall.
Those four hands pick up the rest of the bones. What they leave behind: the smooth swept surface of the undisturbed subsoil.
How do we know a place or a person? Incompletely, in fragments. The world we experience now is layered on top of the worlds that came before us. The black rocks at the edge of the fortress were once contiguous with the northwest coast of what is now Africa. This knowledge, this connection, can be comforting: we can see how our piece of the puzzle once fit with someone else’s. But it also highlights how much has changed and will change. How can we know the world when the ground is always shifting beneath our feet?
“Time is profoundly out of joint—and so is place,” writes English author Robert Macfarlane of the epoch we currently live in, of the immense climate changes we are now living through. “Things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden.”
Our sense of time and place is increasingly threatened. “It’s as if somebody had a history book,” says Scott of the disappearing archaeological record, “the final copy of the most important history book and we’re just tearing pages out. Once the page is gone, it’s gone.”
We can’t keep everything. Each generation, each culture, makes difficult choices about what to hold onto and what to let go. So many coastal communities and cultures around the world are under threat, most of them without the resources of an academic institution or a federal department with an annual budget of $1.3-billion to underwrite them. Resources are limited. Even at a place as well-funded as Louisbourg, staff talk about the need for “cultural triage.” They, more than anyone, understand. The bastion at the black rocks will slip farther into the sea. Rochefort Point will one day disappear. The quay wall will again be breached.