Not Just Any Rock …

“This stone gouge may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”.

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This stone gouge, about 9″ long, has been part of my family for decades since my grandfather picked it up on a small island in Notre Dame Bay. It most likely lay there, undisturbed, since its owner lost it thousands of years ago!

From as early as I can remember, there was an odd-looking rock sitting on a bookshelf in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I always took an interest in it, and eventually found out it was an old “Indian” tool that my grandfather (who passed away when I was seven) had found on Ochre Pit Island in Notre Dame Bay (not far from Exploits Islands, where he lived and which played a big part in my family history).

Years later, when my grandmother left that house for a more manageable place, I inherited that “rock”. It has always held a special place for me, and has always been displayed prominently in my space – my bedroom at my parents’ house, bookshelves in my various student apartments, and now a display cabinet in my family home. It probably helped trigger my interest in history (and prehistory), as well as providing a sentimental connection to my grandfather who, despite his absence, has impacted my life in many ways.

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Over the years, I did a little research and determined that it was stone gouge, likely made and used by the Maritime Archaic Indians who lived here long before the Europeans arrived. Long before even the Beothuk, who were the only native people living on the island by the time John Cabot arrived in 1497. But I was always reluctant to report this lovely artifact, worried that I might be expected to hand it over to the government or a museum under the Historical Resource Act.

I recently read about the new Community Collections program, developed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society (NLAS), which aims to locate and record artifacts currently held in private collections or by private citizens. I immediately contacted the society, and president Tim Rast asked to come see, photograph and catalog the gouge.

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The gouge is made from green slate, which is common throughout much of Newfoundland and used by every group of people that ever lived here. Once an appropriate piece of slate was chosen, it would have been pecked, ground and polished using other types of stone until it resembled this. A stone gouge like this would have most likely been used in woodworking, which was an important part of life for the Maritime Archaic people.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

I had a great visit with Tim, who seemed genuinely excited to see the gouge and talk about its origins. He confirmed that it was indeed a Martime Archaic artifact, dating back approximately 3500 years and possibly more. The Maritime Archaic Indians were the first people to settle in Newfoundland, arriving from Labrador more than 5000 years ago (their history in Labrador goes back at least another two millennia!). They lived on the island for almost 2000 years, eventually spreading all over the coast before mysteriously disappearing from the archaeological record  3000-3500 years ago. Their presence in Notre Dame Bay has been illustrated by several other finds in the area, but my grandfather’s stone gouge now adds a new piece to the puzzle. It confirms that the Maritime Archaic people visited Ochre Pit Island (previous finds on that island were impossible to date or attribute to specific group).

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather's stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather’s stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

For most people, myself included, it is easy to forget that people have lived here for so long. Our notion of human history on this island all too often begins with the arrival of European explorers and fishermen just over five centuries ago, or with the Beothuk people who lived, and so sadly died, here at that time. Yet, sitting on a shelf in my own living room is a vivid reminder that people thrived here long, long before.

This rock was carefully chosen, artfully sculpted, and skillfully used by someone’s hands more than 3000 years ago – someone living a life I can never imagine. As Tim Rast so poignantly reminded me, this stone gouge “may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”. Now that’s a history! And not just any rock …

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3 thoughts on “Not Just Any Rock …

  1. Wonderful story about a great piece of Newfoundland history! We ” Europeans” are quick to forget that throughout the Americas we are the latecomers. Our history with our predecessors has been a sad tale wherever we settled. Having been stationed in Argentia & marrying a Newfoundlander; I have a deep love for the island & its people. I am a sculptor & to see a beautiful piece of worked stone like this really touched my heartstrings. It shows that with only rudimentary tools; much craft & respect for the material went into the making of this piece. It is an amazing piece of art!! Thanks for your post…

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