Digging for answers in Birchtown

Published on August 12, 2008
Digging for answers in Birchtown

Amy Woolvett



Archeologists have been continuing to search for meaning behind the two mysterious rock mounds that litter the woodlands in Birchtown.

A professor and her students from Saint Mary’s University continued the search for answers that was started by archeologist, Laird Niven in the mid 1990’s.

Two rock mound complexes were identified in Birchtown and the large piles of rocks scattered about all tend to follow a similar build structure of large rocks on the outside and smaller rocks on the inside.

According to archeologists, the rock placements took a fair amount of time and energy, all depending on how many people helped to build the mounds. “It was a massive investment of energy that took weeks if not months to complete,” said adjunct professor of anthropology, Heather MacLeod.

Although the mounds have proved to be difficult to date precisely the lichen tested has proven that the forests grown around the mounds were several hundred years old and grew after the mounds were placed.

The timing of the structures falls around the range of the Black Loyalist Landing, in 1784.

At first Niven thought the mounds to be markers or gravesites but when he took one apart he found there to be nothing buried beneath it. “At first they asked what might be on top of it and then beneath it,” said anthropology student Charlene Regan. “Now we are exploring what is around them.”

When the mounds were found not to be those of burial sites other speculations were explored.

Why were they built? What was their purpose? “There was more energy put into the mounds than their own homes,” said Regan.

Agricultural clearance became one possible purpose but as noted by Niven, the rocks seemed to be taking up space as opposed to creating it. Another possible use was as agricultural platforms and studies will be conducted on the rock and soil to see if plantings were once placed there.

Many of the decedents of the Black Loyalists settlers feel their purpose to be spiritual. “We want a conclusion that is based on evidence,” said MacLeod.

The end of their archeological dig found no artifacts but MacLeod said that the very lack of evidence was evidence itself. “The absence of evidence tells us they didn’t eat and sleep at the mounds so they were not homes or else we would have found something,” she explained. “For the first time blacks were free and side by side,” said Regan. “Their individuality and black culture were no longer prohibited by their white enslavers so when the people came here and had their own land and freedom they many have wanted to leave some kind of trace of who they were.”

Yet, no other structure like it has been found that dated within the same periods. “There hasn’t been enough work done in Africa to compare to the same periods,” said Regan. “They are interested in prehistoric anthropology rather than historic.” “So far from what we know, they are unique,” she said.

Although the answer to the rock mounds mystery was not yet found, McLeod knows she will be back to continue her search. “The reclamation of the Black Loyalist’s history has so much importance for people’s identity,” she said. “Once you know your history you have a great sense of who you are.”

She explained that very little of the Black Loyalist’s history was ever written down. “Most of our history is in the ground,” she said. “How we live and behave is discovered there and is a much more honest record of the past.”

Until the mystery of the mounds is found, archeologists will be left still digging for answers.