Coote Cove Archaeological Site

Coote Cove was once a small but vibrant 19th-century fishing community located on a large headland approximately 35 km from Halifax in Nova Scotia.
Coote Cove was once a small but vibrant 19th-century fishing community located on a large headland approximately 35 km from Halifax in Nova Scotia.

Amos Smith, Archeological Site
Plan of Amos Smith's house, excavated in 1999 (BcCv-02) (courtesy Laird Niven)
Excavation Site
Bill Fougere oversees students excavating at the site of Amos Smith's house (BcCv-02) (courtesy Laird Niven).
Crystal Crescent Beach
View of Crystal Crescent Beach from the site of Amos Smith's house (BcCv-02) (courtesy Laird Niven).

Coote Cove was once a small but vibrant 19th-century fishing community located on a large headland approximately 35 km from Halifax in Nova Scotia. The former village is now part of Crystal Crescent Beach Provincial Park, a popular hiking and sunbathing destination, and nature has almost completely reclaimed the land. Coote Cove was the site of a joint archaeological field school between J.L. Ilsley and Halifax West high schools that ran between 1997 and 2001, on two separate sites within the park.

The story of Coote Cove actually begins more than a thousand years ago, prior to the arrival of European settlers, during what is known as the Maritime Woodland Period (2500 to 500 years ago), when the Mi'kmaq used the area as part of their seasonal migration through the province. The first European settlers at Coote Cove were Scottish Methodists who landed in 1794 from Barrington, Shelburne County. The village eventually included 27 houses built along the shoreline. By the second half of the 19th century, the nature of the fishing grounds had changed, making Coote Cove a less than desirable location and forcing the residents to move to other areas. Interestingly, when the decision was made to move, the houses were actually taken off their foundations and floated along to their new locations. This not only created an instant archaeological site, but, in at least two cases, left standing structures that could be compared to the foundations they left behind. By 1907 there were only three buildings remaining on the site.

In 1990, an archaeological survey of Crystal Crescent Beach Provincial Park recorded the remains of 26 cellar depressions, the vestiges of the former village. A few years later, Bill Fougere, a teacher at J.L. Ilsley High School in Spryfield, recognized the potential of the site as an educational tool, specifically as an archaeological field school for high school students. In 1997, Laird Niven was hired to direct the first field school at Coote Cove, which was a collaborative project between Grade 11 academic students from J.L. Ilsley and Halifax West, under the supervision of Bill Fougere and David Williamson.

The first project involved the partial excavation of a house structure that was associated with Joseph Smith, one of the original settlers at Coote Cove. The house (formally designated BcCv-01) was located on a small promontory above the second Crystal Crescent beach, in a well-travelled area near the main parking lot. It was hoped that the public walking by the excavations would take an interest in the project, thus raising awareness about both community history and archaeology in general.

The research objectives of that first project were to document the nature of the building, its time of occupation and what it looked like. The archaeology managed to answer all of these questions. The European artifacts recovered were all domestic in nature, mainly ceramics and glass, dating from the mid-19th century. This indicated that the structure was a house occupied roughly between the 1840s and the 1860s, which fits in quite well with the main occupation of the site itself. The structure measured approximately 11.0 by 4.5 metres and was made up of two distinct sections. This corresponded almost exactly to the Longard House in Sambro, moved from Coote Cove in 1866. This house has a hall-and-parlour design, with the hearth and stairs in the middle, the formal parlour to the left, and the kitchen and root cellar to the right. The cellar was accessed through an exterior entrance. This fits exactly the footprint of the excavated Joseph Smith house, with a foundation laid directly on the ground to the west, the vestiges of a central dividing wall, and the relatively deep depression and collapsed walls of the kitchen and root cellar. One interesting aspect of this excavation was the recovery of approximately 1700 Mi'kmaq artifacts, including stone flakes, pottery, hide scrapers, and two bifaces ("arrowheads"). All of these artifacts were found in a secondary context, in other words, they had been displaced when the cellar hole was dug out in the early 19th century.

In 1999, the field school moved to the cellar of Amos Smith, known as BcCv-02, located on a hill overlooking the first site (BcCv-01). Amos Smith was another of the founding members of Coote Cove, and occupied the house during the first half of the 19th century. The excavations at BcCv-02 ran from 1999 to 2001 and revealed some key architectural elements of the structure. The architecture of the house seems to conform almost exactly to that of the first house excavated. This was most likely a hall-and-parlour house comprising two main sections divided by a central hearth. According to the archaeological evidence, Amos Smith's house measured at least 9.4 metres west to east, by 5 metres north to south (approximately 31 by 16 feet). The kitchen was undoubtedly in the east half, over the cellar. An addition to the north of the kitchen is thought to have originally been a pantry. This addition likely had a door that gave access to the north side of the house for refuse disposal. The substantial hearth base that was uncovered also provided structural support for a set of stairs leading up to a second floor. The structure at BcCv-02 differed from that at BcCv-01 in that it had a substantial addition on the northeast side and did not have the stone "piers" supporting the floor in the west half of the house.

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