The year was 1585. Seven boatloads of hardy English colonists founded a settlement on Roanoke Island off the Carolina coast; but by the time the next supply ship reached that location, the colonists had vanished without a trace. Since then, countless American books, articles and television programs have speculated on the fate of this "Lost Colony," the first English settlement in North America. The story makes for a gripping mystery.
Unfortunately, the story is also wrong.
Perhaps, as the story unfolds, it will be discovered that the colonists joined the Native peoples who are presumed to have inhabited the North American mainland for 11,500 years — although Time magazine now speculates that a site outside Pittsburgh, dating back over 12,000 years, may be "the oldest archaeological site in North America."1
It was in 1578, not 1585, that the English made their first attempt at a colony in North America — and not off North Carolina, but in Nunavut, near today's Iqaluit. Although Martin Frobisher's mining scheme there came to naught, the foundations of his own house are still clearly visible. Yet this 1578 house is not the oldest dwelling in Canada: far from it. Canada's oldest known home is a cave in Yukon occupied not 12,000 years ago like the U.S. sites, but at least 20,000 years ago.2
How do we know? Because Canada has trained archaeologists who have pieced together at least some of the jigsaw puzzle that is North American history. Through painstaking effort, they are helping to roll back the effects of collective amnesia.
Archaeology is the study of material evidence, from the first arrival of people in what is now Canada to more recent historical times. Archaeologists also study locations suspected of having been occupied in the past and which are now undergoing change. Although objects used by humans are useful in understanding past ways of life, other more ephemeral items can also be revealing. Archaeologists take note of the natural environment, architectural vestiges and communication linkages. The assembly of this information gives archaeologists a clearer picture of the lives of the people involved.
For at least the first 20 millennia of human occupation in Canada, no written records were kept to describe lives and events. Even after the arrival of writing, records were usually sparse in describing how our ancestors lived. Sometimes, major events were commemorated in oral traditions; but memories often fade, particularly in details of how the vast majority of any given population lived day to day. Nonetheless, Canada still has powerful tools to illuminate its own roots. Archaeological resources are Canada's archive of its ancient and historic past.
Archaeological resources can be as large as entire communities, or as small as a single object. They may be in the ground or underwater. This publication focusses on one part of the archaeological picture, namely land archaeology (as opposed to shipwrecks, which are handled by separate legislation).3