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Archaeology and World Heritage


Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada

Archéologue au travail à Red Bay  Archaeologist at work in Red Bay
© Parks Canada

Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada, found on the south-eastern shore of Labrador is an extraordinary archaeological site. It is now on Canada’s Tentative List for consideration as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. Its fascinating story has been painstakingly reconstructed and presented in a five volume archaeological report that has been produced in 2007. This research provides strong evidence of Red Bay’s worthiness for inclusion.

The exploration and management of Red Bay tells a true story of partnership. Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, in agreement with the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, began work at Red Bay in 1978 on the excavation and study of the remains of 16th century Basque whaling ship believed to be the San Juan. This project quickly became one of the largest of its kind in the world, as well as an international benchmark in the discipline. The Basque province of Gipuzkoa, Spain, where the San Juan was built, launched and outfitted, has also been a major partner, making important scientific contributions.

In the 1990s, due the importance of the San Juan site and the quality of the research and conservation being done, UNESCO approached Parks Canada if they could for permission to use the outline of the stern of the reconstructed model of the galleon as its logo for underwater cultural heritage. The San Juan is now the symbol for all heritage shipwrecks in the world.

Timbre commémoratif  Commemorative stamp
© Parks Canada

The main focus of underwater archaeological research at Red Bay was the excavation of the 16th-century Basque ship on the site. Its remains covered an area of almost 400m2. The combination of information from the excavation and from the drawings of individual wood pieces led to the assemblage of a model ship, whose image is known around the world, thanks to Canada Post who issued a commemorative postage stamp in 1987.

The study of cask used to transport the whale oil reinforced the interpretation of the function of the vessel, but also provided insight into the way these containers were transported and stowed. The study even allowed the verification of certain data on the ship’s tonnage through experimental archaeology.

Red Bay National Historic Site is a significant example of how Parks Canada continues to fulfill its mandate to preserve and present Canada’s history for the benefit of all Canadians. Parks Canada’s goal is to ensure that our national historic sites are conserved and that the heritage values and resources that make them exceptional are retained.

Interesting links:

History and archaeology 
Red Bay National Historic Site of Canada

Teacher Resource Centre
Red Bay 

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Artefacts from Red Bay  

Parks Canada, The Underwater Archaeology of Red Bay, Editors: Robert Grenier, Marc-André Bernier, Willis Stevens, 2007, 5 vol.