Archaeologist Vanessa McKillop records elevation and coordinates on a ridge above the St. Andrews River in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia.

Ancient beach points the way to historic settlement in Nova Scotia

October 12, 2018

Vanessa McKillop won’t rest until she finds Nova Scotia’s perfect beach. But the archaeologist isn’t looking to find the biggest waves or to improve her tan. Instead, she’s searching for signs of ancient shorelines, created as Nova Scotia’s glaciers retreated.

This pursuit is research for Vanessa’s master’s thesis in SFU’s Heritage Resource Management program, an online graduate program designed for working archaeologists and other heritage professionals.

As an Intermediate Archaeologist with Davis MacIntyre & Associates in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Vanessa has  been involved in a variety of projects throughout the Maritimes, ranging from the Paleo-Indian period all the way to twentieth century military sites.

Vanessa become interested in ancient shorelines while living and working in New Brunswick, where archaeological consultants are mandated to consider geological events when assessing whether First Nations cultural resources might be present within lands slated for community or economic development. Vanessa’s work at the significant Debert/Belmont Paleo-Indian site in Nova Scotia also sparked her curiosity about the archaeological record further south.

“I wanted to see if a similar GIS based predictive model could be used in Nova Scotia, potentially protecting unknown sites along the shores of Glacial Lake Shubenacadie,” says Vanessa.

Views from the ridge looking eastward show an ATV trail with exposed soils and a hardwood treeline, beyond which is the current river.

In her thesis, Vanessa is drawing on the work of geologist Ralph Stea, whose research suggests that the ancient beaches in this area are located no higher than 30 metres in elevation. Using LiDAR (a remote sensing technology), Paleo site occurrence mapping, and boots-on-the-ground surveying, Vanessa is tweaking Stea’s prediction into a working GIS model for archaeological consulting. The resulting model will offer rough predictions about where these beaches are most likely to occur.

“On the ground I am looking for sand deposits, ridges, and terraces above relatively flat areas,” says Vanessa. “These flat areas would have been flooded 12,800 years ago as glaciers reactivated in the Minas Basin, blocking the Shubenacadie River and causing water levels to rise and flow backward towards Halifax Harbour.” This flooding is contemporary with the oldest radiocarbon dates provided from the Debert/Belmont Paleo-Indian site. 

Recently, Vanessa was in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, where she explored a ridge about 30 metres above the St. Andrews River, which is now located more than 300 metres away. Vanessa recorded the elevation and coordinates of the ridge, which is likely a former strandline created by the formation of the glacial lake Shubenacadie during the Younger Dryas, about 11,000 years ago. 

A sample of the coarse sand deposit exposed by the ATV trail near the top of the ridge.

Soils exposed by an ATV trail near the top of the ridge exhibit coarse sand deposit. These fluvial sand deposits suggest that this is indeed the site of a former beach.   

Beaches have always been ideal places for humans to find food and fuel. If a shoreline is confirmed, the next step may be to do some limited excavations to search for traces of campsites or other human use.

Vanessa is continuing her fieldwork over the next few weeks, and is especially interested in finding glacial sediment deposits. These would confirm the great antiquity of the landforms, and increase the probability of finding archaeological evidence for early occupation.  

This research could have a positive impact on the regulations for land alteration projects in Nova Scotia. If evidence of an ancient shoreline and human occupation is found, there would be a strong case for expanding the provincial standards for heritage site assessments to include consideration of palaeo-shorelines.

Vanessa McKillop is an MA Candidate in Simon Fraser University's Heritage Resource Management Program.