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Dig for history at a ‘lost’ colony in Canada

John Bordsen
John Bordsen is the Travel Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Patti Broughton, 41, is in her third season as executive director of the Colony of Avalon (, a nonprofit heritage site south of St. John’s, Newfoundland, at the easternmost part of Canada. She is originally from Ontario.

Q: From what I gather, this is kind of like a Canadian “Lost Colony” – an archaeological site of a failed colony from long ago.

I wouldn’t say “failed”: Avalon is the site of Lord Baltimore’s first colony in North America. Archaeology has shown it to be one of the most substantial and well-planned English settlements in the Americas. Avalon is in the town of Ferryland, which has been almost continuously occupied since 1621. Ferryland has a current population of about 465.

Q: Can you recap the story of Avalon?

In 1621, the Calvert family sent 12 men here to begin a colony. George Calvert – Lord Baltimore – and his family arrived in 1628. They stayed for only one winter – quite a harsh winter – but they maintained a governor here after they went south to the Virginia area to establish a colony in what is now Maryland.

The colony was then granted to Sir David Kirke, a hero in the wars with the French; his consortium was granted all of Newfoundland. He took up residence here with his family and moved into the Mansion House. It’s not a very large building by our standards today.

Kirke called the colony the Poole Plantation.

In 1696, the colony was attacked by the French, who also had a colony in Newfoundland. Some were captured by the French; some were sent back to England. The colony was essentially destroyed, though some returned a year later and rebuilt. Over time, settlement in Ferryland expanded.

Q: And the focus of archaeology is the old ruins.

Yes. For the last 22 years, there have been excavations every summer that reveal a very remarkable and rich settlement. They’ve uncovered many remains of stone buildings and features as well as more than 2 million artifacts. It’s one of the richest archaeological sites in North America.

Q. What kinds of artifacts?

One thing that sets our site apart is the number of ceramic artifacts, including pieces and fragments from all over Europe – including Portugal and Germany – and even China. The Kirke family was very interested in ceramics and brought those articles when they came from Europe.

And there are day-to-day objects. Some are more luxurious, like gold rings and coins from more well-to-do families. There are buttons, needles, beads, scraps of cloth. ... There’s a wide variety of building materials, from slate roofing tiles to iron nails. There was a forge here. They’ve found weaponry, like cannonballs and lead shot, as well.

We have a conservation lab at the Avalon site, and most artifacts are stored here. We have a partnership with Memorial University in St. John’s, and Avalon’s director of archaeology is from the faculty.

Q: Are amateur archaeologists welcome?

We have a daylong program that started this season where you can work right on the dig site and in the lab with (archaeology director) Dr. Barry Gaulton and his staff.

Every summer, the Colony of Avalon is open daily for guided tours that include the interpretive center, the dig site, a reproduction of a 17th-century kitchen, heritage gardens as there would have been in the 17th century, and we have costumed interpreters.

We’re one of the anchors for tourism in this part of Newfoundland and we have approximately 20,000 visitors per year. We open in early June and this year will close Oct. 4.

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