FERRYLAND, Newfoundland - Nearly a decade before Puritans made the meandering mud paths that would become Boston's streets, settlers of an English colony called Avalon - present-day Ferryland - were laying the cobbles of a "prettie streete" curving along the harbor front past the new forge and brew house.
That was 1621, and their exacting labor produced what was probably the first paved road in North America. The original street survives, flanked by the foundations of a 17th-century sea wall, sturdy stone homes, warehouses, an alchemist's workplace, a forge and even an ingenious privy flushed by the tides and holding the last silk scraps that Avalon's gentry used for toilet paper.
This long-forgotten colony established by Lord Baltimore, like other significant historic sites across Newfoundland, has been unearthed only in the past decade as the collapse of the fishing industry has spurred a desperate search for economic alternatives in Canada's most impoverished province.
Government and universities have joined forces to support the scooping of dirt from the past in hopes that the payoff will be not only knowledge but a surge in tourism. Thus, new excavations are being funded by federal and provincial "economic renewal" programs, not the typical research grants.
"People are fascinated to see history literally coming to light before their eyes, especially at a complex as extraordinarily preserved as this one," said Jim Tuck, head of the archaeology unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland and supervisor of the Avalon dig.
"This is serious research, not a show," he said. "But if it creates jobs and brings more visitors, that's good news for a province that has seen some very tough times."
`Full of firsts'
Shovel and sieve are removing the silt of centuries from dozens of the 3,500 identified archaeological sites in the province, including "lost" English colonies on the easternmost fringes of Newfoundland; a wide scattering of sites related to Paleo-Eskimos, Maritime Archaic Indians, and more modern Beothuk natives; and remnants of a Basque whaling station. That 1500s whaling outpost, in Red Bay, Labrador, is billed as the continent's "first industrial complex" because of the quantities of blubber oil refined there for shipment to the energy markets of Renaissance Europe.
"Newfoundland is so full of firsts," said Martha Drake, archaeologist for Newfoundland and Labrador, which is the mainland part of the province. "There's been an explosion of interest in archaeology [as] so many little fishing communities rediscover the history beneath their own feet."
The work has started to attract more tourists to these distant shores. In Ferryland, fewer than 2,000 visitors stopped by the Avalon Colony archaeological dig in 1992, the start of the ambitious project. Last year, the number had risen to 17,000, and the village - which faced ruin when fishing stocks collapsed - now possesses the cheery aura of a community on the rebound, with scores of new jobs created by bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, gift shops, boat tours and the site work itself.
Of course, no one expects archaeological tourism to replace codfish as the centerpiece of the Newfoundland economy - nothing could, the province was far too dependent on a resource that once seemed limitless. But the swelling ranks of visitors from "away," like the expansion of deep-sea oil fields off the province's coast, are bright spots on what seemed a horizon of pure gloom.
Newfoundland's stunning natural beauty is a great drawing card. But so, too, is its rich past. For more than a millennium, this was the gateway to North America for explorers, fishermen, and other wayfarers daring the great Atlantic crossing.
Leif Ericsson landed on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula in A.D. 1000. Whether the collection of sod huts and Norse artifacts uncovered at L'Anse aux Meadows are remnants of "Leif the Lucky's" base camp may never be known, but the site is the continent's only authenticated Viking settlement.
L'Anse aux Meadows has been famous since the 1960s. But more recent discoveries are winning world attention.
In the fishing village of Cupids, archaeologist Bill Gilbert is leading the excavation of an English colony, Cupers Cove, founded 10 years before Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. In six years, researchers have exhumed thousands of artifacts, including clay smoking pipes and trade beads.
More substantial, however, are finds at Ferryland, where Tuck and his team have uncovered the best-preserved ruins of any early English colony in the New World.
"People think of Plimoth Plantation, but that's a re-creation. All that was really uncovered in Plymouth are discolorations in the earth left by the timbers of the first structures," Tuck said. "Here we're finding cobbled streets and the original stone architecture. Here is one of the very oldest continuously inhabited places in British North America."