Underwater archeologists helping tell story of Louisbourg siege

Published on May 9, 2013
A Parks Canada underwater archeologist looks at iron ballast blocks from the wreck of a French warship in the waters off Fortress of Louisbourg. Submitted by Parks Canada

Parks Canada’s underwater archeologists have been studying what remains of the ships in the waters off Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site since the early 1960s. For this dive, they are also gathering fresh, high-quality video and pictures for new exhibits and for a festival of all of Parks Canada’s archeologists to be held during Louisbourg 300 celebrations this summer.

Jonathan Moore of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology service said that after so many years on the ocean floor, what is left of the warships is mainly the remains of the lower hulls, which are embedded into the harbour bottom.

“You are not seeing a lot of structure above the sea bed,” he said Wednesday morning, after the five-person team returned to the wharf in Louisbourg. “A lot of the heavier materials located in the lower-most reaches of the ships are laying on the seabed.

“A common thing we are seeing is cannons that were on the warships when they went down: cannonballs, cannon shot, bar shot — all of the kinds of ordnance that was on the vessels when they sank.”

Some ship parts like some rigging, pulley components, stone and iron ballast are also on the ocean floor.

Underwater archeologists last visited the shipwrecks in 2008.

“We haven’t seen any dramatic change, which is a good sign,” said Moore.

Different visits to the shipwrecks can reveal new artifacts, like the discovery this time of fabric that Moore thinks may have been used as a waterproof sealing agent.

David Ebert, a manager of cultural resources for Parks Canada, said there are thought to be the remains of up to 10 shipwrecks directly related to the second siege of Louisbourg, including six studied by the underwater archeologists. Some of the six were scuttled by the French in a harbour channel in a failed attempt to block British ships, and some others were sunk by fire or cannon fire in the inner harbour.

Ebert said the destruction of the ships was a dramatic story that the underwater archeologists are helping to tell.

“We want people to be able to connect with that story,” he said. “You can imagine gunfire going, ships on fire, people panicking as ships are staring to sink, and I think we can tell that story with the aid of what they are gathering.”

Fortress of Louisbourg will feature the underwater archeologists and shipwrecks among the demonstrations and activities of the Land to Sea / Field to Lab Archaeology Event, July 1-14, that will be one of the highlights of Louisbourg 300 celebrations. Visitors taking in the event will have access to Parks Canada archaeologists from across the country.

“We’ll talk about archeology across Parks Canada, from what we do in the Arctic to the Rocky Mountains to the forts in Ontario, to what we are doing here, because Louisbourg has always been a leader in archeology in Parks Canada,” Ebert said.

Recreational divers can explore one of the shipwrecks with permission and when accompanied by an authorized guide.