Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 27, 2022
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Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula

A 17th-century architectural sites on the Rock's eastern coast

‘‘The archeological site represents one of the most recognizable, largest, richest and most visible 17th-century sites in British North America.”

Alright. Now, guess where it is. Virginia? New England? Nova Scotia? Nope. It’s the Colony of Avalon, a little over an hour’s drive south of St. John’s.

Around 400 years ago, the eastern coast of Newfoundland was a hodgepodge of English, Basque, Breton, Norman and Portuguese summer fishing camps. The Beothuk were around as well, but not for long.

Then, in the early 1600s, English investors decided to back permanent colonies in Virginia, New England, Bermuda and Newfoundland. In 1621, Sir George Calvert (later known as Lord Baltimore after he “discovered” Maryland) set up one of the first English colonies in the New World, in cod-rich Southeastern Newfoundland.

From the start, the Colony of Avalon was to be a special place; not a rough-and-tumble outpost, but a facsimile of a well-heeled English port village of the early 17th-century.

A “prettie” cobbled street was built through the centre of the town. There were stone houses, a sea wall, a carefully sculpted harbour, and even a self-cleaning septic system that worked with the tides. This was a rich, proud settlement, a trading centre, and the only successful proprietary English colony north of Chesapeake.

Success breeds envy, and there were a few attacks on the settlement. Both the Dutch and the French had a go at Avalon, but the colonists soon rebuilt.

Eventually, there were more permanent settlements up and down the coast. Avalon lost importance. It continued to exist, but new houses were built on top of old ones. Slowly, the hamlet faded into the mists of time, much like its namesake.

Then, about 25 years ago, a local was digging in his garden and found some odd objects. He brought them to the university, where they were prodded a bit, then more or less forgotten.

Finally, in 1991, archeologist Dr James A. Tuck appeared with a shovel and a bucket. Slowly, pail, by pail, the forgotten colony of Avalon has been resurrected.

Since the excavations have begun, Dr Tuck estimates that only a tiny portion of the town has been uncovered. “I would like to expose the whole site and see the whole plan,” he says.

It is a bit tricky, as people still live on the site. Most have generously allowed Dr Tuck and his team to poke in their gardens and peek under their lawns. Some have even willed their properties to the Avalon Colony Foundation. But there is no hurry. Dr Tuck and his team have plenty to explore already.

So far, over a million artifacts have been found, including a gold-plated spur, silver thimbles, gold rings, Dutch pottery and artifacts from Africa — a testament to the colony’s importance as a trading centre.

One of Dr Tuck’s favourite sources is the privy. “It is an archeologist’s heaven because when something is dropped into a toilet, no one is going after it. We have found silk and satin (the gentry’s toilet paper), a shoe — all sorts of artifacts.”

As the Colony of Avalon is being pieced together, object by object, the site itself is being brought back to life. Three historically accurate gardens have been planted by on-site botanists.

There is a 17th-century herb and medicinal garden complete with catnip, horseradish, dandelion, feverfew, caraway, garlic and other plants that would have been used to season foods, perfume fish traders and cure ailments first in England and then in the colonies.

As it was a high-end sort of place, there is also a Gentlemen’s Garden. Surrounded by a tall fence and featuring a gazebo, this garden is ordered and pretty, a place to retire after a long day of ordering around the peasants. It features plants popular in the 17th century, such as honeysuckles, lilies, cornflowers, forget-me-nots, poppies, violets and, of course, roses.

Though primarily for show, some plants had medicinal qualities as well. For example, according to Gerard’s Herbal (1633), foxglove that is “boiled in water or wine, and drunken, doth cut and consume the thicke toughnesse of grosse and slime flegme and naughtie humours.” Just what you need if you move to coastal Newfoundland.

The last garden is the kitchen garden. It is based on the crops grown by the original “planters” (the colonists that ‘planted’ themselves in the new world). On raised slate beds (all the better to hold in the heat) and protected by a wattle fence, they tried to grow — weather and neighbourhood cats permitting — the full range of tasty English side dishes: cabbage, beans, carrots, peas, turnips, onions, radishes, parsnips and the like.

No one is sure what will be dug up next in Avalon. On the morning I visited, the archeologists found an Elizabethan coin, two pipes (one with an anchor emblem, one with a flower) and 10 cannon balls. It was a slow day.

And, as Dr Tuck puts it: “We have only uncovered about 15 percent of the site. It will take around 40 to 50 more years to uncover it all.” It seems the “forgotten colony” of Avalon is back — in a very big way.

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