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Secret tunnels and Oak Island : Local expert answers questions on Ask An Archaeologist Day

Laura de Boer jokingly says she studies dead people and their garbage
(stock photo)

Laura de Boer jokingly says she studies dead people and their garbage.

"Basically our job is to understand human history better by looking at material culture, so artifacts, buildings and human remains sometimes," the archaeologist explained.

The vice president and senior archaeologist at Dartmouth's Davis MacIntyre & Associates Limited appeared on NEWS 95.7's The Sheldon MacLeod Show for Ask An Archaeologist Day.

Listen to Sheldon MacLeod's conversation with Laura de Boer:

Because Halifax was founded in 1749, there's a lot of history right under our feet. However, as much as de Boer wishes it were true, secret underground tunnels -- like the one rumoured to connect Citadel Hill to Georges Island -- don't exist.

"There are no real tunnels the way people claim that there are," she said.

Most underground tunnels in Halifax were shorter and designed to take goods into building basements without passing through a store front.

"There would kind of be a hatch under the sidewalk and then it goes directly, within four or five feet, into a door in the basement of a historic building."

She said what most people mistake for the mythical secret tunnels are actually a part of Halifax's complex sewer system.

"Especially under the streets that aim down towards the harbour like Duke Street, they're quite large," de Boer explained. "They're about 3 feet wide and four-and-a-half feet high and they're wood-bottomed."

"I've had people say, 'Oh, but if it's wood-bottomed it's not a sewer,' but I actually have engineering plans from the 1860s that show sewers being constructed with wood bottoms. It's just the way they were built."

De Boer sometimes works with construction crews and has encountered old sewers that are still connected to old houses in the city.

"There's not really a record of that, so when the construction goes in, it gets corrected and put into the modern system.

De Boer also debunked another Nova Scotia myth, the treasure of Oak Island. She said if archaeologists thought it existed, they'd be digging for it themselves.

Many people believe the treasure was buried by Captain Kidd, but de Boer thinks he made up that story in prison in an attempt to avoid the gallows.

"He was about to be hanged and he wrote a letter claiming he had buried treasure somewhere in North America that he very much desired the British government to have," she explained. "Essentially he made up a fake treasure to try and save his own neck, quite literally."

De Boer said her favourite work site so far was in the Sydney-area.

"When the United Empire Loyalists came to Nova Scotia in November of 1783 after the American Revolution ... they basically were told to dig a hole in the ground, put a roof on it and survive the winter," she said. "We think we've actually found a couple of those holes in the ground."

Because they eventually went on to build actual houses, there aren't many artifacts, but through the site layout archaeologists can get a hint of what the living conditions were like that first winter.

When asked what she'd most like to find, de Boer said it's difficult to narrow down but a witch jar is high on the list.

"If you got a bladder infection, the assumption was a witch had cursed you," she said.

People would take a pottery jar, fill it with various objects including urine, fingernails, iron nails and a pieces of fabric and leather.

"You seal that jar up and you do one of two things. You either put it on the fire until it bursts, or you bury it upside down by your house," explained de Boer. "The idea behind that is it bounces the bladder infection curse back to the witch that gave it to you."

Witch jars have been found in Europe, the United States and Australia, but de Boer isn't aware of any discoveries here in Canada yet.

"Certainly I'd be wearing gloves and a mask if I opened one up."

Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana and lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the editor for CityNews Halifax.
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