Bentley Street Archaeological Site

The Bentley Street Archaeological Site is situated on an extensive flat-topped bedrock knoll overlooking the harbour front of the City of Saint John, New Brunswick.
Bentley Street Archaeological Site (a)
(courtesy New Brunswick Archaeological Resources)
Champlain Vol2-73
Samuel de CHAMPLAIN's 1604 map of Saint John harbor
Bentley Street Archaeological Site (b)
(courtesy New Brunswick Archaeological Resources)

The Bentley Street Archaeological Site is situated on an extensive flat-topped bedrock knoll overlooking the harbour front of the City of Saint John, New Brunswick. Steeply sloping on all sides, the knoll provides a spectacular and commanding view of Saint John harbour. First Nations artifacts from the site were first reported to the New Brunswick Museum by an avocational archaeologist in 1965. The site was formally recorded by New Brunswick provincial archaeologists in 1974.

The diversity and numbers of surface artifacts collected from the Bentley Street site suggested that through time this had been a frequently used location. The site had long been interpreted by locals as a favourite native camping area along the portage which circumvented Saint John's famous Reversing Falls. This dangerous natural barrier divides the lowest reaches of the Saint John River from the finest harbour on the Bay of Fundy.

Samuel de Champlain's 1604 map of Saint John harbour illustrates both landscape and First Nations features. It shows the Reversing Falls portage leading up-slope from the harbour, past the Bentley Street site, across the Douglas Avenue ridge, then down-slope and eastward to meet the tranquil waters of Marble Cove (another impressive First Nations archaeological site is located at the trail terminus).

In 1997 the Bentley Street site was threatened by a potential condominium development. New Brunswick's Archaeology Unit initiated test excavations to determine the site size and to gauge how much, if any, of the site remained undisturbed by 19th and 20th century activities. The excavation findings offered a compelling case for site preservation. As the outstanding heritage value of this prime waterfront property was explained, the city and the province determined that the site should be preserved.

Covering an area in excess of 10,000 m2, the Bentley Street site contains pockets of undisturbed archaeological deposits, in some areas exceeding 70 cm deep. Amongst the almost 3,000 artifacts recovered were tools left by the very earliest people to occupy the Maritimes, between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago. Archaeologists refer to this time as the Palaeoindian period. The highest artifact densities on the Bentley Street site correspond to the highest elevations on the knoll. This connection suggests that the prominent vantage point was a selection factor in choosing this particular landform for habitation.

The site was most heavily used between 4,500 and 3,000 years ago. These years span two cultural periods that archaeologists refer to as the Late Archaic (6,000-3,800 years ago) and the Terminal Archaic (3,800-3,000 years ago). At this time the Reversing Falls would have been some 3-4 m higher at low tide than today. Certain artifacts suggest the Bentley Street site was used for ceremonial purposes around 4,000 years ago. This is noteworthy given the site's close proximity to similar aged ceremonial sites on Portland Point (located less than half a kilometre away within Saint John harbour) and in Marble Cove. Archaeological evidence also confirms that the Bentley Street site continued to be used by First Nations peoples until the arrival of Europeans.

In 1998, based on its age, size and cultural complexity, the Bentley Street Archaeaological Site was declared a protected New Brunswick Historic Site. No development can take place on the site without approval from the minister responsible for culture in New Brunswick. Since 1998 virtually all of the land surrounding the site has been developed. There have been repeated proposals to develop the site itself, but as yet the exceptional significance of this piece of New Brunswick heritage has prevailed.

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Further Reading

  • David Burley, "An Archaeological Reconnaissance of Saint John, New Brunswick" in Man in the Northeast, Vol. 12 (1976).