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Ghosts of old Acadia

Halifax researchers put a human face on Nova Scotia’s forgotten history

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Courtesy of artist Talva Jacobson

Courtesy of artist Talva Jacobson

Cheryl Perret’s eyes fill with tears as she studies the child’s face on her laptop computer.

Like a grandma lingering over a photo of a grandchild she rarely sees, Perret touches the screen, trying to adjust wisps of the child’s brown hair behind delicate ears. “Look at the cheeks, how round they are,” her cheery Louisiana drawl fills the room. “My family has longer faces, so I was expecting something longer… but he’s so sweet.”

A proud Cajun from south Louisiana, she has spent years tracking her ancestors back to Nova Scotia’s lush Annapolis Valley to 1740, just a few years before the British expelled them and 11,000 of their Acadian neighbours. The dark horror stories of the Deportation, the burning of Acadian villages and the attempt to snuff out an entire society, are engraved on her soul.

On this bright sunny day, the darkness is a little less visceral as she uses her laptop in her living room to become one of the first Cajuns to look into the face of an Acadian ancestor.

Perret isn’t just looking at a photograph. The child’s face she is studying belongs to Claude, a clay and polyurethane facial reconstruction created from a skull unearthed from an unmarked Nova Scotia cemetery halfway across the continent. “I could be looking into the eyes of one of my great ancestors for the very first time,” she fixes on the hazel eyes. “You have to wonder what his life was like. What did he see? Did he help with the chores?”

Those are the questions archaeologists Jonathan Fowler and Tanya Peckmann at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax answer hoping would bubble up after spending last 15 years coaxing Claude to life.

Likely born in the Avon Valley region of the Annapolis Valley in the early 1700s, Claude would have played in large gardens and watched as community leaders desperately sought neutrality in the ongoing dispute between the warring French and English. Much of his short life would have revolved around family, farming and religion.

DNA testing shows Claude died of unknown causes between the age of six and eight years old. He was buried in the cemetery at the parish church of Ste-Famille, near what is now Falmouth. Years later, as the firestorm of the deportation swept across the region, the church disappeared and the British killed or deported his family. The exact location of the cemetery disappeared from maps.

Claude’s amazing rebirth began in 1996 when bulldozers and backhoes chewed away at the unmarked graveyard to make way for a residential subdivision. By the time courts issued a stop-work order, more than 200 human bones were scattered around the site.

Student anthropologists from Halifax stepped in to study the remains. Officials reburied most of the remains in the summer of 2000, but overlooked one lab drawer containing several skull bones. Fowler, the Atlantic region’s expert on Acadian archaeology, heard about the drawer while studying in Oxford, and in 2005 was anxious to take a peek. “I assumed it was small stuff, finger digits and fragmented material that might not be easily recognized on a construction site,” she says. “I was completely wrong.”

Fowler’s work at dozens of different excavation sites in Nova Scotia has uncovered 50,000 artifacts such as musket balls, coins and clay pots, but the affable archaeologist with curly hair and an easy smile says nothing prepared him for opening that drawer of skulls. “It was a sacred moment really,” he recalls. “There was an instant and purely emotional reaction. I thought, for the very first time I’m looking into the face of someone I’ve been studying for decades. It took my breath away.”

Aware technological advances held the potential to give new voice to old bones, Fowler started a new round of research on the remaining part of the collection. He asked colleagues at Oxford University to analyze the bones for chemical evidence of diet, and turned to forensic specialist and colleague Dr. Tanya Peckmann to see if facial reconstruction, similar to the work carried out by police to investigate missing person’s cases, could be applied to the most complete of the old skulls.

Working with old bones is nothing new to Peckmann. As a forensic specialist attached to the provincial medical examiner’s office, she is often asked by the RCMP to investigate skeletal remains at crime scenes and help determine details about sex, age, ancestry, stature, pathology and trauma. This was the first time she says she’d been asked to use bones to help bring someone back to life.

“How could I not be part of it?” she muses. “I love history, but people sometimes have trouble understanding it. They hear a story about ancient Greece or a battle in the War of 1812, but they don’t quite get to understanding the significance of the event. But looking at this little boy, you can easily imagine he was part of a community. He played very much like we play. He had mother who was likely heartbroken when he died so young. It’s more context than you can get with a coin or a bent nail or a word on a page.”

After much conversation and grant seeking, the task of transforming the skull into a living face fell to Talva Jacobson, a patient historic archaeologist and artist from Alberta who’s studied facial reconstruction alongside forensic artists from Canadian police forces.

Working in a small, secure studio surrounded by Acadian remains, drawings and images of historic dress, Jacobson began by painstakingly cleaning the skull and mapping the subtleties that would become the core features: his eyes, his nose and his lips.

The initial attempts to cast the fragile skull failed, but Jacobson persisted, eventually using the same silicon materials used by sculptors to cast living people.

With a workable cast was finally in place, Jacobson has spent hundreds of hours over the past four years meticulously creating the facial muscles that support the eye sockets, the nose and mouth. A prosthetic-eye specialist, Heather Banfield, donated a set of artificial hazel eyes. Having observed traces of brown hair associated with one of the skull bones, Jacobson gave Claude a brown unisex do.

There’s still 25 hours of work left to get Claude ready for any public debut, but Jacobson makes no apologies for how long the effort has taken. There are few textbooks to follow for facial reconstruction and police forces and artists are reluctant “to share their magic.”

“We are doing something that has never been done before,” she explains. “We are recreating the identity of an ancient young person. This is Canada’s kid and we need to do well by this young man.”

Or perhaps woman.

Efforts to categorically determine Claude’s sex using hair and teeth samples have failed. Fowler says another attempt is possible if they can obtain some funding.

Susan Surette-Draper, a keen Acadian leader and one of the few in the cultural community in Nova Scotia who has seen Claude, hopes a few unanswered questions won’t stop a project she believes can be transformative. “As the only representation of a pre-deportation person we have, there is an enormous responsibility attached to this,” she says. “There is so little else that we have to hold on to.” Claude can connect children to the Acadian story with a travelling exhibit to schools, she suggests.

Rene Legere, president of the National Acadian Society and Vaughne Madden with the Nova Scotia’s Office of Acadian Affairs, also see opportunities for showcasing Claude, but admit their organizations have no financial support to offer.

Fowler has floated the idea of various exhibits and promotional opportunities to community groups, potential funding agencies and government, but hasn’t signed anybody up yet. “There`s been lots of discussion and people are pre-disposed to supporting it,” he says, “but when it comes to funding, the room gets quiet.”

The curator of archaeology at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History isn’t surprised. Katie Couttreau-Robins says the museum is interested in hosting a travelling exhibit, but Fowler and partners would need to find the people to design, interpret and build it first. “Culture and heritage are having a tough time right now,” she says. “So are the natural sciences. The traditional funding agencies don’t have the support they used to and corporate sponsors are hard to come by.”

She adds that it’s a shame. “[The exhibit] would bring together the cultural history with the archaeology and the art of facial reconstruction which would hook the kids,” she explains. “Three disciplines coming together in one fun story. It’s something we’ve never seen before. It could have powerful impact.”

Surette-Draper, Perret, Legere and the few lucky members the Acadian community who have had a peek at Claude hope someone will step up to fund the story soon. “When you are looking into his eyes, you are looking into the first truly Acadian face in North America. That’s something pretty incredible we want to, no we need to share,” says Perret.

CORRECTIONS

  • The print version of this story, which ran in the September 2014 issue, featured two images of artist Tavla Jacobson’s work that were not intended for publication. Those images were reference shots of work in progress, intended by the artist only as background for the story. The images above are correct. 
  • Due to a fact-checking error, the print version of this story also misstated forensic specialist Tanya Peckmann’s role. She works with the Nova Scotia Medical Examiner’s Service, where she studies bones to determine details sex, age, ancestry, stature, pathology and trauma. By law, only one of the province’s three medical examiners (forensic pathologists) can determine cause of death. Halifax Magazine regrets the errors.
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