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His fascinating finds, including an ancient burial ground dating back 7,000 years, illuminated the rich history of the region
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Friday, June 7, 2019 – Page B17

When Dr. Jim Tuck was named as one of the first nine recipients of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2004, the news release noted his name was "synonymous with archeology." As founder of the archeology department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and pioneer of community-based archeology at sites such as Red Bay, in Labrador, and Ferryland, in Newfoundland, he worked for decades overseeing major digs, contributing vastly to the interpretation of the province's history and prehistory.

Dr. Tuck, who died on May 10 at Vineyard Haven, Mass., at the age of 79, originally went to Newfoundland at the invitation of then-premier Joseph Smallwood.

In 1967, after a movie theatre construction crew in Port au Choix unearthed what would prove to be a burial ground of the Maritime Archaic Indigenous people, Mr. Smallwood wrote to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History seeking an archeologist, explained Steve Mills, one of Dr. Tuck's former students who later worked with him. Once connected with Dr.Tuck, Mr. Smallwood asked him to set up Memorial University's archeology department.

"From Port au Choix [where he unearthed the remains of more than 100 people, buried between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago] he moved up into Labrador, where he found the oldest known prepared burial mound in the world, 7,200 to 7,500 years old, of a small child," Mr. Mills said. "It showed these people were complicated and quite spiritually minded. Then he went to Saglek Bay, and then southern Labrador, Red Bay, which opened up the 16th century."

From 1977 to the late 1980s, Dr.Tuck excavated the 16th-century whaling station where the Basques hunted and harvested the right and bowhead whales. They found more than 100 human skeletons, or pieces of them, rendering facilities, red clay roof tiles and sunken vessels, including the oldest shipwreck in what are now Canadian waters.

Red Bay is now a UNESCO site, the third of four in the province and the only one in Labrador.

"And then," Mr. Mills continued, "he went to Ferryland, which opened up the 17th century."

Since the 1980s, Dr. Tuck was chief archeologist at the Colony of Avalon in Ferryland, established in 1621 by George Calvert (later Lord Baltimore). The dig has found and catalogued more than 2 million artifacts, including gold rings, a sea-flushed outhouse, the Mansion House remains and a wealth of 16th- and 17th-century terra sigillata pottery (the name means sealed earth - it had impressed decoration).

"Archeology studies what is left behind," Mr. Mills said. "In Red Bay, it was organic; they arrived on boats and lived on boats; they didn't settle. But in Ferryland, they came to settle.

The stuff they left behind tells the true story, that Newfoundland wasn't this backwoods.

They were eating off the finest kind of, literally, china. They had an interest in world events. We found a chest from Burma, Myanmar. Jim always thought the Mansion House that Calvert built and [Sir David] Kirke lived in for a time was the biggest in North America at that time. Newfoundland was a vibrant part of the 17th century New World."

"Jim firmly believed that it was the most substantial, best-preserved and richest 17th-century archeological site in North America," said Dr. Barry Gaulton, also a former student and then colleague.

For example, in 2008, they found a whole gold coin from 17th-century Scotland, a fivegram, 22-karat piece dated 1601, issued during the reign of King James VI. It held a value of £6.

"That would be about four months wages for the person who did all the marketing for the King's household," Dr. Tuck told CBC Radio. "It must have been very carefully hoarded and never used, it didn't circulate much at all. I don't think the average fisherman in Newfoundland, on the English shore, had that kind of money in his possession, so it must have been a merchant - or, I wouldn't at all be surprised - if it were Captain Wynne, the first governor, or one of the Calverts themselves."

"Today, Red Bay and Ferryland are among the most iconic archeological sites in the province, transforming these small fishing villages into major tourist attractions," Dr. Gaulton said. "Many archeologists have since followed in his footsteps, learning from his example."

Dr. Tuck's research also helped settle Inuit land claims, according to the Labrador Inuit Association.

His influence was potent, and multilayered. "Jim trained numerous undergraduate and graduate students, collaborated with a diverse group of academics across many disciplines and had an enduring friendship with many colleagues across Canada and the United States," Dr. Gaulton said.

"His legacy is that the people who studied under him, from undergrads to PhDs, have led Canadian archeology," Mr. Mills said.

James Alexander Tuck was born in Buffalo, N.Y., on June 11, 1940. His parents were Stuart Tuck, a history teacher and viceprincipal of the high school, and the former Laura Donovan, who had a degree as a librarian. James had one younger brother, Stuart Jr. Even as a child, he liked finding old things, and set up a museum in his basement.

Admitted to Syracuse University on scholarships for academic achievement and competitive swimming, he earned a bachelor's degree in botany in 1962, and then a master's in education.

He taught history for a year at Oak Bluffs School in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., but decided it wasn't for him and returned to Syracuse to earn his doctorate in physical anthropology in 1968, with a dissertation on Onondaga Iroquois prehistory. He was research assistant to New York State archeologist Dr. W. A. Ritchie until joining the faculty at Memorial University as its first teaching and practising archeologist.

"He did not love teaching in the classroom - he shone in the field," Mr. Mills said. "He led by example. No job was too small or too big for him to do. People loved working with him."

He also wrote extremely clearly, and his extensive publications included features in Scientific American, Arctic Anthropology, Inuit Studies and American Antiquity, preparing and presenting many papers internationally and co-authoring, with Robert Grenier, Red Bay, Labrador: World Whaling Capital A.D. 1550-1600.

He retired in 2005.

His other honours included a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada (1982) and the Canadian Archaeological Association's Smith-Wintemberg Award (2009).

But such accolades were not his driving passion. "If your objective is to make a lot of money, I think archeology is not for you," he told British newspaper The Independent in 2004. "It's a business you get into because it's fun.

You figure out about the past. A lot of people are interested in the past, and archeologists get to investigate it themselves, and that is pretty exciting."

"He was easy to approach," Mr.Mills said. "Quiet, even shy. You never saw Jim in anything but jeans and a plaid shirt. He had a great interest in many things." He liked gardening and carpentry, and could make anything from children's toys to the furnishings of the 17th-century kitchen room in Ferryland. "Despite all his accomplishments, Jim was a modest, soft-spoken man," Dr. Gaulton said. "Those who knew him well will miss him terribly. Jim's impact will be felt long beyond his lifetime.

Predeceased by his brother, he leaves his wife, Lynn Carol Tuck (née Robins), whom he married in 1963; children James, Michael, Robin and Laura; and seven grandchildren.

Dr. Tuck had four Newfoundland dogs. In his memory, a fund was set up to train Newfoundland dogs as service dogs.

Associated Graphic

While he was a world-class educator, founding Memorial University of Newfoundland's archeology department, Dr. Jim Tuck, above centre, 'did not love teaching in the classroom,' according to former student and colleague Steve Mills. 'He shone in the field,' where he is seen below at left.


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