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National finalist

Archaeology graduate student a SSHRC Storytellers Challenge finalist

Research

By Chad Pelley

Pier-Ann Milliard says the keys to our future lie in the past if you’re able to interpret the clues in the ground beneath our feet.

The archaeology graduate student’s dilemma, though, is that the data in the ground is being destroyed by climate change.

It is the basis of her recent submission to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s (SSHRC) Storytellers Challenge, which has earned her $3,000 as a finalist for the competition so far.

Only Atlantic finalist

SSHRC’s Storytellers Challenge asks post-secondary students to show Canadians, in up to three minutes or 300 words, how social sciences and humanities research is affecting our lives, our world and our future for the better.

The student is instructed to tell a great story about a SSHRC-funded project happening at their respective post-secondary institution. You can watch Ms. Milliard’s submission on YouTube.

Last week, she was named a top 25 finalist and is the only finalist from an Atlantic Canadian university. The unveiling of the final five winners, from the Congress for the Social Sciences and Humanities, will be livestreamed at a virtual event from Congress 2022 on Monday, May 16, at 3:30 p.m. (NST) on SSHRC’s social media.

Using beetles to recreate Inuit history

Cameras were not invented until the early 1800s, so archaeologists like Ms. Milliard paint pictures of the past using evidence in the ground.

Ms. Milliard is an archaeoentomologist. It’s a field that combines archeology and entomology (the study of insects). She studies the insect fauna present on archaeological digs to draw conclusions about past human activity.

Rows of beetles pinned with identification cards in boxes.
With much patience, and the use of the tools available to her in Memorial’s Peat Lab, Pier-Ann Milliard was able to catalogue the change in beetle species that occurred near an Inuit camp when Moravian settlers appeared.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

She is currently conducting her work on bogs in Northern Labrador, near old Inuit camps.

“Frozen peat bogs are wonderful archives,” she said.

By extracting cores from the bog that contain insects and other micro-data like plant matter, she can compare the older insect remains at the bottom of the core to the newer insect remains at the top.

Every species of insect is particular about the kind of environment they thrive and live in, so a change of insects in the cores indicates a change in the environment over time.

In the case of Northern Labrador, Inuit lands were changed by events such as Moravian settlers occupying the land in the 17th century.

Ms. Milliard knows the Moravians introduced goats to the environment, because her bog cores contain insects associated with the dung of grazing herbivores that would have been concentrated in small pastures.

“Archaeology is fascinating work, as you have the chance to work both in the field and the laboratory. Every site or context is unique. My love for beetles increased as I spent hundreds of hours looking at them under the microscope. Archaeoentomology brings so much to the present.”

Pier-Ann Milliard looking throguh a microscope with computer monitor showing a beetle
By comparing the change in beetles present in frozen peat bog samples from Labrador, Pier-Ann Milliard can paint us a picture of our past.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Record at risk

The clock is ticking for all archaeoentomologists who rely on frozen bog samples in the North.

These natural archives of past human activity are being destroyed by the fallout of climate change, including the rapid erosion of sea shores, and the loss of permafrost that keeps frozen bogs frozen.

As a result, the organic material Ms. Milliard and other archaeologists can use to interpret the past is decaying.

The archaeology community is racing to gather and process as much of the northern records of the past as they can before they’re lost to climate change.


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