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Academically inclined

Archaeology professor and Labrador Institute researcher picks up PhD

special feature: Student success

Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring convocation 2017.


Dr. Scott Neilsen, one of Memorial’s own faculty members, will graduate at convocation this spring. Split between the Department of Archeology and the Labrador Institute, Dr. Neilson is an assistant professor. He will collect his doctoral degree on June 1.

Here, he speaks with Gazette contributor Ashley Hurley.

AH: Where is your hometown?

SN: I grew up in a small town in New Brunswick, called Centreville. After that I lived in Fredericton, N.B., for a number of years, before moving to St. John’s to attend grad school at Memorial.

AH: Why did you decide to complete a PhD at Memorial?

SN: I had completed my master of arts at Memorial as well, and at the end of my program a project opportunity was presented to me which I could not turn down. Furthermore, my experience during my master’s was a good one; I got along well with the instructors in the department, so it seemed like a logical choice to remain at Memorial.

AH: Who was your supervisor?

SN: Dr. Lisa Rankin was my supervisor.

AH: What does it feel like to finally achieve your goal? How will it change your life? Your research? Your work as an educator?

SN: It feels good to finish. It’s a nice personal accomplishment. It is also a big relief to be finished. The main change in my life is that I can move on to other things. I had been working on it for a long time, so it had become a bit of a burden for me. I look forward to beginning new research projects now that I am able to, too. I really enjoy teaching and am looking forward to offering courses on a regular basis and designing some new ones.

AH: What was your experience as a graduate student at Memorial like?

SN: I am the type of person who likes to figure things out for myself. I’m a bit of a slow thinker and need to let things brew a bit. The School of Graduate Studies and the archaeology department deserve credit for providing me the space I needed. I required a few extensions along the way and they were always very supportive of this. Also, I have been living in Labrador since 2008. This meant that most of my interaction with the school was through email. They always responded to my requests quickly, and I can’t think of one single incident where they dropped the ball or weren’t able to help me. I think that’s pretty unique.

AH: Your PhD research focused on a survey of Lake Ashuanipi in Western Labrador. The project refers to a problem you identified in the archaeological history of the Labrador Peninsula: People often make assumptions about what went on in the interior without looking to see what was actually there. In broad strokes, what were your findings?

SN: At Ashuanipi we recorded over 40 cultural sites spanning the last 1,600 years. Most of these sites are associated with the Innu, and their ancestors’, occupation of the lake, although settlers have also contributed to the cultural heritage of the region more recently. My primary conclusion is that Ashuanipi was both an important place for some Innu, who spent periods of time living at sites around the lake, and it was a place some passed through on their way elsewhere. These large lakes in the interior of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula are able to support people for periods of time and are not the marginal locations that people have often assumed them to be.

AH: You have been heavily involved in the Sheshatshiu Archaeology Project, a multi-year research and salvage project partnership between Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and the Labrador Institute, since 2009. What has been the outcome of the project?

SN: I have been co-ordinating the fieldwork at FjCa-51, a large archaeology site in Sheshatshiu that was occupied repeatedly between 3,200 and 2,900 years ago, since the project began. I am responsible for meeting the fieldwork and reporting requirements under the provincial legislation, as will as overseeing and participating in the fieldwork, and community engagement. The project is still ongoing. It is a very large and significant archaeological site, and it has taken us longer to excavate than originally thought. To date, we have excavated over 400 square meters and recovered thousands of stone artifacts, including complete and broken tools and stone chips, which are the byproduct of making those tools. We have also documented and recorded numerous stone features at the site, including roasting pits, heating, cooking, steaming and smoking features, and possibly a location where a canoe was repaired or built. We have also made presentations to the local schools, taken people on tours of the site, and we created a museum exhibit in association with The Rooms, which is on display at the Labrador Interpretation Centre in North West River.

AH: Now that you’re finished your program, what research and/or teaching opportunities will be available to you? What do you want to focus on? Will your role at the Labrador Institute and the Department of Archaeology change?

SN: Now that I have completed my degree, I have moved into a tenure-track assistant professorship in the archaeology department. I am still associated with the Labrador Institute as well and am housed at the LI research station in North West River. I have begun to teach more courses and I was involved in the creation of the new certificate in Aboriginal and Indigenous studies, which is being offered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. I have my first grad student starting this summer as well, and I am really looking forward to working with more grad students over the coming years. The Sheshatshiu archaeology project has produced lots of material and there are great research opportunities for grad students associated with this project, and with other projects in Labrador such as COASTS and the Nunatsiavut Tradition and Transition project. I have a few research aspirations of my own as well, but I think it’s the opportunity to work with grad students that excites me the most. If I can provide them with an equivalent experience to the one I had as a graduate student at Memorial, it is going to be a rewarding experience all around.

Dr. Neilsen’s research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Institute of Social and Economic Research and the J.R. Smallwood Foundation.


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