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Making history come alive

Historical sites manager Merlin Rosser forever hooked on the stories behind the artifacts

By: Amy Crofts

  |  Posted: Thursday, Dec 05, 2013 06:00 am

ARTIFACT MAN – Merlin Rosser is a trained historical archaeologist who is the heritage sites manager for St. Albert's Musée Héritage Museum.
ARTIFACT MAN – Merlin Rosser is a trained historical archaeologist who is the heritage sites manager for St. Albert's Musée Héritage Museum.
APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette

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Merlin Rosser: Q&A

What is your nickname?
"Scouter Merlin."

Where were you born?
"At a convent in Cypress Hills. I was delivered by a nursing sister."

Were you always an academic?
"No. If it hadn't been for sports and history, I wouldn't have stayed in high school."

In your archeological career, where have you lived the longest?
"Summerland, B.C." (eight years)

From finding arrowheads in his backyard to unearthing a mammoth kill site, Merlin Rosser says he can't choose just one favourite find.

Every time he comes across an artifact, it's another aha moment.

"Every single artifact I have ever found is valuable, not for its actual cash value but for the story it tells," he says.

The 59-year-old historical archeologist has lived and worked at archeological sites all across Canada, from Fort Wellington in Prescott, Ont. to the Fisgard Lighthouse in Victoria, B.C.

Since 2009 Rosser has called St. Albert home. As the heritage sites manager for the Musée Héritage Museum, he is responsible for restoration and maintenance of several of the city's 19 historical sites.

His portfolio has included the two grain elevators at Grain Elevator Park, the Little White School and currently the Chevigny house, Hogan farmhouse and Cunningham house, all part of the city's long-term arts and heritage master plan to construct a 1880s French Canadian farmstead.

Rosser's job isn't solely preserving and protecting historical properties, it's about bringing them back to life.

Love affair with the past

"I've always loved history," remarks Rosser. "I grew up in southwest Saskatchewan on the prairie and I grew up with a dad who used to spend Sundays picking up arrowheads in the fields. History was all around us."

That passion resulted in Rosser abandoning his agricultural economics studies at the University of Saskatchewan and instead pursuing a bachelor of arts in archeology and a bachelor of education in history.

Ever since his first excavation in Dauphin, Man. in 1978, Rosser has been hooked.

He was a schoolteacher for 10 years after completing university. When he wasn't teaching during the school year, he dug holes in the ground as a field worker or surveyed various archeological sites with Parks Canada.

Digs included sites in Banff – the excavation of the temporary mining town of Silver City at the foot of Castle Mountain as well as uncovering remnants of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp from the First World War.

Rosser also worked at sites in Rocky Mountain House and Fort Assiniboine in Alberta and Grand Forks, B.C.

One of his most memorable excavations was a woolly mammoth kill site in Sibbald Flat in Kananaskis Country.

"We found one spearhead in situ in the bone in a mammoth skeleton," he recalls of the projectile points uncovered at the 11,000-year-old site.

Rosser says it was the best archeological excavation he has ever undertaken, not just because of the historical significance, but also because of the opportunity to learn from other archeologists.

"I love learning. I love tossing ideas out and discussing them with people," he said.

"It's really important when (you) do conservation because the field is constantly changing and because the field is constantly changing, we're constantly facing new challenges."

With new challenges also comes the need for more knowledge. Over the years Rosser has returned to academia for studies in anthropology, heritage conservation and most recently a course in cultural resource management.

Most of Rosser's work over the last two decades has focused on historical buildings – blacksmith shops, old farm yards and the Hardy Mountain Doukhobor Village in Grand Forks B.C. – which eventually led him to St. Albert.

Conservation work isn't just replacing furnaces and windows he says, it's ensuring the properties are returned – as closely as possible – to their original standing.

"How do we intervene on a site and not do any damage? How do we know what we're doing is actually improving the site?"

These are the questions that constantly cross his mind on a project.

"How do I know that what I'm going to do to that building is going to make it last another 100 years? Because of the nature of what we're doing, it's always a long-term plan," he said.

Successful restoration takes a blend of theoretical and practical knowledge, says Ann Ramsden, executive director of the local Arts and Heritage Foundation. Merlin Rosser brings that skill set.

"Merlin is very detailed oriented. He looks at problems from various perspectives," she adds.

One of the problems the arts and heritage team is currently facing is a popped out wall at the Chevigny house, a 120-year-old solid log-framed homestead built by Québécois brothers David and Louis Chevigny.

To maintain as much of the original frame of the house as possible, the restoration team spliced the old wood with new to increase structural support. The wood overlap ended up being too close together, resulting in the wall coming apart.

Using his background in carpentry and knowledge from previous restoration projects, Rosser collaborated with the site engineer about possible solutions – inserting channel iron, metal pins, glue, or a mixture of all three.

Conservation is a field in which you are constantly solving problems, Rosser said.

Living history

Studying, preserving, building history is not just part of Rosser's job. History permeates many parts of his life.

As a licensed lay worship leader with The United Church of Canada since 2009, Rosser is a fill-in worship leader for the Edmonton Presbytery.

"Most of my sermons have some sort of historical bent to them. Not intentionally, but it just weasels its way in," he chuckles.

"Doing the historical research, the background on the life and times of the events we discuss in church … I find it really fascinating. In fact I still get carried away with it."

History lessons also worm their way into the boy scout troop he leads, the 2nd St. Albert Scouts.

"There isn't one river I have ever paddled down where I haven't stopped at every single fur trade fort because I know where all of them are," he says.

The next project on Rosser's list is another graduate studies course, most likely in anthropology.


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