Archaeology Of The Arctic Canada And Greenland

Western interest in North American Arctic cultures goes back to the earliest encounters between aboriginal peoples, European and Russian explorers, whalers, traders, and missionaries. Naturally the level of interest varied greatly, with trade undoubtedly being one of the primary objectives.

Aboriginal interests in past cultural activities centered principally on oral tradition, the passing of myths and legends from generation to generation. In many instances, material cultural elements and styles were passed on from one generation to the next. The location of old habitation sites and faunal remains told the pioneering bands much about the potential richness of an area used over hundreds of years. Old tools were undoubtedly examined, occasionally copied, and used. Old settlements contained building materials used in the construction of new dwellings. When Thule Inuit in Greenland excavated abandoned Norse farmhouses, useful items such as iron and wood were collected and carried away.

The systematic excavation and recording of past habitation sites were an outgrowth of the Western scientific approach, with ethnographic fieldwork providing the foundation for analyses and interpretations of archaeological evidence. Franz Boas's detailed ethnographic research in the Eastern Arctic in the 1880s was an early contribution along these lines.

Few archaeological debates have been carried out with more fervor than those surrounding the question of the first human migration into the New World; did the first people follow the southern coastal region of Beringia or did they migrate through the interior tundra of the land bridge, or did they use both routes? The gradual post-Pleistocene flooding of Beringia eventually severed the land connection about 8000 years ago, and steadily submerged evidence of human occupations along its ancient shores.

Most archaeologists accept that people have resided in North America during the past 15,000-20,000 years. A few researchers, such as William Irving, called for considerably greater antiquity, possibly in excess of 100,000 years, based on fairly controversial findings in the Old Crow Flats in the Yukon. Nevertheless, substantial and indisputable evidence of human occupation, such as the remains investigated by Jacques Cinq-Mars at Blue Fish Cave in the Yukon, do not predate 15,000 years. With the exception of sites in the Yukon and Elmer Harp's location of Paleo-Indian sites in the Keewatin District of the Barren Grounds, the human presence in the Central, Eastern and High Arctic Canada and Greenland occurred relatively late. With the gradual retreat of the Laurentian Ice Sheet about 9000 years ago, newly opened lands supported sufficient numbers of caribou to entice hunters northward. However, several thousand years would pass before the first Paleo-Eskimo hunters headed eastward from northern Alaska into the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.

The first systematic excavation of archaeological sites in the Arctic took place between 1921 and 1924, when Therkel Mathiassen (1927), an archaeologist on the Danish Fifth Thule Expedition, investigated prehistoric sites in the central and eastern Canadian Arctic. His findings provided the foundation for the prehistoric period called the Thule culture. The data obtained by Mathiassen combined with the ethnographic fieldwork of Knud Rasmussen and Kaj Birket-Smith resulted in theoretical discussions concerning the origin of the Eskimo culture and its relationship to the present-day Inuit populations in the Arctic. Birket-Smith favored an inland origin for the Eskimo culture, whereas Mathiassen was of the opinion that the Thule culture had an Asiatic origin and a direct relationship to Eskimo cultures in Alaska and the Bering Sea region. Many decades passed before James VanStone's ideas of a direct connection between the Thule culture and modern Eskimo groups were accepted.

Mathiassen held the opinion that no culture predated the Thule culture in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. However, Diamond Jenness, examining a collection of artifacts obtained by Inuit near Cape Dorset and on Coats Island, noted that the style of the small stone, bone, and ivory artifacts was quite dissimilar from those associated with the Thule culture. With superb insight, Jenness (1925) announced that a culture predating the Thule culture had existed in the Arctic, and named it the Dorset culture. We now know that the Dorset culture encompassed the latter stage of a long-lived Paleo-Eskimo tradition in both Canada and Greenland. Jenness's insightfulness was not limited to prehistoric evidence from Canada. In 1926, he studied an assemblage of artifacts purchased from Eskimos on St Lawrence and Little Diomede Island. The artifacts constituted the first traces of what became known as the Old Bering Sea culture. Jenness also recognized the relationship of the artifacts to prehistoric finds he had made previously at Cape Prince of Wales in Alaska and the connection to the Thule culture.

In the late 1930s, Robert Bentham forwarded artifacts from southeastern Ellesmere Island to Ottawa, where they were studied and described by Jenness; however, not until the late 1940s and early 1950s did Arctic archaeology in Canada reach a more active stage. In many ways it was the work of Louis Giddings, in 1948 at Cape Denbigh, that created a renewed interest in Canadian Arctic Inuit antiquity. Giddings's 4000-4500-year-old Denbigh Flint complex was thought to be ancestral to the Canadian Dorset culture. During the summers of 1949 and 1950, Henry B. Collins (1955) excavated Thule and Dorset culture sites on Cornwallis Island and in the vicinity of Frobisher Bay where, at the Crystal II site, he located a clear stratigraphic separation between earlier Dorset and later Thule culture materials. During the summers of 1954 and 1955, Collins directed archaeological investigations of Thule and Dorset sites on Southampton, Coats, and Walrus islands. Interest in Dorset/Thule culture contact remains undiminished and offers one of the most debated topics in Arctic archaeology.

Following earlier investigations by Graham Rowel, J0rgen Meldgaard conducted a series of investigations in the Foxe Basin region between 1954 and 1957. The excavations produced data spanning nearly 4000 years of Paleo-Eskimo activities in the Central Canadian Arctic. The style of cultural elements, particularly harpoon heads, provided a basis for establishing a cultural chronology that separated Dorset from earlier Pre-Dorset components. Regrettably, most of these data remain unpublished.

In 1957 and 1958, William Taylor Jr. (1968) excavated Pre-Dorset and Dorset sites on Mansel and Sugluk islands. Of particular interest at the time was the question of the degree of the relationship between the two Paleo-Eskimo periods. It was Taylor's contention that there was continuity between the two, a view shared by most contemporary Arctic prehistori-ans. Taylor also traced the western limits of Pre-Dorset on Banks and Victoria islands.

For several decades Father Guy Mary-Rousseliere (1976), assisted by Inuit from Pond Inlet, excavated sites on northern Baffin Island, obtaining well-preserved specimens relating to Paleo- and Neo-Eskimo (Thule culture) occupations. In 1958, Moreau Maxwell investigated Thule culture sites in the Lake Hazen/Lady Franklin Bay areas of northern Ellesmere Island. Maxwell's principal contribution to Arctic research came from his subsequent work on Pre-Dorset and Dorset sites on the south coast of Baffin Island and his excellent, 1985, comprehensive overview of eastern Arctic prehistory (Maxwell, 1985).

The 1970s saw a marked expansion of archaeological research in the Arctic. In Central Labrador, James Tuck (1976) and William Fitzhugh established the presence of early pre-Dorset occupations, barely postdating the last stages of Maritime Archaic. Peter Schledermann excavated early Thule culture sites and established occupational continuity culminating with the 18th-century Communal House period. Elmer Harp had extended the known presence of Dorset sites to the west coast of Newfoundland, while in Labrador, Fitzhugh and Steven Cox (1978) identified a distinct variant of the Dorset culture: Gross Water Dorset. Robert McGhee's (1979) excavations of Paleo-Eskimo sites at Port Refuge on Grinnell Peninsula established a preliminary set of criteria for separating the Independence I and Pre-Dorset complexes of the Arctic Small Tool tradition. In 1976, Schledermann identified the presence of Early Dorset in the High

Arctic Islands. The following year Schledermann (1996) and Karen McCullough (1989) initiated a long-term archaeological investigation of the central east coast of Ellesmere Island covering the entire span of High Arctic prehistoric occupations, including sites associated with Independence I, Pre-Dorset, Early, and Late Dorset. Investigations into the early Thule culture period resulted in establishing a possible contact episode between Inuit and Norsemen in the Smith Sound region. The timing of the first appearance of the Thule culture was also determined to be around AD 1200, later by several centuries than previously thought. In northern Ellesmere Island Pat Sutherland excavated Paleo- and Neo-Eskimo sites, while McGhee investigated Thule sites on Bathurst Island. In the 1980s, Late Dorset period sites were investigated by James Helmer and Erik Damkjar.


Carl Fleisher's work on the Qajaa site in Jacobshavn Isfjord (Ilulissat) in 1870 resulted in the recognition of a Greenlandic stone age. In 1907, the Norwegian geographer Ole Solberg published his studies on stone age materials from Greenland, while in North Greenland Christian Thostrup located evidence of early occupations. Following his return from the Fifth Thule Expedition in Canada, Mathiassen carried out archaeological investigations in many parts of Greenland. He concentrated exclusively on the Thule culture, which he believed represented the total prehistory of Greenland (and Arctic Canada). Mathiassen's (1931) work in the Upernavik district, assisted by Frederica de Laguna, resulted in defining the Inugsuk phase of the Thule culture, characterized by an inclusion of Norse artifacts in Thule culture assemblages supposedly signifying contact between Norse Greenlanders and Thule culture Inuit. More recent investigations, notably by Jette Arneborg, have questioned the importance of such contacts in terms of Thule culture developments. Helge Larsen's (1934) work in the early 1930s on Clavering Island and in Knud Rasmussen Land in northeast Greenland provided some of the first systematically excavated evidence of a Thule culture presence in that part of Greenland. This work, together with that of Mathiassen's investigations in southeast Greenland and William Laughlin's and Jorgen Jorgensen's studies of skeletal material, led to varying hypotheses concerning the direction(s) of Thule culture expansion into East Greenland. Although the extent of Paleo-Eskimo activities in central East Greenland is not well known, recent investigations in the Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund) and Ammassalik regions by the Sandells and Tina M0bjerg have provided important new data. Erik Holtved's (1944, 1954) excavations of Thule culture winter sites in North Greenland during the 1930s and 1940s provided the first clear evidence of Thule culture activities at the major crossroads between High Arctic Canada and Greenland. His work established a close link between early Thule in the Far North and contemporaneous maritime cultures in Northwest Alaska. The excavations yielded a number of Norse artifacts thought at the time to indicate intertribal trade originating in West Greenland. After the end of World War II, the pace of archaeological investigations increased significantly. Meldgaard's investigation of the Mosegaard 1948 collection from Saqqaq resulted in the formal recognition of two Paleo-Eskimo complexes: Saqqaq and Early Dorset. Excavations by Larsen and Meldgaard (1958) at the Sermermiut site located near Jacobshavn (Ilulissat) provided an important chronological framework consisting of three components: Saqqaq, Dorset, and Thule. Numerous Saqqaq sites located subsequently on the west and east coast of Greenland attest to the vitality of this long-lived and successful period of Greenlandic Paleo-Eskimo occupation. In the Far North, Eigil Knuth (1984) excavated Paleo-Eskimo sites in Peary Land, naming the Independence I and II complexes. Initial radiocarbon dating indicated a temporal separation between Saqqaq and Independence I. However, more recent dates suggest initial contemporaneity between the two complexes. Not only is Saqqaq of the same vintage as Independence I, but it lasted far longer: from about 2500 BC to 950 BC. Presently, Independence I is seen as an early but fairly short-lived regional complex of the Paleo-Eskimo tradition. In 1982, the Qajaa site was investigated by Meldgaard, Larsen, and Jeppe M0hl, revealing, as had Sermermiut (Meldgaard, 1952), three prehistoric stages beginning with Saqqaq, overlain by Dorset, and covered by Thule culture and historic Inuit middens. In the early 1980s, Bjarne Gr0nnow (1996) directed the excavation of the Qeqertasussuk site in Disko Bugt. The results provided important new insights into an early stage of the Saqqaq culture in West Greenland.

The later stages of Saqqaq are less well documented, although one important exception is the Akia site in the Sisimiut district of West Greenland where Finn Kramer observed a possible influence of Canadian Late Pre-Dorset at a late stage of the Saqqaq period. A similar conclusion about a Saqqaq and Pre-Dorset overlap had been drawn by Schledermann (1990), based on excavation data from the central east coast of Ellesmere Island. The evidence from the Akia site suggests that some degree of a cultural continuum between Saqqaq and Early Dorset (Dorset I) existed in West Greenland. Although Knuth's concept of Independence II as a cultural complex connected to Independence I is supported by some investigators, alternative assessments of the data point to a far more complex set of cultural interactions in the Far North, involving a blending of cultural traits derived from a northward spread of late Saqqaq elements combined with an expansion of both late Pre-Dorset and Early Dorset traits from the Canadian Arctic. During the 1990s, Claus Andreasen carried out an extensive excavation program in northeast Greenland, verifying the significant population expansion and level of cultural activity of this Transitional or Independence II complex in the Far North. Although Late Dorset sites were known to exist in North Greenland, not until 1996 did the first systematic excavations of such sites take place under the direction of Martin Appelt and Hans Christian Gull0v. These investigations have corroborated earlier findings concerning Late Dorset activities made in the late 1970s and 1980s on the central east coast of Ellesmere Island. In addition, according to Appelt (1999) and Gull0v, data from the Greenlandic Late Dorset sites point to Dorset/Norse and Dorset/Thule contact. Norse settlers from Iceland arrived in southern Greenland shortly before AD 1000. According to recent studies by Arneborg, the Norse had abandoned Greenland by the middle of the 15th century. Although many factors caused the Norse to leave, a slow, gradual out-migration rather than large-scale abandonment is suggested by Berglund and Niels Lynnerup.

Archaeological investigations, beginning with the work of Daniel Bruun in 1894, continued in the 1920s with Poul N0rlund's (1967) work on late period burials at Herjolfsn&s, Aage Russell's and Christen Veb&k's work in the 1940s, followed by that of Meldgaard and Knuth Krogh (1982). Presently about 250 farms, 17 churches, and two monasteries have been recorded in the Eastern Settlement and about 80 farms and three churches in the Western Settlement. Relatively recent excavations in the Western Settlement by Arneborg (1993), Berglund (2000), and Claus Andreasen have yielded important information concerning the final stages of the Norse occupation at the time of abandonment of that region about the middle of the 14th century. Arctic archaeology in North America and Greenland has progressed from the initial and essential step of collecting and analyzing cultural remains, defining diagnostic elements of major cultural episodes to more far-reaching interpretations resting upon a broader, multidisciplinary, cultural ecological framework.

Peter Schledermann

See also Arctic Small Tool Tradition; Denbigh Flint Culture; Dorset Culture; Independence Culture; Migration, Prehistory; Old Bering Sea Culture; Pre-Dorset Culture; Saqqaq Culture; Thule Culture

Further Reading

Appelt, M. & H.C. Gull0v, Late Dorset in High Arctic Greenland: Final Report on the Gateway to Greenland Project, Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center Publication 7, 1999 Arneborg, J. & J. Berglund, "Gaarden under Sandet."

Copenhagen, Forskning i Grönland Tusaat 4 (1993) Berglund, J., "The Farm Beneath the Sand." In Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000 Collins, H.B., "Excavation of Thule and Dorset culture sites at Resolute, Cornwallis Island, NWT." Annual Report of the National Museum of Canada, 136 (1955): 22-35 Cox, S.L., "Palaeo-Eskimo occupations of the North Labrador

Coast." Arctic Anthropology, 15(2) (1978) Fitzhugh, W.W., "Paleo-Eskimo cultures of Greenland." In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution,1984, pp. 528-539 Gr0nnow, B. (editor), The Palaeo-Eskimo Cultures of Greenland: New Perspectives in Greenlandic Archaeology, Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center, 1996 Holtved, E., "Archaeological Investigations in the Thule District. Copenhagen." Meddelelser om Grönland, 141 (parts 1 and 2) (1944)

-, "Archaeological Investigations in the Thule District,

III; Nügdlit and Comer's Midden. Copenhagen." Meddelelser om Grönland, 146(3) (1954) Jenness, D., "A new Eskimo culture in Hudson Bay. Ottawa."

Geographical Review, 15 (1925): 428-437 Knuth, E., Reports from the Musk-Ox Way: A compilation of Previously Published Articles, Copenhagen: E. Knuth, 1984 Krogh, K.J., Grönland: Erik the Red's Greenland. (2nd revised edition), Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet, 1982 Larsen, H.E., "D0demandsbugten: An Eskimo settlement on Clavering Island. Copenhagen." Meddelelser om Grönland, 102(1) (1934)

Larsen, H.E. & J. Meldgaard, "Paleo-Eskimo cultures in Disko Bugt, West Greenland." Copenhagen. Meddelelser om Grönland, 161(2) (1958) McCullough, K.M., The Ruin Islanders: Early Thule Culture Pioneers in the Eastern High Arctic, Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization Mercury Series, Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 141, 1989 McGhee, R., The Palaeoeskimo occupations at Port Refuge, High Arctic Canada. National Museum of Man, Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 92, 1979 Mary-Rousseliere, G., "The Paleoeskimo in Northern Baffinland." In Eastern Arctic Prehistory: Paleoeskimo Problems, edited by Moreau S. Maxwell, Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 31, 1976 Mathiassen, T., Archaeology of the central Eskimo, Copenhagen, Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924, Volume 4(1-2), 1927

-, "Inugsuk, a medieval Eskimo settlement in Upernivik

District, West Greenland." Copenhagen. Meddelelser om Grönland, 77 (1931) Maxwell, M.S., Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic, New York:

Academic Press Inc., 1985 Meldgaard, J.A., "Palaeo-Eskimo culture in West Greenland."

American Antiquity, 17(3) (1952) N0rlund, P., De gamle nordbobygder ved Verdens ende,

Copenhagen: Nationalmuseet, 1967 Schledermann, P., Crossroads to Greenland; 3000 Years of Prehistory in the Eastern Arctic, Calgary: Arctic Institute of North America, Komatic Series, 1990

-, Voices in Stone: A Personal Journey into the Arctic

Past, Calgary: Arctic Institute of North America, Komatik Series, 1996

Taylor Jr., W.E., "The Arnapik and Tyara Sites: an archaeological study of Dorset cultural origins." Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 22 (1968) Tuck, J.A., Prehistory of Saglek Bay, Labrador: Archaic and Palaeo-Eskimo occupations. Ottawa. National Museum of Man, Archaeological Survey of Canada Paper 72, 1976

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