Research and Collections

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Archaeological Discovery in Organic Terrain in Canada – Page 10

– Page 10 –


The Mount Granger Ice Patch (JdUt-17), near Whitehorse and the Thankdlat Ice Patch (JdVb-2) in southwest Yukon, are remarkable examples of sites where rare perishable artifacts (such as ochre coloured wooden dart/arrow shafts with willowleaf-shaped stone points and eagle-feather fletches still attached by sinew), postglacial caribou remains, and a hunting blind were found in place as they melted from layers of caribou dung and ice, over a metre thick, in permanent (but diminishing rapidly) ice patches on mountain sides. The sites represent caribou processing at the spot where deer were killed as they sought out the ice patch to avoid mosquitoes during hot weather. The layering reflects formation over time. Some of the artifacts found to date range in age from 90 to 7,500 B.P. In addition to recording the sites and collecting the rare artifacts, the archaeologists took core samples of the ice for pollen analysis, dating, and oxygen isotope analysis (Gotthardt et al. 1998; Pringle 2002).

An extraordinary example of human remains from an archaeological context better preserved than the Tollund Man or the Grauballe Man (found in Denmark in the early 1950s) is the exhumation and autopsy of John Torrington. This young man was a member of Captain John Franklin’s arctic exploration crew who died during their first winter stranded, and was buried on Beechy Island, off the coast of the Boothia Peninsula, in Nunavut. After serving due notice to any known living descendants of John Torrington, his grave was disinterred and his body was autopsied in a standard manner to establish the medical cause of death. The autopsy was conducted because his body was considered to be primary, undisturbed, evidence of events near the beginning of the Franklin Expedition (Beatty 1986; 1988). After the body was thawed, described, photographed, and undressed beside the grave, Beatty wrote: “Appearance of John Torrington, after he was completely exposed by melting the encasing ice with warm and cool water, was as if he had just died within the previous few days. Apart from some dehydration of his lips and eyelashes there were no signs of decay or disintegration.” (Beatty 1986: 11). John Torrington’s remains were carefully reinterred. Subsequent analyses of samples taken from him revealed that his lungs were anthracitic (his occupation aboard was fireman’) and they had adhered to his ribs – but this was determined to be an earlier insult that had begun to heal. There were no food particles in his stomach, which suggested he suffered from dysentery, or the effects of purgatives, before he died. The autopsy concluded that pneumonia was probably the agent of death, but its root was lead poisoning and starvation – he was emaciated and weighed about 40 kg. The lead level of his tissue was 3 to 4 times today’s recommended ‘safe’ minimum and the parts per million of his hair tissue was 20 times the modern threshold. Since the hair sample tested came only 1 cm from his scalp, it indicates recent lead ingestion before death. Beatty suggests, on this basis, that lead poisoning came from some Navy rations which were packed in cans with lead-soldered interior seams.


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