Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Dorset-Norse Interactions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic

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Patricia D. Sutherland
Curator, Archaeological Survey of Canada
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Please do not cite or quote without previous written permission of the author.

Originally published in Martin Appelt, Joel Berglund and Hans Christian Gulløv (eds.), Identities and Cultural Contacts in the Arctic: Proceedings from a Conference at the Danish National Museum, Copenhagen, November 30 to December 2, 1999, Copenhagen: The Danish National Museum & Danish Polar Center, 2000, with revisions by the author. Reproduced by permission.


Archaeological discussions of interaction between peoples occupying the eastern Arctic in the centuries around AD 1000 have centered on contacts between Inuit and Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos, and those between Inuit and Greenlandic Norse.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence has facilitated discussion of Inuit-Norse interactions. A number of significant discoveries made in the last two decades in the Canadian Arctic suggests that relations between these two peoples involved more than hostile encounters and the looting of abandoned Norse farms by Thule Inuit searching for metal (Figure 1). The greatest concentration of finds are those – boat rivets, barrel pieces, part of an oak box, a carpenters’ plane, chain mail, woolen cloth and smelted metal fragments – recovered from Ruin Island phase winter villages on eastern Ellesmere Island, dating to the mid-thirteenth century (Schledermann 1980). These finds are very similar to those made by Holtved (1944) at Ruin Island sites in northwestern Greenland, and may relate to the same episode of contact. Fragments of smelted iron, copper, and bronze recovered from Thule sites throughout the eastern Arctic, as well as a specimen from the Central Arctic coast which may be of Norse origin, indicate an extensive aboriginal trade network and provide evidence for the high value of Norse materials in the Inuit economy. Other discoveries include a portion of a bronze trade balance from a Thule site on the western coast of Ellesmere Island, dating to approximately the same period as the finds from eastern Ellesmere Island (Sutherland and McGhee 1983; Sutherland 1993); and a carved figurine depicting European dress, recovered from a thirteenth-fourteenth century Thule site on southern Baffin Island (Sabo and Sabo 1978). Such finds hint at more complex interactions between the Norse and the Inuit, involving direct contact and probably sporadic trade occurring along the eastern coasts of Arctic Canada (McGhee 1984; Schledermann 1993; Arneborg 1996; Gulløv 1997).

Source: Patricia Sutherland
Figure 1: Locations of Norse materials associated with aboriginal sites in Arctic Canada and North Greenland.

Source: Patricia Sutherland, Canadian Museum of Civilization

In contrast, very few Dorset sites have produced Norse-related artifacts and consequently there has been little consideration given to the nature of the interaction between these two groups (Sutherland 2000). Discussion has also been hindered by the general belief that most areas of the eastern Arctic were abandoned by the Dorset people by the time the Norse colonies were established in the late tenth century AD. In this paper, new evidence will be presented to suggest that we are now at a stage where we might profitably investigate the nature of Dorset-Norse interaction.


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