Research and Collections

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Dorset-Norse Interactions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic – Page 2


– Page 2 –

Previously Known Finds

What is probably the evidence of earliest contact between the Dorset and the Norse is the small soapstone bowl, carved in a characteristically Dorset form, which was associated with the Norse remains at L’Anse aux Meadows (Ingstad 1977). The Dorset people had abandoned Newfoundland and southern Labrador several centuries before the arrival of the Norse in the region, and this lamp is most readily explained as an object which the Norse obtained from Dorset people or from an abandoned Dorset site in the eastern Arctic prior to a visit to the Newfoundland settlement. Since the Norse occupation at L’Anse aux Meadows probably occurred during the early eleventh century, relations between the two peoples may have begun by this time, and some of the accounts of Skraelings in the Vinland sagas may refer to Dorset people.

From a slightly later period, the Norse coin which was recovered from an Indian settlement site on the coast of Maine was minted between 1065-80, more than half a century later than the Vinland voyages recorded in Icelandic sagas. Also found at this site were artifacts of Ramah chert from northern Labrador, as well as two distinctive Dorset artifacts, suggesting that the penny passed from Norse to Dorset hands, before being traded southwards to Indian groups (Bourque and Cox 1981; Cox 1999).

Two specimens of smelted copper have been recovered from Dorset sites in the Nunavik region of the Eastern Arctic, one from a twelfth or thirteenth century Dorset site in Richmond Gulf on the eastern coast of Hudson Bay, and the other from a similar site on the coast of Ungava Bay (Harp 1975; Plumet 1982). These objects also probably reached the locations at which they were found through trade, with the initial contact between Norse and Dorset people having occurred along the eastern coasts of Baffin Island or Labrador, coasts which the Norse would have passed on visits to Vinland or Markland. The record of a ship having been storm-driven from Markland to Iceland in 1347 indicates that such voyages continued until at least the fourteenth century (Jones 1986:136).

Far to the north, a piece of smelted iron appears to be associated with the late Dorset occupation of the Buchanan Lake site on Axel Heiberg Island, on the extreme northwestern fringes of Dorset habitation (Laver 1983; Sutherland 1983). Together with the bronze pot fragment which has recently been recovered from a Late Dorset site in northwestern Greenland (Appelt et al 1998), this find suggests that contacts occurred between the Norse and Dorset people in the High Arctic, and were associated with ventures distinct from Norse voyages to Markland. In fact, it seems possible that occasional contacts may have occurred over a period of several centuries, and over a wide area of the Baffin Bay and Davis Strait coasts from Labrador to the High Arctic (Figure 1).


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