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Dorset-Norse Interactions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic – Page 3

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New Evidence from Nunguvik, Northern Baffin Island

Recently, archaeological evidence bearing on the question of Dorset/Norse interaction was found in collections which are housed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This evidence comes from the site of Nunguvik (PgHb-1) on Navy Board Inlet, northern Baffin Island, which was excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by Father Guy-Mary Rousselière (Figure 1).

The most significant find from this site is a three-meter length of yarn which was excavated in 1984 by Rousselière and his Inuit assistants from one of the Dorset features at Nunguvik (Figure 2). A second piece of yarn, which is probably part of the same strand, was found in another section of the feature several meters distant from the first. The specimens have been identified by Penelope Walton Rogers (1999) as plied yarn spun from the fur of Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus). The yarn also has what are most probably goat hairs attached to it, and Walton Rogers reports that it is directly comparable to yarns used in two textiles from Gården Under Sandet, the Norse farm site in the West Settlement that was excavated from 1991-1996 by the Greenland and Danish National Museums (Walton Rogers 1998). The two Greenlandic textiles, one with yarn spun exclusively from Arctic hare fur and the other with yarns spun from goat hair and the fur of Arctic hare, were recovered from deposits, dating to the last phase of occupation at Gården Under Sandet, from the end of the thirteenth century until about AD 1350 (Østergård 1998). The importance of the Nunguvik find lies in the fact that a length of spun yarn hints at a form of contact more complex than simple trade in useful objects, such as pieces of iron, copper, and bronze. Yarn would most probably have been valued only as a curiosity by Dorset people; in addition, it is more fragile than fragments of metal and unlikely to have survived a process of long-distance trade. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that this artifact may indicate a direct visit by a Norse ship to northern Baffin Island.

Photo: Patricia Sutherland Figure 2: Yarn spun from fur of Arctic hare, from Nunguvik feature N73.

Photo: Patricia Sutherland,

Canadian Museum of Civilization

Other corroborating evidence from the same Dorset feature (N73) includes three pieces of wood identified as white pine (likely either Pinus strobus or Pinus cembra - according to the analyst, these cannot be distinguished by their wood anatomy), which does not usually occur in the Arctic as driftwood (Mott 1981). Two of the wood pieces contain iron-stained holes which appear to have been made by square nails, and one of these fragments has been radiocarbon dated to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century (S-1615: 670+50 BP, calibrated 1 sd range AD 1286-1387, 2 sd range AD 1271-1399) (Rousselière 1991), the same period that produced the textiles woven with Arctic hare fur and goat hair in Norse Greenland (Figure 3 a).

Photo: Patricia Sutherland Figure 3: Unusual wooden artifacts from Nunguvik feature N73:

a. portion of pine object containing two square nail holes, b. handle-like wooden object with precise scarf, c. wooden object with rectangular mortice hole, d. handle-like wooden object with rectangular groove, e. wooden object precisely scarfed from three pieces.

Photo: Patricia Sutherland,

Canadian Museum of Civilization

Additional artifacts in the Nunguvik collection are less definitive, but may also relate to Norse contact. The assemblage from Nunguvik has always been considered unusual in the amount and variety of well preserved wooden artifacts and artifact fragments. The distinctiveness of the woodworking has generally been interpreted as simply the result of the excellent preservation conditions at the site, or perhaps exceptional access to supplies of driftwood by the local Dorset people. A closer examination of this material suggests that other factors may be at play, since much of the worked wood from Nunguvik feature N73 is outside the range of technique and style known from most other Dorset culture assemblages. These techniques include sawing, precise scarfing, the use of nails and of mortice and tenon joints, all procedures which are not characteristic of described Palaeo-Eskimo woodworking (cf. Grønnow 1994) but which do appear to resemble medieval European techniques (Figure 3 b,c,d,e). Given this similarity, it seems possible to suggest that the large amount of worked wood at this site may not be the result of exceptional access to driftwood, but to wood which reached the area by other means of transport.

Photo: Susan Rowley
Figure 4: The site of Nunguvik, looking northwards towards the coast.
Photo: Susan Rowley

The potential significance of the yarn, the dated pine, and the other unusual worked wood from Nunguvik is dependent upon the archaeological context from which it was recovered (Figure 4). Nunguvik is situated on the west coast of Navy Board Inlet about 100 km west of the community of Pond Inlet. The site is comprised of about 80 houses belonging to Early, Middle, and Late Dorset, as well as to Early and Late Thule occupations (Rousselière 1976, 1991). Only a few of the houses have been excavated. The Dorset feature N73 is located at one edge of the site, close to the shoreline and only one or two metres above sea level. While Thule artifacts are scattered over the surface of the site of Nunguvik, there is no evidence of Thule re-use of N73. Rousselière commented on the discreteness of Dorset and Thule features at the site, and the closest Thule occupation to N73 lies on a higher terrace approximately 100 meters away. An examination of the remainder of the Nunguvik collection, excavated from other Dorset as well as Thule features, indicates that most of the unusual materials recovered from the site come from feature N73. It is a large stratified feature, comprising what appears to be a Late Dorset occupation which is intrusive into Middle Dorset deposits (Figure 5). Interpretation of the feature is complicated by the incomplete state of the field notes and maps, much of this material having perished in the fire that claimed Father Rousselière’s life and destroyed the Catholic mission in Pond Inlet in 1994. The yarn and the other unusual material appear to be associated with a midpassage feature, and occur in deeply buried stratigraphic units that contain Middle Dorset material, but also Late Dorset harpoon heads and a significant number of carvings typical of Late Dorset, albeit of a distinctly local style.

Photo: Susan Rowley
Figure 5: Nunguvik feature N73 during excavation. The yarn and unusual worked wood is from a buried layer associated with the boulder feature near the centre of the excavation.
Photo: Susan Rowley

A perplexing element of feature N73 has been the radiocarbon dates. Seven of the dates which Rousselière obtained from the complex cluster are in the sixth to eighth centuries A.D., several centuries earlier than what would be expected for a Late Dorset occupation, particularly one with associated Norse material. AMS dates were run on both pieces of yarn and on a piece of worked caribou antler which was found in close proximity to the three-meter strand. All three samples returned dates in the seventh and eighth centuries AD (Beta-135000: 1320 ±40 BP on antler, calibrated 1 sd range AD 663-762; 2 sd range AD 654-774); (Beta 134999: 1400 ±40 BP on the strand associated with the antler, calibrated 1 sd range AD 616-665, 2 sd range AD 567-689); and (Beta-139756: 1290 ±40 BP on the smaller piece of yarn, calibrated 1 sd range AD 682-770; 2sd range AD 656-858). Results on the three samples are within the range of the cluster of seven dates previously recovered from the feature. The date on the worked piece of white pine is evidence in support of a medieval component of the feature, and is in accord with the similarity of the yarn to that in Norse textiles of the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries. The discrepancy between this evidence and the early radiometric measurements on the yarn is a significant problem which needs to be addressed in future research.


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