Research and Collections

Research and Collections

Dorset-Norse Interactions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic – Page 7

– Page 7 –


While preparing the final copy of this paper, further evidence was found in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s collections from two sites on southern Baffin Island, over 1000 kilometers from Nunguvik (Figure 1). Yarn or string, supposedly twisted from muskox wool, had been reported from the Nanook site (KdDq-9) and the nearby Tanfield site (KdDq-7) located close to Kimmirut (formerly Lake Harbour) on the southern coast of Baffin Island (Maxwell 1973). Samples of the yarn from Nanook were recently identified as being spun from Arctic hare fur, and plied like the yarn from Nunguvik (Walton Rogers 2000) (Figure 8 c). The collections from Nanook and Tanfield also include unusual wooden artifacts (Figure 8 a) and a considerable amount of wood debris which, interestingly, Maxwell described as of good quality and suggesting that “the wood may have been imported from the south rather than collected through the vagaries of wind and current” (1973: 228). Examination of the wood assemblage shows that it bears a close similarity to that from Nunguvik. One of the wooden fragments recently re-examined in the collection from Nanook (Figure 8 b) has a cut geometric design on one surface which is not typical of Dorset, but which does resemble decoration on Norse artifacts (see Norlund and Stenberger 1934: Figure 101 (c) and Roussell 1936: Figure 103 (1)). While the Nanook site was assigned to a Middle Dorset period on the basis of stylistic comparisons and numerous radiocarbon dates (Maxwell 1973, 1976), a single radiocarbon date on willow twigs yielded an assay of 580 ±80 BP (GAK-1288: calibrated 1 sd range AD 1306-1414, 2 sd range AD 1279-1451). The material on which the date was obtained appears to derive from a locality and depth which place it in relatively close association with the yarn, and the age is similar to the date on the worked pine sample from Nunguvik N73.

Photo: Patricia Sutherland Figure 8: Yarn and wooden artifacts from the Nanook site (KdDq-9), southern Baffin Island:
a. flat plank with rectangular mortice holes, b. portion of a wooden artifact with cut geometrical design on upper face, c. yarn spun from fur of Arctic hare, d. maskette depicting a narrow long-nosed face with prominent eyebrows and what may be headgear; the nose and mouth area are damaged.

Photo: Patricia Sutherland,
Canadian Museum of Civilization

In addition to the yarn and the unusual worked wood, the Nanook site produced a small wooden maskette (Figure 8d), from which most of the nose is missing due to damage. Although the specimen is in a Dorset style, it depicts a long and possibly bearded face distinguished by straight and very pronounced eyebrows, and what may be headgear similar to that shown in other depictions of individuals who appear to be Norse (Gulløv 1983).

Yarn was also reported from an undated stratum at the Willows Island 4 site (KeDe-14) in Frobisher Bay, southeastern Baffin Island (Figure 1), excavated by Daniel Odess in 1992 and 1993 (Odess 1996, 1998). This has been recently identified as spun and plied yarn from Arctic hare fur (Walton Rogers 2000). Willows Island 4 also contains a large sample of worked wood which is outside the general range of style and technique known from other Dorset assemblages, but similar to that from Nunguvik and Nanook. The site is assigned to an Early/Middle Dorset period on the basis of artifact styles and radiocarbon dates (Odess 1998).

Supposed muskox wool cordage has been reported from a fourth assemblage, from the Avayalik Island 1 site (JaDb-10) in northern Labrador which was excavated by Richard Jordan in 1978 (Jordan 1980). The Avayalik Island 1 site comprises both Middle and Late Dorset components, the latter dated by one radiocarbon measurement of 670 ±60 BP (SI-3864: calibrated 1 sd range AD 1284-1390, 2 sd range 1255-1408) on conifer wood. The cordage is associated with the Middle Dorset component, as is a large and unusual worked wood assemblage. Plans for examining this material are currently underway.

The interpretation that the yarn and unusual wood assemblages from these sites is related to contact with Norse Greenlanders is at apparent variance with the assessed ages of the associated Dorset culture assemblages. The material from Nanook and Tanfield, Willows Island 4, and possibly that from Avayalik Island 1, as well as Nunguvik, are all associated with Dorset culture assemblages which have been assigned by their excavators to Early or Middle Dorset periods. If one accepts the mid-first millennium AD age assignment of the yarn from Nunguvik and the age assignments on the relevant components of the other Baffin Island sites, and if one believes that spinning was not an indigenous technique that was used in Arctic North America, then one must consider the possibility, remote as it may seem, that these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Norse arrival in Greenland. Currently, the most reasonable interpretation would be to assume that problems exist with radiocarbon dating and artifact provenience, and that the European association of this material relates to mediaeval Norse Greenland. Hopefully, new archaeological research and a closer examination of the problems involved with Arctic radiocarbon dates and their usage (cf. Park 1993, McGhee 2000) will provide us with an answer to the current discrepancies in interpretation.

In view of these recent discoveries, the conclusions presented in this paper should be amended to suggest that contact between the Dorset people and the Norse (or possibly some other earlier visitors) may have occurred over a broad region of the Eastern Arctic coasts, and this contact may have been more complex and intensive than has previously been considered.


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