Archaeologists Seek Answers in Greenland’s Gateway

By Larry Mishkar Panoramic view of Force Bay looking northeast in 2004. This area was surveyed for archeological features in 2004 and revisited in 2008 (on the east side--the river was uncrossable by foot in 2008). Cape Grinnell is the farthest point of land at center, left.

Resting in and above the permafrost layer in Northwest Greenland is an ancient historic record. Nomadic arctic peoples lived on this land, making use of abundant natural resources for their food, shelter, and clothing, leaving evidence of their journey as they passed through.  It is the refuse left at these abandoned hunting and fishing camps that now draws the attention of archaeologists.

For the past five years, an international team of archaeologists has worked along this coast known as the “Gateway to Greenland.” This area is termed a “gateway” since it is where peoples of the Canadian Arctic had easy movement into Greenland via a crossing of Smith Sound. The archaeologists, led by Genevieve LeMoine of Bowdoin College and Christyann Darwent of University of California-Davis, are surveying and excavating the historic settlements abandoned during the past 800 years by the Inughuit, a regionally specific group of Inuit.

Genevieve LeMoine excavating baleen artifacts in the floor of a Thule house on Cape Grinnell. Photo by Christyann Darwent

The team returns to the field in a bit over a week. With NSF funding, the investigators seek to discover how the Inughuit reacted to multiple factors changing across Greenland between the 13th and 19th centuries: contact with the Vikings, colonial Euro-Americans and Baffin Island Inuit migrants, and the variations in climate, such as the Little Ice Age.

The Inglefield Land Archaeology Project: Culture Contact and Human Ecology at the Entrance to Greenland, or ILAP, is a project of participating archaeologists, museum researchers, students, and local community members hailing from Greenland, Canada, and the United States. The multi-disciplinary approach increases the team’s ability to collect and interpret the data, whether it relates to archaeology or another discipline.

The 2008 field season took place over seven weeks between June and August, at Cape Grinnell within Inglefield Land. Cape Grinnell lies at 78°37.9', nearly the same latitude of the scientific base and tourist destination of Longyearbyen, a modern-day Norwegian settlement on the Svalbard archipelago about 1000 miles to the east. LeMoine (Curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Registrar at Bowdoin College) and Darwent are the team’s co-principal investigators, or PIs.

LeMoine is interested in bone, antler, and ivory tools. “People in the Arctic make the most interesting ones,” she notes. The region lacks trees, so wood is rare, arriving on sea ice as driftwood. As a result, Inuit made a greater variety of tools from alternative materials like bone and antler. Inuit technology in particular, LeMoine says, is also very complex; many tools are made up of multiple components, making tools intriguing to study.

A miniature ulu (woman's knife) recovered from Feature #20 at Cape Grinnell. It is from the Thule period (~1000 - 150 years ago in the region).  Potentially the blade is made from meteoric iron, but future testing is required to verify this identification. Photo: Genevieve LeMoine

While LeMoine and her colleagues complete lab work and wait for the results of other analysis, they are excited about their finds from the 2008 season. After digging much deeper than planned, Darwent uncovered what could be an early 13th century hearth, a rare find in the High Arctic as people most often used blubber lamps for heat and light due to limited availability of wood. The hearth area also produced pottery. Quoting previous work by Canadian researchers Karen McCullough and Peter Schledermann, LeMoine says this pottery was “used in this region only for a very, very, brief time.” Earlier work in the region indicates that in the 13th century a group of people migrated from Alaska relatively rapidly, bringing with them ceramics made from Alaskan materials. There is some evidence that once there, they continued making pots. The pottery is dated stylistically, based on the association with radiocarbon dates from other sites. Recently, the team received good news: the radiocarbon dates on their most recent finds are consistent with a 13-14th century date. While the pottery material has not yet been sourced, the team does wonder if the hearth represents an attempt to fire pottery.

Feature #20 at Cape Grinnell excavated down to the level of the living floor of the house. The deeper units in the front of the house are where the entrance tunnel was located. In the back of the house is a sleeping platform that had been lined with large slabs of flat rock. Photo: G. LeMoine

A find not related to the team’s research question is a piece of Norse chain mail. While similar pieces have been found at other sites in the region, LeMoine says it is still very interesting as it indicates that even these individual components were traded or moved around.

A remote location such as Northwest Greenland requires creative problem-solving and well-planned logistics. The camp features one small tent per person while the kitchen and lab are housed in larger tents. Water is carried from 10 to 200m away from the camp. The menu includes canned and dried food, cooked on the Coleman stove. Cheese and dry sausage, along with dried fruit and vegetables, replace fresh foods, and vacuum-packed rye bread is another staple.

Cape Grinnell is far enough north to have polar bears, but the group has not seen any at their location. Still, the daily routine includes precautions: the team burns and buries the charred remains of garbage daily while the tent-enclosed pit latrine is moved frequently. Since there is only one helicopter in the region for commercial, charter, and search-and-rescue flights, pilots prefer not to take either burned or unburned food waste on these flights.

To reach the site in 2008, the team traveled on a military flight from Schenectady, New York, to Thule Air Base. Most often they fly direct from Baltimore to Thule. From the Thule base, they fly aboard the only aircraft available, the highly subscribed Bell 212 helicopter.

The distance between the archaeology sites and Thule requires numerous fuel stops. High winds or poor weather can delay or prevent the team from reaching the site or returning to the base after work is completed. Because of possible delays, the scientists increase the quantity of food by 25% as a safety cushion. As LeMoine points out, “10-day delays are not uncommon – that’s a lot of food for 12 people!” They also bring extras, “as much as possible,” she adds, including two generators for charging and running electronic gear, and extra stove parts. 

John Darwent, Eli Bossin, Hans Lange, Martha Simigaq, Trine Johansen, Joanne Goodsell (front), and Morgan Wampler (back) relaxing after a 6 km hike into Force Bay. Photo: Frédéric Dussault

Soon a huge new supply of food and gear will fly from the Thule Air Base on to Qaqasuit and Marshall Bay, two sites that the ILAP team identified during the original 2004-5 surveys. While LeMoine says they have some ideas for future projects, their focus remains on finding answers to the historic Inughuit’s reaction to changing cultural and climate conditions. Strangely enough, these same cultural and climatic changes continue to impact the peoples of the Arctic.