Archaeological exploration in Greenland

Unearthing Greenland's oldest artifacts

This summer a team of four scientists followed up on an exciting accidental discovery made during a 2006 expedition at Iita, a long-ago abandoned settlement in Greenland on the northern shore of the Foulke Fjord. The scientists were excavating artifacts left by the Arctic’s oldest inhabitants, the Paleoeskimos, who lived from about 4000 to 700 years ago.

The five-week, U.S. National Science Foundation-funded study was led by archaeologist John Darwent (University of California, Davis), and included his colleague Hans Lange (Greenland’s National Museum and Archives) and graduate students Hans Lennert (University of Greenland) and  Justin Junge  (Portland State University).

Rare discovery

“Iita is a rare archaeological site, which will help us better understand how the Paleoeskimos lived and why they were replaced by the Thule culture,” explains Darwent. “The site is atypical for the high Arctic because it’s at the bottom of a kame, a geologic feature built of glacial sediment, which is eroding downslope and creating layers of soil. Each layer represents approximately a hundred years or so and there’s not much disturbance by later groups. This allows us to follow the Paleoeskimos chronologically. We were lucky we stumbled on it in 2006.”

Due to nearly year-round subzero temperatures and little vegetation, soils do not generally develop in the high Arctic. Therefore, Darwent says, they “usually find 4,000 years of stuff right out on the surface. It’s a huge jumble trying to figure out the whos and whats and wheres. It’s very difficult to sort out.”

Arctic Small Tool Tradition

Archaeologists recognize Paleoeskimos as part of the Arctic Small Tool tradition meaning that (you guessed it) they made tiny tools out of chert/flint and quartz. The signature Paleoeskimo artifact - microblades, small blades that enabled them to maximize cutting edge – were customized to the Paleoeskimo lifestyle.

“These people were highly mobile so small tools were practical. The rocks they made these tools from are probably from a couple hundred kilometers away so it makes sense that they would want to get the most out of their raw materials. The yield of many blades from one rock was efficient and portable,“ Darwent says.“Think of microblades as the Bic razor of the Arctic. They would inset a handful of blades into a wood, bone, or ivory handle. When one became dull or broken, they could just replace it rather than tossing the whole thing.”

On the ground

During the excavation, Darwent’s team opened up nine 1 x 1 meter plots. They removed the sod layer then used trowels to scrape off 10 cm of dirt at a time. This allowed the team to see vertical positions of artifacts and establish what may be present at the site. The team sieved excavated dirt through 1/8” sieves to recover artifacts. This allowed them to catch the tiny tools and the debitage, or tool-making waste.

“The debitage is less glamorous, but it tells us about the types of rock these people used to make tools and how they made tools. It also tells us how they used stone tools over time. As we all know, tools have a tendency to ‘walk away,’ but people are less likely to move the waste.”

Carvings and other clues

Darwent is happy about the team’s initial finds, which also included endblades (which were mounted on harpoon heads), harpoon heads, and a surprising amulet, a two-headed polar bear carved from ivory. Other findings included a pit containing burned blubber and other animal material and lots of dovekie bones. This indicates that Arctic peoples likely used Iita as a summer sea mammal hunting and processing camp, living in skin tents rather than in permanent structures.

Back in the lab, Darwent is busy.


“First, we clean the stone artifacts and animal bones by picking off visible dirt and washing them with water and a toothbrush. The organic material, like ivory, came out of the ground wet and so we dry it very slowly. Otherwise, it will dry too fast, crack and we will lose it.  We will have a specialist clean and stabilize the nicer carvings for long term storage.”

Darwent hopes to expand the Iita excavation in 2014 or 2015 and says continued work at Iita is critical.

Looking ahead

“Right now we have these little windows, but we need to increase our efforts for a couple of reasons. First, we don’t really know what happened to the Paleoeskimos because they just vanish from the arctic archaeological record suddenly. Perhaps there was a technical or environmental reason,” Darwent says. “We need to work fast at Iita. The site is eroding quickly, especially with decreases in ice levels and more storms in late summer. There’s probably a lot of stuff eroding into the fjord and who knows what information we’ll be losing over the next 25-50 years."—Marcy Davis