This past summer, after years of fieldwork mostly in the Middle East, I began my first archaeological research in the Arctic.
This represents quite a change for me, and not just because I was used to seeing camels rather than walrus.
Compared with the Middle East, archaeological sites in the Arctic are generally smaller, were occupied for relatively brief periods of time, and are more widely scattered across the landscape. This makes finding sites and interpreting the broader picture of the human story in the Arctic more difficult.
And it’s why my new research project, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Groningen’s Arctic Centre, is so interesting and valuable.
The project is documenting a rare grouping of several densely concentrated archaeological sites located in the Foxe Basin. Together they contain remains spanning several cultural periods, providing a nearly continuous archaeological record documenting several thousand years.
This concentration of sites and multi-period representation is due in large part to the natural history of the Foxe Basin. The geography of the region contributes to a comparatively moderate climate with seasonal sea-ice patterns favourable to many forms of marine life, including large animals such as the walrus. In fact, walruses are able to live in the basin year-round, providing a valuable and stable food supply for humans.
The rich archaeological remains preserved here provide a rare opportunity to explore the transition from ancient Thule to modern Inuit cultures. The Thule, the immediate ancestors of the Inuit, were a people who spread eastward from Alaska beginning around AD 1100, reaching Greenland within 200 years and displacing the earlier Dorset culture of the central and eastern Arctic.
Ethnogenesis is the emergence of a new cultural group who view themselves as ethnically distinct from previous societies, and surrounding contemporary ones. The ethnogenesis of Inuit from Thule culture started in the 17th century, but this transition is not well understood.
We began our three-year project with a field season at Avvajja. It’s an archaeological site on an island just to the west of Igloolik Island that represents the very end-point of the Thule-to-Inuit continuum. Avvajja was used as a winter settlement by the Inuit up to the early 1950s, when people relocated to the new hamlet of Igloolik. There are elders alive today who remember living at Avvajja as children.
Two days of our fieldwork were devoted to interviewing elders on site so that they could share their memories of living at Avvajja as children. Combining mapping and excavations with these interviews will enable us to illuminate the archaeological record to a greater extent than would be possible through digging alone.
This coming summer, work will continue at the site of Uglit on the Melville Peninsula, where a longer season will connect the historic occupation at Avvajja to the immediately preceding centuries (AD 1600-1900) during which the Thule-to-Inuit transition occurred.
As we gather more data and deepen our chronological representation, we hope to contribute greater detail to our knowledge of the cultural shifts that signal the rise of Inuit society — a culture that I am discovering is just as fascinating and rich as those that initially drew my interest to the Middle East.