September 12, 2008

Kimmirut site suggests early European contact

Hare fur yarn, wooden tally sticks may mean visitors arrived 1,000 years ago

JANE GEORGE

Vikings - or perhaps other Europeans - may have set up housekeeping and traded with Inuit 1,000 years ago near today's community of Kimmirut.

That's the picture of the past emerging from ancient artifacts found near Kimmirut, where someone collected Arctic hare fur and spun the fur into yarn and someone else carved notches into a wooden stick to record trading transactions.

Dorset Inuit probably didn't make the yarn and tally sticks because yarn and wood weren't part of Inuit culture at that time, said Patricia Sutherland, an archeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Other artifacts from the area, such as a small wooden carving of a mask, missing its nose, also suggest face-to-face contacts with Europeans.

That's because, although the mask is carved in a Dorset Inuit manner, it shows a long and possibly bearded face with straight and heavy eyebrows, wearing what may be Viking headgear.

Analysis on ancient yarn spun from Arctic hare fur, which was found near Pond Inlet, shows the yarn may pre-date the arrival of the Vikings. Similar yarn and cordage has been found near Kimmirut as well as in Greenland.
(PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICIA SUTHERLAND)

To Sutherland, these artifacts all seem to point to prolonged contact in south Baffin between Inuit and Vikings, or some other mariners, from 1000 AD to 1450 AD or even earlier.

The dating of microscopically identified rat droppings found near Kimmirut may hold the key to learning more about the timing and origin of contact with Europeans, Sutherland said.

If there were rats in south Baffin, it shows European ships were also in the area because "rats aren't found in the Arctic."

Further analysis of the rat droppings is expected to provide even more information about exactly where these ships called, Sutherland said.

Many scholars already believe Baffin Island was Helluland, the name the Vikings' sagas gave to the land of rocks and glaciers they found west of Greenland.

But uncertainty about the age and origin of artifacts attributed to Vikings continues to raise questions about the nature of the contact between Inuit and mariners and whether Greenlandic Vikings were the first travelers that Dorset Inuit met.

Dating of some yarn and other artifacts, presumed to be left by Vikings on Baffin Island, have produced an age that predates the Vikings by several hundred years.

So, as Sutherland said, if you believe that spinning was not an indigenous technique that was used in Arctic North America, then you have to consider the possibility that as "remote as it may seem," these finds may represent evidence of contact with Europeans prior to the Vikings' arrival in Greenland.

Artifacts, stored in collections at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, first drew Sutherland to two old sites near Kimmirut in 2000.

When Sutherland learned that yarn, found near Kimmirut during earlier archeological digs, came from Arctic hare, she started to wonder about the nature of the contact between Inuit and Vikings - also known as Norse.

Because if they were weaving local fur, then maybe they were living there.

"Were the Norse spending more time in Arctic Canada than we previously thought?" And could someone have visited Baffin Island before the Vikings?

For the past five summers, Sutherland has conducted new excavations for the CMC's Helluland project on Cape Tanfield, assisted by local youth.

Cape Tanfield has many Dorset Inuit sites, which were occupied over many generations, as well as some "unusual" architecture.

But Sutherland said she not "prepared to say at this time that it's European."

Unlike L'Anse-aux-meadows in Newfoundland where remnants of Viking houses have been found, Kimmirut sites contain a mix of cultures over time, which makes understanding them more challenging, Sutherland says.

If the community wants to promote and preserve its rich heritage, Cape Tanfield could be nominated as a national historic site, Sutherland suggests.