August 6, 2004

Digging for history in Naujaat

"I wasn't expecting the site to be so rich"

Special to Nunatsiaq News

Many events bring together different Inuit from across Nunavut every year.

Jessica Kotierk holding a whale bone unearthed at the site.

Regional qualifiers for the Arctic Winter Games; Bible conferences; spring festivals such as the Omingmak Frolics in Cambridge Bay and the Nattiq Frolics in Kugluktuk, and Toonik Tyme in Iqaluit.

People gather to share their interests in snowmobile racing, faith, music, and arts. But one thing that all these groups share, compelling them to come together, is a desire to meet new people, and to share fun, memorable times with those new friends.

And so a group of Inuit students, ranging from third-year university undergrads to Grade 10 high-schoolers, have converged on the small community of Naujaat (Repulse Bay) to share, learn and grow, brought together by the desire for new friendship, the need for new exciting memories, and the common goal of getting elbow-deep in dirt to help piece together the lifestyle of some of our 1,000-year-old ancestors.

Along with Erika Chemko of Inuit Heritage Trust in Iqaluit, Sue Rowley of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and three of Rowley's UBC archaeology students, the 11 Nunavut students, from places as far apart as Ottawa and Kugluktuk, are working together to gain a greater understanding of the way our Inuit ancestors survived before contact with Europeans.

The community of Repulse Bay was established just a few kilometres from a village first occupied by Inuit at least 1,300 years ago.

The Naujaat site sits on Naujan Lake, watched over by sheer cliffs that currently house a nesting pair of peregrine falcons. Since July 9, those falcons, and the many siksiks and lemmings that also call the area home have had some busy neighbors.

That's when the students began their exploring, surveying, mapping, excavating and documenting of MdHs-1, House 20.

MdHs-1 is the name given to the Naujaat site under the Borden System, the official grid system used by archaeologists to keep track of sites in Canada. House 20 is the label given to the remains of the sod house by one of the first anthropologists, early twentieth century Danish geologist Therkel Mathiassen, who, in 1922, began the first archaeological investigation in Canada's Arctic, at what he called Naujan.

Jessica Kotierk, Lorna Kilukishak and Sarah Kudluarok (front to back) working to remove the topsoil from House 20.

The observations and findings of Mathiassen's investigations, as part of the Fifth Thule Expedition, showed that there was a demonstrably different Inuit culture prior to present-day Inuit that relied much more heavily on whales for survival.

He named the people "Thule," after Thule, Greenland, where a related team, the Second Thule Expedition, found the first evidence of the previous culture. And though Naujaat was the second Thule site discovered, being the most extensively excavated, Naujaat became the "type site," or standard example, of Thule Inuit culture.

Mathiassen partly excavated 12 of the 20 sod houses he was able to identify, and a refuse heap.

"We wanted to test some of Mathiassen's observations of the site. He only recognized one culture at the site, but we're fairly certain that the Dorset culture, which pre-dates the Thule, used the site. We wanted to see if there were any Thule houses he hadn't recorded, and we wanted to get some samples to run radiocarbon dating, because, though the site is significant to Arctic archaeology, it has never been radiocarbon dated," Rowley said.

On the first day of excavation a tiny pair of goggles and tiny kayak paddle was uncovered. Obviously toys, the two items soon had all the students imagining the life of a child in the village 1,000 years ago, with a doll to put the goggles on, a kayak to put the doll in, and a paddle to complete the ensemble.

The first Inuk Barbie designed recently had a matching Inuk Ken made 1,000 years before!

In that house, the IHT Archaeology Field School is learning not just about the life led by Inuit before European contact, but also the lives led by present-day Inuit as different from each other as Mathiassen's was from the life of a modern archaeologist.

Students from Ottawa and Iqaluit see first-hand how strong Inuit traditions - such as speaking Inuktitut, hunting, and eating frozen caribou and muktuk - are in Nunavut.

Sue Rowley explains part of the house to a Repulse Bay visitor.

In contrast to many homes in Iqaluit, narwhal blubber and frozen caribou are staple foods in many Repulse Bay lunches, where they are referred to, of course, by their Inuktitut names: muktuk and quaq.

All the students shared a laugh as the two pronunciations for arctic ground squirrel (siksik and hikhik) were added to by Jonathan Puqiqnak from Gjoa Haven. Apparently only he was aware that in some parts of Nunavut, Gjoa Haven being one of them, the reddish-brown rodent is known as a "hikshik."

Sarah Kudluarok, a high school student who made six stops travelling from Sanikiluaq, through Quebec and Ontario, to reach Repulse Bay, says despite the latitude and landscape differences between her permanent and temporary homes, Sanikiluaq and Repulse Bay are quite similar. Sanikiluaq also has a rich traditional lifestyle and Inuktitut is the dominant language.

"They are both small communities, with nothing open on Sundays. But the dialect is very different," Sarah said.

Through language and lifestyle differences, the students are working as a group in a manner wholly different from the initial archaeological investigation of the Naujaat village.

Mathiassen worked mostly on his own, digging manually in the peat, sod and gravel of the area. He mapped the surrounding land by hand using just a compass, and he travelled by ship and dog team. The students who follow in his archaeological footsteps flew into Repulse Bay on a plane, map the land using a GPS and modern surveying equipment, and dig and screen with modern tools.

There are no archaeology-specific tool makers, so archaeologists make do with close approximations of tools they might themselves have invented: mason's trowels to scrape at layers of soil, dustpans to catch the soil, mop buckets to hold the excavated earth, and crude wooden boxes, nailed together with a screen stapled to the bottom, to separate useful material such as bone chips and soapstone artifacts from the less useful dirt surrounding them.

Adam Tragakis, a UBC archaeology student entering his third year, is staying with the Northern store manager, and received a warm welcome from the people of Repulse Bay.

"The people are very friendly. They are shy at first, but they have a nice sense of humour," Tragakis said. He is also impressed by what is being unearthed at the Naujaat site.

"I was surprised by the amount of artifacts at the site, I wasn't expecting the site to be so rich," he said.

Besides finding artifacts Tragakis has enjoyed the outside work, accustomed to it after four springs spent planting trees in BC.

And so the team works meticulously, keeping track of all they find, plotting it on electronic maps as well as with pencil, paper and measuring tape, ensuring that future generations can appreciate the first-hand knowledge the students are gaining by digging in the dirt.