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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Archaeology in the old days

This morning I was bored and decided to look through my old photos. I ended up in my old pictures from Baffin Island where I did archaeology for 3 summers between 1991 and 1993. Wow! I'd forgotten how hard core it is in the Canadian East Arctic. Sea ice, polar bears, and amazing archaeology right there on the surface.

We were located in outer Frobisher Bay on the southeast corner of Baffin Island, and in the summer the bay often did not thaw out. One summer the nearby community of Iqaluit had to call an icebreaker in to break a path into their harbor. But even that did not work as all the leads closed up after the icebreaker had passed. A warm day was when the temperature broke 40 degrees fahrenheit. And by the time we left in late August the sea would be freezing back up, and every morning we had to break ice a couple of inches thick off of our water bucket.

The archaeology was amazing. You could see the old tent rings and houses right on the surface. I've shown 2 views of the same 600 or 700 year old Dorset house - one how it looked on the surface and the other after we had completed excavation. This is one of the youngest Dorset houses ever excavated. Soon after the Dorset people either went extinct, or assimilated with the Thule peoples who were migrating into the East Arctic at that time - archaeologists are still undecided on the answer to that question.

Another cool aspect of the archaeology in the East Arctic was the wood and bone preservation and the very finely made tools. Our boss is holding up a hafted tool in the top photo. Usually archaeologists only find the stone parts of tools when they excavate, or, if they are lucky, the bone tools. Everything else has usually rotted away. But on Baffin Island the cool and damp temperatures and frozen ground meant that everything was preserved. I once even found what I thought was musk ox hair in a site - years later I found out that it might have been wool traded or raided from the Vikings!

And finally, there was the polar bears. Polar bears make the bears in Alaska seem very tame. In fact, for archaeological surveys on Kodiak we forego the guns and just carry pepper spray. But on Baffin the polar bears actually sought you out and guns were a very necessary piece of gear. I had a polar bear try to get into my tent twice. Once I was in it and managed to pepper spray the bear in the face, and he ran off. The other time I was not in there to defend it and he destroyed my tent. That bear went on a tirade through camp demolishing 3 tents and we ended up having to shoot him (bottom photo). This sort of stuff does not happen on Kodiak. Needless to say, but it was years before I was comfortable sleeping in a tent alone.

Still, I'd give my eye teeth to get back to the East Arctic for some archaeology. I miss it. Patrick


Tim Rast said...

That house is really interesting, thanks for posting the pics. On the North end of Baffin Island, we found a very similar funnel shaped feature with the same sort of notched, upright rocks in the middle. Originally we thought is was an axial feature to a Dorset house but after excavation there was no sign of a house built around it. We're thinking its a stone kayak now and that instead of a lamp support, the upright rocks would have held a balance board for kayak training. I'm not suggesting your house isn't a house, I'm just struck by how similar the shape of the feature is to something I'm working on right now. I'll have to see if I have copies of Fitzhugh's report.

Zoya, Patrick, Nora and Stuart said...

To read about it you might want to also look for reports by Dan Odess, Linda Gullason, or Anne Heneshaw (all names might need a spell check) they were also my 'bosses' and required to write up reports for the Canadian preservation office.

And as regards the house, as I remember it was pretty clearly a house. The notched stands in the middle of the axial feature looked like pot supports. But the big rocks on the inside were sort of weird. I even found a piece of ramah chert inside!


Molly Odell said...

That bear paw is huge!