06 November 2012

Medieval Norse Trappers

This interesting blog on follow-up archaeology work by Dr. Patricia Sutherland and her team at the Tanfield site on Baffin Island's south coast brings out some new data for those of us with an interest in the Greenland Norse people and their connection to the Dorset culture of what is now the Canadian Arctic. As you may know the Dorset culture were the indigenous natives of the Arctic long before the arrival of the Inuit from the West. I have long held that the Greenland Norse began assimilating with these people from the earliest days of the Greenland Norse settlements because of the chronic shortage of Norse women for the male population. A catalyst always begins migration and/or assimilation between cultures; the age old desire for a mate would certainly provide such impetus. (Ed.) 

Posted by Martin R on October 31, 2012

Near Cape Tanfield, Baffin Island, on Hudson Strait, Canadian Arctic

Icelandic sagas and a single archaeological site in Newfoundland document a Viking Period presence of Norse people in the Americas. Now National Geographic’s November issue has a piece (here and here) on new work in the field, lab and museum collections by Dr. Patricia Sutherland. It deals with a group of additional and somewhat later sites that may expand that evidence. Dr. Sutherland, of the Memorial University in Newfoundland, kindly answered some questions of mine via e-mail.

The best site is near Cape Tanfield on the south coast of Baffin Island. Dr. Sutherland emphasizes the following evidence as suggesting the presence of people with life-ways set apart from the local Dorset culture.

· Cordage spun from of hare and fox fur, not the locally common sinew.

· Whetstones with traces of iron and copper alloy on them.

· Wooden tally sticks.

· Remains of Old World rats.

· Wooden details with nail holes.

· Cut building stone.

· Foundations of unusually large and sturdy stone-and-turf buildings.

Note that while NatGeo’s writer calls the Tanfield settlers “Vikings”, Dr. Sutherland wisely calls them “Norse”. The sites are post-Viking Period, and even during the Viking Period, most people were never Vikings. That was a part-time men-only occupation, not an ethnicity.

To me, the absence of woolen textiles among the finds suggests that these sites were the permanent homes of Norse-speaking colonists, not temporary hunting stations in continual contact with the colonies on Greenland or Iceland. But the sites also have typical Dorset culture phases, and there is no reason to believe that the two groups avoided each others’ company.

As for the possibility of sourcing the spun cordage using stable isotopes, she says,

aDNA and stable isotope work has been considered and, in some cases, initiated for samples that have been microscopically identified as “exotic” for Baffin Island. The cordage from the Helluland sites that is made from hare fur has not been analysed in terms of stable isotopes. Cordage made from Arctic hair fur and woven textile fragments made with cordage from Arctic hare fur are rare in the assemblages from the excavated sites in Norse Greenland. But, in the Baffin sites, most of the cordage is made from the fur of Arctic hare and fox and clumps of fur have also been recovered. It seems quite unlikely that our finds are from Arctic hare from other regions. Also, in terms of determining origin using stable isotopes, it is my understanding that it can be problematic using hair or fur from animals that shed their pelts.

Dr. Sutherland describes the situation for radiocarbon dating as rather tricky due to factors ranging from destructive earlier fieldwork to the marine reservoir effect. But she appears quite certain that all the foreign influences are High Medieval and centuries later than the one Viking Period site mentioned above – Jellyfish Bay, L’Anse aux meduses, L’Anse aux Meadows.

So what we have here is High Medieval Christian Norse-speakers gone native in Arctic north-east Canada. Interesting stuff! But as so often – don’t believe the headlines.

Update same evening: Dr. Sutherland wrote me some corrections and clarifications, and she also kindly gave me permission to put a 2009 paper of hers on-line for anyone who wants to delve deeper into her work.

The Dorset culture people did not speak the Inuit language. If the aDNA analysis is correct, they were most probably related to northeastern Siberian peoples, and probably spoke a language related to those of that area. No woven textiles were found at the Helluland sites. The wood with nail holes is not building-material. “Trappers”? I would say more likely traders and/or hunters. … it is my view that these early Europeans did not “go native” and they did not establish permanent residence on Baffin Island.

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