This interesting installment from an article published by Jane Armstrong on MCCLEANS.CA details ongoing archaeological work by Dr. Patricia Sutherland that I posted in a previous blog. Her work this past summer has caused her to suffer a great deal of stress and recrimination from her colleagues who cannot accept new findings that will prove their theories regarding the Greenland Norse as erroneous. As I stated before, I believe her field work will eventually bring complete vindication and finally answer the nagging question about what happened to the Norse settlers of medieval Greenland that is the focal point of my Axe of Iron series of novels. (Ed.)
A researcher says she’s found evidence that Norse sailors may have settled in Canada’s Arctic. Others aren’t so sure.
by Jane Armstrong on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 11:15am
If Patricia Sutherland’s hunch was right, she was staring at evidence that could rewrite the early chapters of Canadian history books. It was a piece of incredibly old cord, dug up on
Baffin Island in the eastern Arctic. The year was 1999, and something
about the cord’s texture gave her pause.
It didn’t look like other indigenous artifacts unearthed in the
Arctic. It looked European, like the
spun yarn she’d once seen on a medieval Norse farm in Greenland. If the cord, several metres in
length, was indeed Old World technology, it meant that Vikings may have settled in ’s eastern Canada Arctic as early as 1000 CE, hundreds of
years before Samuel de Champlain’s fur-trading exploits.
Sutherland, then an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in
, Que., sent a piece of the cord
to a Norse textile expert in Gatineau to examine. The answer? The
material was indeed comparable to spun yarn from 14th-century England Greenland.
So launched a 13-year odyssey to sift through hundreds of artifacts in existing Arctic collections that has sent Sutherland back to the
Arctic several times in search of more
clues of a Norse presence there.
Sutherland’s findings have sparked international media interest. But controversy has dogged the soft-spoken 63-year-old researcher. Earlier this year, the museum let her go, though the circumstances of her departure remain unclear. Meanwhile, her sudden popularity—National Geographic profiled her work this month, and an upcoming episode of
CBC’s The Nature of Things will also focus on her
research—has sparked complaints from academic critics who say she hasn’t proved
Ever since archaeologists discovered a Viking outpost in 1960 near L’Anse aux Meadows in
’s north, others have scoured the
eastern seaboard for clues that Norse seafarers pushed deeper into Newfoundland . Canada
Sutherland thinks Norse sailors made friendly contact with the
Arctic’s Dorset hunters who roamed the region
until the 15th century. The Norse wanted walrus ivory and furs, prized in Europe. The indigenous hunters needed
metal and wood.
There were other clues. Sutherland and her team identified whetstones used to sharpen metal tools, finding traces of bronze and smelted metal on the rocks. Ancient Aboriginal people “weren’t smelting iron,” she notes. And the team identified notched wooden sticks similar to the tally sticks the Norse used elsewhere to record trade transactions.
Sutherland’s theory paints the ancient
Arctic in a whole new light, casting the
frozen North as a hub of commercial trade.
Arctic was not this isolated, marginal place as is often
assumed,” says Sutherland. “In the centuries around 1000 CE, it was really a
nexus for the people from the Old World meeting with people from the New [World]. The picture
that is coming out of the work we’re doing is that trade was taking place much
earlier than the fur trade and the time of Champlain. We’re beginning to find
what could be interpreted as the beginning of early globalization.”
Not all Arctic experts are convinced Sutherland has proved her theory. William Fitzhugh, the director of the Arctic studies centre at the Smithsonian Institution in
, says Sutherland’s idea is
intriguing, but apart from a 2009 paper, she hasn’t published enough. “So there
are a lot of tantalizing statements made that are not backed up by evidence . .
. and this is kind of typical,” Fitzhugh says. “The fact is, we’d just like to
see more responsible publication of information before you run off to the press
and make a lot of claims that attract a lot of attention but aren’t resolved.” Washington
In fact, Fitzhugh thinks the cord at the centre of Sutherland’s “eureka” moment is a
Dorset artifact. “We have very good evidence that this
kind of spun cordage was being used hundreds of years before the Norse arrived
in the New
in other words 500 to 600 CE, at the least,” he says.
Earlier this year, when the museum let Sutherland go, it effectively cut her off from her research files. Neither Sutherland nor the museum will say why she was terminated, though she’s hinted that political forces were at play.
Sutherland’s supporters—including James Tuck, a professor emeritus of archaeology at
’s Memorial University—speculated
that her revised Canadian narrative might not jibe with the museum’s new
mandate. Indeed, the Conservative government has announced plans to change the
name of the museum to the Newfoundland of History, with a new focus on
showcasing prominent historical figures. Canadian Museum
“There is some jealousy,” Tuck says, referring to Sutherland’s critics. He thinks her research, though still a work-in-progress, is promising. “It’s certainly become more and more convincing over the last decade,” he says. “I don’t think the case is 100 per cent proven, but then nothing is in archaeology or anthropology.”
Sutherland says she expected skeptics, but was dismayed at their “negativity.” “Anything new is controversial in science. And anything new is subject to scrutiny.”
For its part, the museum says it hasn’t blocked Sutherland. Its vice-president of public affairs, Chantal Schryer, said the museum is negotiating with the archaeologist about gaining access to the research materials and her files. Some artifacts may be returned to
. Schryer also denied that Sutherland’s
new take on Nunavut ’s Canada Arctic didn’t fit with the museum’s
changed mandate. “This is complete nonsense,” she says. “The museum continues
to be interested in the Arctic.”
Sutherland wants the issue resolved. She needs access to her research files to publish her latest findings, which, at the very least, would allow her to take on her skeptics. “I’ve spent 13 years working on this project,” she says. “We want to do more work and we want to be able to bring this new knowledge to the people of