27 November 2012

Vikings in Canada?

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 

Patricia Sutherland
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 Canada’s eastern 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 Gatineau, Que., sent a piece of the cord to a Norse textile expert in England to examine. The answer? The material was indeed comparable to spun yarn from 14th-century 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 her case.
Ever since archaeologists discovered a Viking outpost in 1960 near L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland’s north, others have scoured the eastern seaboard for clues that Norse seafarers pushed deeper into 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.
“The 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 Washington, 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.”
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 World, 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 Newfoundland’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 Canadian Museum of History, with a new focus on showcasing prominent historical figures.
“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 Nunavut. Schryer also denied that Sutherland’s new take on Canada’s 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 Canada.”

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.