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Public Lecture Series with Dr. Patricia Sutherland

A Meeting of Northern Worlds

Indigenous Peoples and the Norse in Arctic Canada

For almost five centuries, between about 1000 and 1450 AD, the Norse Greenlanders maintained a small European nation on the fringes of Arctic North America. Although the Greenlandic colonies were separated from Arctic Canada by less than 250 miles—roughly two days sail for the mariners of the time—surprisingly little is known of ventures to North America. The archaeological site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland confirms Icelandic saga accounts that the Norse established a short-lived outpost in Atlantic Canada around AD 1000 but there is no further evidence relating to these southern ventures. A number of Norse artifacts have also been found in the remains of early Inuit settlements dating to the 13th or 14th centuries, suggesting occasional trade or the salvage of a Norse shipwreck by Inuit who had recently arrived in the area from their Alaskan homeland.

Patricia Sutherland’s research has recently demonstrated the existence of a more significant European presence in the region that the Norse called “Helluland”, Baffin Island and the treeless regions of northern Labrador. During most of the time that the Norse Greenlandic colonies existed, this region was occupied by groups whom archaeologists refer to as Dorset culture, and who appear in Inuit oral history as Tuniit, an alien people who were encountered by the first Inuit immigrants to the area.

Investigating museum collections of archaeological material excavated from Dorset sites in the Eastern Arctic, Sutherland recognized many artifacts that are not known in the Indigenous technologies of northern North America, but which closely resemble the technologies associated with the Greenlandic Norse and other northern Europeans of the Viking and Mediaeval periods.

The lecture describes archaeological excavations concentrated at the Nanook site on Baffin Island, which has revealed the remains of architectural features including straight stone walls and a stonelined floor drain, similar to those found in mediaeval structures in Greenland and northern Europe. Evidence in support of a European identification for this complex includes the identification of two rat pelts associated with the structure, as well as spun cordage, tally-sticks, a portion of a crucible, and other items of European technology.

Analysis of cordage samples from Nanook and other Helluland sites indicates that the yarn is technically identical to that recovered from Greenlandic Norse farms but was spun from the hair of wild animals, primarily Arctic hare and fox rather than the wool of sheep and goats. Using scanning electron microscopy and spectrometry, Sutherland and her colleagues have identified a range of smelted metals on whetstones recovered from these sites, as well as abundant traces of copper-tin alloy (bronze) on the interior of a small stone vessel from the Nanook site, indicating that it had been used as a metalworking crucible.

Taken together with other evidence, these findings are beginning to assemble a picture indicating a significant European presence along the Atlantic-facing coasts of the eastern Arctic, and involving extensive contacts with the Dorset/Tuniit inhabitants of the region. This region supported sizable populations of walrus and the fur-bearing animals that were of prime interest to Norse commercial hunters.

The timing and duration of this episode is still not clearly understood. The majority of radiocarbon dates run on Helluland sites associated with European technology are earlier than the Norse occupation of Greenland. It is currently thought that most or all of these early dates result from problems involved in radiocarbon dating Arctic materials. However, we must also consider the possibility of a European presence occurring earlier than the traditional tenth-century date for the Norse discovery of Greenland.

The evidence from Helluland suggests a relatively extensive European presence in the eastern Arctic, a presence that may have begun earlier than previously suspected and which had considerable duration. These findings suggest a re-evaluation of early European knowledge and use of North America’s northern and eastern coasts, as well as of the assumed isolation of the Indigenous peoples of the region from events in the broader world.

Dr. Sutherland is a widely known North American archaeologist who has undertaken pioneering research into the history of remote northern regions of the continent. She received an Honours BA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from the University of Alberta. Since 1975 she has been involved in archaeological research throughout Arctic Canada, and has collaborated on a number of international projects in Greenland. Her studies have included the Inuit and pre-Inuit occupations of the Arctic islands and the Mackenzie River Delta, the art and culture of the Dorset people, the Norse in the Eastern Arctic, and the lost Franklin expedition. She has also curated exhibitions on the cultures and history of Arctic Canada and has lectured on these subjects to audiences in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

She was project leader for the International Polar Year project Climatic Change and Historical Connections, 1000-1900 AD, and is principal investigator of the Helluland Archaeological Project. This research is focused on the question of Norse/Aboriginal contact in the eastern Arctic during the centuries around 1000 AD. Her work was featured in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, and was the subject of a 2012 documentary on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s premier science program The Nature of Things.

She is a Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, and The Explorers Club of New York has honored her with the Lowell Thomas Award for her accomplishments in field research and scientific exploration. She has also received the Canadian Museum’s Association’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, as well as its Distinguished Service Award for significant contributions in museum work. Among her publications are edited volumes on The Franklin Era in Canadian Arctic History, 1845-59 and Contributions to the Study of Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos.

Her published papers range from the archaeology of the northern coast of British Columbia to shamanism and iconography of Palaeo-Eskimo art to the use of aerial photography in Arctic archaeology to relations between Indigenous peoples and early Europeans in the Eastern Arctic. Her most recent publication is a 2015 paper in the journal Geoarchaeology, on Evidence of Early Metalworking in Arctic Canada. She is currently an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Date: Monday, December 11

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price: $5 with a valid academic ID at the door

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