One of Canada’s top Arctic archeologists says the remnants of a stone-and-sod wall unearthed on southern Baffin Island may be traces of a shelter built more than 700 years ago by Norse seafarers – a stunning find that would be just the second location in the New World with evidence of a Viking-built structure.
The tantalizing signs of a possible medieval Norse presence in Nunavut were found at the previously examined Nanook archeological site, about 200 km southwest of Iqaluit, where people of the now-extinct Dorset culture once occupied a stretch of Hudson Strait shoreline.
A UNESCO World Heritage site at northern Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows – about 1,500 km southeast of the Nanook dig – is the only confirmed location of a Viking settlement in North America. There, about 1,000 years ago, it’s believed a party of Norse voyagers from Greenland led by Leif Eiriksson built several sod-and-wood dwellings before abandoning their colonization attempt under threat from hostile natives they called “Skraelings.”
But over the past 10 years, research teams led by the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s chief of Arctic archeology, Pat Sutherland, have compiled evidence from field studies and archived collections that strongly suggests the Norse presence in northern Canada didn’t end with Eiriksson’s retreat from Newfoundland.
At three sites on Baffin Island, which the Norse called “Helluland” or “land of stone slabs”, and at another in northern Labrador, the researchers have documented dozens of suspected Norse artifacts such as Scandinavian-style spun yarn, distinctively notched and decorated wood objects and whetstones for sharpening knives and axes.
A single human tooth from one of the sites was tested a few years ago for possible European DNA, but the results were inconclusive.
Among the new artifacts found near the sod-and-stone features at Nanook is a whalebone spade – consistent with tools found at Norse sites in Greenland, and which might have been used to cut sections of turf for the shelter.
There is also evidence at Nanook of what appears to be a rock-lined drainage system comparable to ones found at proven Viking sites.
The apparent “architectural elements” found at the site “still have to be confirmed,” Sutherland told Canwest News Service. “They’re definitely anomalous for Dorset culture. And when you see these things in connection with Norse artifacts, it suggests that there may have been some kind of a shore station.”
Sutherland’s theory is that Norse sailors continued to travel between Greenland and Arctic Canada for generations after the failed colonization bid in Newfoundland. She believes they encountered and possibly traded with the Dorset, ancient aboriginals who were later overrun – probably before 1400 A.D. – by the eastward-migrating Thule ancestors of modern Inuit.
The theory is a controversial one.
University of Waterloo archeologist Robert Park recently challenged the dating of artifacts and Sutherland’s interpretations of evidence in a paper published by the journal Antiquity.
Park argues that the “most plausible explanation” for Norse-like traces at Nanook and other sites is that “none of these traits come from Dorset-European contact.”
He suggests such items may have been developed without any Norse influence by the ancient indigenous inhabitants of northern Canada.
“Despite the difficulty of proving a negative – i.e. establishing that Dorset did not come into contact with the Norse – on the basis of these data there appears to be no convincing archeological evidence that contact occurred,” Park concludes.
Sutherland insists that while proof of Norse-Dorset interaction isn’t overwhelming, there are now “several lines of evidence” pointing to sustained contact. And she notes that the kind of “boulders and turf” structural feature observed at Nanook is “atypical for Dorset” and consistent with Norse culture.
“I think in any scientific field, when something new comes along that hasn’t been given much consideration in the past, it generates debate,” she said.
Sutherland, whose research is also featured in the current issue of Canadian Geographic, said a scientific paper summarizing a decade’s worth of work on the national museum’s Helluland project is due to be published in August.
Further field work at a Dorset site in northern Labrador is scheduled for 2010, she added.