Rebuilding remains of Thule settlement sheds light on ancient Nunavut culture

Archaeologists aim to restore plundered past


RESOLUTE BAY – No one has lived in the house for a long time.

Eight hundred years, Sarah Hazell figures. She's a graduate student from McGill University, leading the excavation of an old Thule hut a few kilometres outside town.

The view was probably a lot better when the home was inhabited. Today, a front-end loader across the street scrapes and flattens burned garbage into the ground at the town dump, not far from the icy shore.

It's July 10 and day one of a five-week excavation project. Right now, the hut isn't much more than a mound in the tundra, marked off with ropes laid in a grid.

By the summer's end, there should be a recreated Thule hut standing in the same spot, much like three other recreated sites that sit nearby.

It's a big change from the 1950s. Then, archaeologists carted off whatever they could find at the site. Today, archaeologists like Hazell are putting the old huts back together, as best they can.

The idea started with Robert McGhee, a curator of archeology at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, who helped restore the neighbouring sites over the past decade.

The massive bowhead whale bone jaws that once served as rafters are gone. They were taken, too, probably by carvers, although one hut now has a reconstructed whale-bone roof, and the odd whale rib and vertebrae lies nearby.

"This would have been from classical Thule times," says Hazell, gesturing to one of the rebuilt huts. It has a cold trap in the entrance, much like an igloo, except it's built from slabs of limestone found nearby.

"You'd have a couple of lamps in here, burning all the time," she says. "It was really hot in there."

Five young Inuit are employed at the site to help for the excavation. Today, three are tearing up tundra over the site and sifting the dirt immediately beneath for any remains.

"Just looking for fox bones, and anything that looks old," says Sylvia Kalluk, 17.

"There was fox teeth, and polar bear fur," adds Inoot Manik, 16.

None of this stuff is ancient, Hazell points out. They'll need to dig deeper to find that.

While the site has been pillaged before, there's still hope that untouched artifacts remain. At similar Thule sites in Alaska, old huts were built atop even older settlements. Maybe an older, untouched building is beneath this one too.

And permafrost may have risen up, protecting some of the earliest remains.

Archaeologists hope what's dug up this summer may shed light on the motivation for the earliest Inuit who migrated west, from what's now the Alaskan coast, across Canada's north to Greenland.

The theory held by many archaeologists is that Inuit slowly migrated east about 1,000 years ago, in pursuit of animals to hunt, during a warm spell known as the medieval warm period.

But McGhee has another explanation.

"They came east to get in trade with the Norse," he says, explaining many early Thule sites, such as the ones in Resolute, are "full of Norse stuff," including bits of chain mail, and what looks like an ivory chess piece that dates to around 1250 AD.

He adds that "the medieval warm period was well over when they came over, around 1250." At that time, the climate was "about the same as now, maybe warmer, but rapidly cooling."

In the 1950s, the Canadian government relocated Inuit from Pond Inlet and Nunavik to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. But for the people who lived here far earlier, it was a perfect place to hunt bowhead whales, which migrated to the nearby floe edge of Lancaster Sound during the summer.

"For people hunting them, this would have been a lovely, lovely place," McGhee says.

Curious residents of Resolute have wandered over to visit the excavation. McGhee and Hazell say they hope the rebuilt sites will allows tourists, residents, and above all, Resolute's children, to, as McGhee says, "put yourself in the shoes of the people who lived in these houses."

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