Archeologist identifies Viking artifact near Pond Inlet

A Canadian archeologist says a piece of yarn found near Pond Inlet by the late Father Guy Mary-Rousselière is proof that 700 years ago, Vikings from Greenland visited Baffin Island.


MONTREAL — An archeologist has managed to unravel a new piece of Arctic history from a strand of ancient yarn found near Pond Inlet.
The yarn lay frozen beneath the tundra, and then in the Canadian Museum of Civilisation’s collections for the past 15 years before being recognized as an artifact that may tell a remarkable story — that the Norse visited north Baffin Island in the 13th century, 300 years after they abandoned their attempted settlement in Vinland.

“It’s Norse, definitely Norse,” Pat Sutherland, an associate curator at CMC, told Nunatsiaq News.

The three-metre piece of yarn comes from a site 100 kilometers west of the present-day community of Pond Inlet.

Around eight hundred hundred years ago, Vikings likely brought this yarn from Greenland to Baffin Island, where it managed to survive intact for centuries in the cold, dry conditions of north Baffin.

In 1984 Pond Inlet’s resident priest and archeologist, Father Guy Mary-Rousselière, found the yarn and other Norse artifacts alongside Inuit materials at a site from the Late Dorset period, 800 to 1300 AD.

The Nunguvik site was occupied by Dorset people who lived in the eastern Arctic from about 500 BC to AD 1500, at which time they disappeared from the archaeological record. Their clothing was sewn from animal skins and they did notspin wool or weave cloth. The yarn, therefore, came from elsewhere.

The yarn’s presence at the Nunguvik site means that Dorset people – the Tuniit — and Vikings in Greenland surely knew of each others’ existence and possibly even traded various items.

Yarn, said Sutherland, likely would have been valued only as a curiosity, and being more fragile than metal probably would not have survived a long-distance trade, so this humble artifact may hint at a direct visit by a Norse ship to Baffin Island.

“I would say that it sheds new light on the state of their contact,” Sutherland said.

A chance find

Sutherland, who has worked extensively in the Canadian High Arctic and Greenland, chanced upon the yarn as she was looking over “Ataata” Mary’s collection of artifacts at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull.

“It set off a reg flag,” she said.

Sutherland remembered seeing similar skeins of yarn at a Viking site near Nuuk that she had helped excavate.

Known as the Gården Under Sandet or “Farm beneath the Sand,” the site also dates from around 800 years ago. At this nearly perfectly preserved Viking farm, looms and yarn have also been found.

A textile specialist from England who has studied textiles from Greenlandic Norse sites who examined the yarn found by Father Mary told Sutherland that it’s identical to samples found there. Both were similarly woven from plucked Arctic hare and goat fur.

“It’s a one in a million chance,” Sutherland said.

Some contact with Dorset people

While the extent of contact between Greenland and Baffin is still open for debate, the yarn and pieces of wood found at Nunguvik show that there was some contact, if not trade, between the two groups.

Sutherland said that the remnants of wood, some with square-headed nail holes, are white pine, a species found only in Labrador and Europe.

She suggested that Vikings likely traveled down the Baffin coastline towards Labrador, where they would have cut wood for use back in treeless Greenland.

Vikings settled Greenland in 985 AD, growing some crops, raising cows, goats and sheep, and fishing.

But their settlements were not self-sufficient. When the climate suddenly cooled, travel between Greenland and Scandinavia was almost completely cut off, and the Vikings eventually returned home or died out.

By the time the Vikings made it to Baffin Island during the Dorset period, their society in Greenland was probably already in decline.

“They were stuck in a technology that wasn’t appropriate for the time and place,” Sutherland said.

The last written evidence of their occupation in Greenland dates from 1408.

Sutherland said that Father Mary had almost certainly recognized the significance of the yarn at the Nunguvik site, because he asked for carbon dating of the wood which dated to around 1300 AD.

“He was suspicious, but it was also before the time we knew about the Norse contact,” Sutherland said.

Unfortunately, Father Mary’s field notes on that excavation and a related manuscript burned in the tragic fire in Pond Inlet that took his life in 1994.

On Wednesday in Copenhagen, Sutherland planned to speak publicly for the first time about the significance of Father Mary’s finds near Pond Inlet at a conference on “Identities and Cultural Contacts in the Arctic”, sponsored by the Danish-Greenlandic Archeological Network.

The finds from Nunguvik are part of a larger CMC collection of Norse-related material from sites in the Canadian Arctic.

Many of these artifacts will be displayed as part of a major upcoming exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution called “The Norse in the North America”, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the Vikings’ arrival in North America. The exhibit will come to the Canadian Museum of Civilisation in 2002.

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