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In search of the Baffin Vikings

Did Europeans interact with the Tuniit?



IQALUIT — A trailblazing archeologist is back on Baffin Island looking for proof that Vikings visited Nunavut.

Patricia Sutherland, a researcher with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que., is spending three weeks this summer digging up a plot of tundra near Pond Inlet.

Two years ago, Sutherland made national headlines when she announced that a piece of ancient yarn unearthed at the same location was woven by Vikings.

The three-metre-long strand was found in 1984 at a site called Nunguvik, 100 kilometres west of Pond Inlet. It was frozen in the tundra along-side Inuit artifacts dating from the late Dorset period, from 800 to 1300 A.D.

It was the best evidence yet that Vikings had been on Baffin Island and had interacted extensively with the Dorset, or Tuniit people, who predated Inuit in the Eastern Arctic.

It is not believed that the Dorset knew how to spin wool, Sutherland said, so the yarn must have come from elsewhere.

Sutherland found the yarn in the collections of her museum, where it had sat unnoticed for 15 years after having been dug up by the late Father Guy Mary-Rousseliére, Pond Inlet’s resident priest and archeologist.

Since the discovery, a further search of the museum’s collection revealed Norse-style wood objects also from the Nunguvik site. Other, similar objects have also been linked to archeological digs near Kimmirut and northern Labrador.

While Viking stone artifacts had been found before on Baffin Island, such items could have survived being traded over long distances. Yarn and wood, though, were more likely carried directly to the Eastern Arctic aboard Viking ships, or were fashioned on site.

“These things did not get there through Dorset trade networks,” said Sutherland, a 25-year veteran of Arctic archeology. “That means there were ships in the area. The yarn is certainly an indication of contact.”

“The thing I don’t know is, ‘How extensive was the contact?’ Were there possibly Norse or European shore stations on Baffin? It’s too early to say.”

Sutherland’s work this summer is the first phase of a five-year effort to follow up on those finds. Called the Helluland Archeology Project, the work is being sponsored by the Museum of Civilization.

Many scholars believe Helluland — a place described in the Vikings’ oral stories, or sagas — was actually Baffin Island.

Since news broke about the Viking yarn two years, many new questions have been raised about the find.

Initially, archeologists suspected the string had been woven in Greenland and brought by Vikings to Baffin Island.

But since then, fibre analysts have determined that the yarn consists of wild animal hair. Sutherland said this suggests it was made on Baffin Island rather than Greenland, where most yarn was made from the wool of domesticated sheep the Norsemen kept near their settlements.

Other analyses of the yarn have opened more mysteries. Sutherland said radio-carbon tests on the artifact place it on Baffin Island at a time 300 years before Vikings are thought to have visited Helluland.

Sutherland said work is now being done to see if those radio-carbon tests were tainted.

After her three-week-long search for new artifacts at Nunguvik, Sutherland will head to Pangnirtung, where she’ll examine the ruins of an ancient stone house that, she said, doesn’t fit the pattern typically used by Inuit.

Sutherland hopes to learn whether Vikings might have built the house.

Finally, she will continue on to Kimmirut, where she will take a preliminary look at a site where excavation for Viking artifacts may take place next summer.

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