Bowdoin Arctic Survey Reveals Early Settlements
Story posted October 03, 2004
It took Admiral Robert E. Peary about two months to reach the northwestern edge of Greenland. Genevieve LeMoine made it in about three days, shuttling between airplanes and a final, uncertain helicopter ride over the polar ice cap to Inglefield Land.
She landed in a vast moonscape of tundra and icebergs located 500 miles above the Arctic Circle. A place where, as she puts it, "you have to have guns for protection from polar bears."
This is an important trip for LeMoine, who is curator and registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College. It's the start of what she expects will be nearly a decade of fieldwork surveying and excavating extensive settlements of prehistoric and protohistoric Inughuit dwellers -- sometimes called Polar Eskimoes -- in an area previously thought to be sparsely settled.
"You could hardly walk ten steps without finding evidence that people were there," marvels LeMoine. "That might surprise people. We found heavily built stone houses, tent rings, and stone walls in rows three to four stones high. Some of the stones we figure would have taken four men to move."
Explorer Knud Rasmussen surveyed the area broadly in 1917, as did Danish researcher Erik Holtved in 1936, but neither undertook systematic surveys -- nor did they have access to the range of GPS equipment that LeMoine and her six collaborators have brought with them.
LeMoine also brings with her years of experience working in the Canadian Arctic and a Bowdoin tradition of arctic exploration that stretches all the way back to alumnus Admiral Robert E. Peary who -- in addition to being the first explorer to reach the North Pole -- spent many years with fellow Bowdoin alumnus and Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan living among the people of northern Greenland. Objects, photographs, and film of their extensive Arctic explorations form the core of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and attract researchers from around the world.
LeMoine became interested in the people of Inglefield Land while working with the museum's collections. In 1999, she traveled to Qaanaaq, Greenland -- the world's northernmost municipality -- with Bowdoin student researcher Matthew Gallon '01. They brought with them copies of hundreds of museum-owned photographs of the region taken by MacMillan between 1910-1954. Many of them were portraits of Inughuits whom MacMillan had befriended and worked with over many years.
As they shared the photographs with local residents, Inughuit elders identified many as relatives and also pointed out places on maps where settlements had once existed. This piqued LeMoine's interest. She applied for and won a National Science Foundation grant with co-investigator Christyann Darwent (UCal, Davis) to do an aerial survey of over 100 miles of coast in Inglefield Land, as well as a ground survey along areas not visible by air.
LeMoine enjoined an international team of collaborators to work with her on the survey, including Darwent; curators from the Greenland National Museum and Archives and the Thule Museum; a researcher from the Danish National Museum; a post-doctoral researcher and several graduate students.
LeMoine's team found over 150 sites spanning 4,000 years. "Some of these sites had been excavated already," says LeMoine. "The biggest ones had been picked off and they're already important in the history of archaeology. But in those earlier excavations they didn't look for evidence of earlier occupation, and that's what we found -- many earlier sites.
"There were piles of rocks in boulder fields that we had to walk over six or seven times before we could determine if we were looking at something. Nineteenth century American explorer Elijah Kent Kane had reported a site there and writes about it having one Inuit house on it in great shape.
"We were there and found not only the one site, but the architectural remains of probably ten similar houses -- it is a huge site with over 100 features, from meat caches to tent rings and stands for kayaks. Kane wouldn't have known what to look for in the 1850s, but you develop an eye for it, you look for patterns."
Inglefield Land is located where Greenland and the northernmost Canadian island, Ellesmere, are narrowly separated. "Archaeological research on Ellesmere Island has documented a series of changes during the 17th to 19th centuries," notes LeMoine. "The area may have been abandoned in the 15th and 16th centuries during a time of lowered global temperatures known as the Little Ice Age. Later, people moved from Ellesmere to this part of Greenland, where they reoccupied and seemed to do okay," she says.
"But from oral histories we have learned that sometime in the 19th century something else happened," she says. "The people lost or abandoned some important technologies, such as kayaks and bows and arrows. They didn't replace them, but hunted exclusively from the edge of ice and on land. We want to understand what happened. Some have suggested that because of increased sea ice there was less driftwood to make kayaks. Others suggest an epidemic or famine killed many of the people who knew how to make these things.
"Today, we're interested in how people react to climate change -- and the Arctic is a key location in that. We're also interested in changes that contact with European and American explorers caused in Inughuit groups in the 19th and early 20th centuries."
By cataloging standards, the project is a huge undertaking: LeMoine's team is recording detailed descriptions of 4,000 years of occupation spanning hundreds of square miles. Normally, an early survey such as this is done by one or two archaeologists, but LeMoine had seven people in the field, allowing the group to record sites more extensively and make detailed maps. The information will be integrated into a GIS-based, trilingual (English, Danish, Inughuit) web site, with several layers of information made accessible - some of it to the general public.
Many of the sites will likely never be excavated, LeMoine says, but are an important archaeological record. Sites are being identified near the Humboldt Glacier that are promising for excavation, however, and she hopes to secure funding to do so by 2006. She will be looking for middens - frozen refuse piles - where she can dig through and hopefully date layers of climatic indictors, insects, driftwood samples, and artifacts.
"We are not rewriting history with this project," says LeMoine, "but we are filling in the blanks. This region is an ideal place to study the effects of both changing climate and culture contact."
For LeMoine, the project is also a step back into a living past: "The Arctic is one of those areas where the transition from the prehistoric to historic era is at its latest. There are people living today who were born in igloos. When you see the remains of tents in sometimes very beautiful locations, you wonder about people. What were they doing there? You can't help but think about the people involved in the sites."
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