Story posted October 23, 2003
Far north in Greenland, more than 500 miles above the Arctic Circle, lies Inglefield Land, a vast area of ice, bedrock and tundra that has born witness to the lives of generations of Inughuit people. Now the area is largely abandoned, but the sites of former settlements still have tales to tell, and Bowdoin's Genevieve LeMoine, curator and registrar of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, is poised to discover them.
LeMoine and her colleague, Christiane Darwent from the University of California-Davis, were recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation. Bowdoin's portion of the grant is $80,238. The funding will allow them to survey Inglefield Land and to log detailed information on the archaeological sites to be found there.
"It's not entirely clear why they abandoned that area," LeMoine said. But starvation is a very real possibility for people living in remote settlements with such an extreme climate, so some settlements could have ended due to death, or people may just have decided to move on.
In this region, the prehistoric era, the time before written history, was only a few hundred years ago. Today, 60 miles to the south, lies Qaanaaq, a town of about 900 people in the world's northernmost municipality. Though sparsely populated, the region has long been an important cultural crossroads.
Currents keep the ocean near Qaanaaq unfrozen, so settlers, whalers and explorers were able to reach it. Inglefield Land served as a sort of gateway to Greenland, the first place on the huge island that people coming from Canada reached. Between 1816 and 1909 this area was the primary place of contact between Europeans and Americans and Inughuit.
As a result, it's a natural place to examine the complex interaction among people of different cultures and their interaction with the natural world, as well as to learn how those interactions affected technology and subsistence. Though the remains of former settlements still exist, there has never been a systematic archaeological survey of the region, so many of the sites and the archaeological treasures to be found remain unknown.
"This grant is to do a survey, to walk along the coast and find the sites we know should be there from historic documents," LeMoine said. "It's the necessary beginning of a bigger project."
The bigger project LeMoine has in mind is the excavation of late prehistoric and protohistoric sites, those dating from about 1700 to 1900. Excavation of the sites will give greater insight into life during these years, but a survey must come first.
Peary and MacMillan are names associated with Maine as much as the Arctic, and geographic features in Greenland still bear the name of Bowdoin. But is it a land far removed from Maine: 85% of Greenland is covered with ice, and what is not is a stark treeless landscape made up mostly of bedrock and glacial-tilled gravel. Dogsled is a major means of transportation, and many people earn their living by hunting, much as they have for generations. In winter, the sun sets for three months, but the night is often bright with moonlight reflected off of ice and snow.
When LeMoine and Darwent begin their survey in July they will do so in constant daylight but in temperatures we most often associate with fall or winter. (In a warm summer temperatures might hover around 50 degrees Fahrenheit; in a cold one closer to 37 degrees Fahrenheit.)
"It can snow at any time," LeMoine said, "but in the summer it doesn't stick around."
LeMoine's first experience in Greenland came in 1996, when she was invited to join a group of Danish researchers who were studying prehistoric archaeology in the area. At that point she began to shift her research from Northern Canada to Greenland, both because the archaeological history of Greenland intrigued her and because the collections of the Arctic Museum are a natural fit for study of Greenland. She returned again for six weeks in the summer of 1999, and in 2000 brought two Inughuit elders and an interpreter to Bowdoin to see the collections.
"So far the reception has been very good," LeMoine said of her work in the area. "That's one of the things that's encouraging. People are very interested."
In 1999, LeMoine carried photographs, taken by MacMillan between 1910 and 1954, with her to Qaanaaq to seek out residents who remembered people from the photos. She set up an exhibit of photos in the local school. About 100 people from the small community came through in just a matter of days to see images of their grandparents and great-grandparents. LeMoine remembers one little boy who came through to look, then returned the next day bringing his friends.
While she was in Qaanaaq, old people pointed out places on maps where settlements had once existed, saying sadly that scientists didn't seem interested in them. But LeMoine was interested.
"That started the germ of this project," LeMoine said. "The area has gone through periods we think of as abandonment and reoccupation in prehistory as well."
In 1917 Knud Rasmussen, a Greenlandic explorer of Inughuit and Danish descent, surveyed the area, and in 1936 Erik Holtved, a Danish researcher, did as well, but neither of those surveys were as extensive or systematic as the one LeMoine and Darwent will undertake.
"Our first goal will be to find and document whatever sites we can," LeMoine said.
Part of the grant money will pay for a week of daily rides in a helicopter, so LeMoine and Darwent can locate sites. They expect to see the remains of stone houses, dating to late prehistoric times and into the 1900s, dug into the ground with portions of their stone walls still standing.
"Those are massive enough that you can see them from a helicopter," LeMoine said.
They may also see houses built with whalebone, which date to around 1200 or 1300, and possibly tent rings or shallow excavated places in the land with just the remnants of walls that date as far back as 900. The tent rings are rocks that once held down the edges of animal skin tents and were left behind when the tents were moved to another location.
Another clue to past habitation that they could see from the air is vegetation in unexpected places: The organic matter that's a by-product of human settlement provides a fertile ground for vegetation that otherwise wouldn't be there. After the air survey, they'll set up a base camp and walk or boat along the coast further investigating the sites they've found and looking for smaller sites not visible from the air.
"This period we're interested in was a time of huge change," LeMoine said.
Groups of Inughuit were possibly recolonizing the area after abandoning it in earlier years, and there was sporadic contact with Europeans. Local Inughuit's first contact with Europeans was in 1818, when Capt. John Ross of the Royal Navy came seeking the Northwest Passage. In the 1860s there was a migration of people from Baffin Island in Northern Canada. At that time there was some blending of the groups, and LeMoine has been told by the Inughuit of today that without the Baffin Islanders the colony would likely have disappeared. In 1890s there was contact with Europeans through whaling.
Peary first came to the area in 1891 and was a major influence, bringing with him not only contact with Europeans but bringing metal, wood and guns to the area. Peary had finished his explorations by 1909, and Knud Rasmussen, knowing that there would be continued demand for the new products that Peary had introduced, established a trading post in the area. Finally the community began to take on its present form.
LeMoine hopes to get Bowdoin students involved in tracking down maps of the area and researching names. They have people and place names from documents and conversations, but modern, standardized spellings differ from phonetic (and inconsistent) spellings used by Peary and MacMillan. There will also be opportunities for students to work with the data that she brings back from the field.
LeMoine and Darwent are also collaborating with archaeologists in Greenland and Denmark. They plan to do fieldwork in Inglefield Land in July of 2004 and 2005.