Arctic encounters between Norse and Natives

Norse Native contact in Arctic

Contact between the Norse and Native peoples in Canada’s Arctic was more extensive and earlier than first believed, according to recent archaeological evidence. In a presentation given last week at the University of Toronto, Dr. Patricia Sutherland explored how we are learning about the “more complex and interesting relationships that existed over a longer period of time.”

Norse Native contact in Arctic

Historians have already made use of Icelandic sagas and archaeological evidence to show that the Norse established a settlement of up to 2000 people in Greenland, and explored into Newfoundland and the Gulf of St.Lawrence region. In Greenland itself, the people survived by raising livestock and hunting walrus. The ivory from walruses was the main trading good for Greenlanders with the rest of Europe.

Sutherland, who helped established the Helluland Archaeology Project, has found evidence of a Norse presence on Baffin Island and in northern Labrador, an area that the Norse called Helluland for its barren and bleak appearance. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Norse established trading outposts with the Dorset Eskimos, a people that lived in the western part of Canada’s arctic.

Furthermore this contact existed seems to have existed prior to the Norse settlement of Greenland around the year 1000. This relationship continued on until the 13th and perhaps 14th centuries, when the Dorset peoples died out. It was also around this time that another native group, the Inuit moved into the Baffin Island area – they seemed to have had a more antagonistic relationship with the Norse, using piracy to capture Norse boats.

Archaeological finds from Baffin Island and Labrador include:

  • many pieces of cordage – spun wool made from Arctic hare, fox, and dog – the Dorset people did not make clothing in this way
  • pieces of wood, including white pine, which date back to the 13th century and has evidence of once having iron nails in them.
  • distinctive rectangular whetstones made in the same fashion as those in Greenland and northern Europe
  • smelted metals such as iron, tin, brass and bronze
  • a spade made from whale bone
  • small notched tally sticks, which are used in counting and recording trade transactions by the Norse
  • the remains of a building on Baffin Island that had straight walls made of boulders and turf and which had a drainage feature. This building also had rat remains, an animal which could have only come from Europe

Sutherland believes that the Norse probably established shore stations on Baffin Island where they could hunt and trade for a short time before returning to Greenland, which two days away by sail. Sutherland notes that desire to gain ivory  was the motivation for the Norse to trade with the Dorset: “Hunting walrus was dangerous business. If you could get someone to do it for you, you would.”

There have also been archaeological finds from the Dorset peoples that includes artwork which depict European faces and a Norse pot which dates from the 13th century.

Dorset art piece

By the thirteenth-century the Inuit peoples had spread throughout large parts of the Arctic, including Ellesmere Island (Canada’s most northernly island). There have been many finds of medieval European goods among the Inuit – including chainmail, parts of boats, a carpenter’s tool, a gaming piece and a piece of a bronze weighing balance.  While some of these goods may have come from trade or piracy, Sutherland speculates that there might have been a shipwreck of a Norse vessel from the 13th century that left the Inuit with many of these artefacts.

Sutherland,  who is an Adjunct Professor in Carleton and Memorial Universities, and a Research Fellow in the University of Aberdeen, asserts that Norse and Native contact lasted hundreds of years, but after the year 1300 this relationship declined as both the Dorset peoples and the Norse in Greenland disappearing by the end of the Middle Ages.

Sutherland’s work has also been featured on the Canadian science program The Nature of Things. Here is a clip from their show:

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