PROJECT 5 - INUIT HOUSEHOLDS IN NORTHERN LABRADOR
Dr. Peter Whitridge
Dr. James Wollett

 

2008 Fieldwork at Green Island 6 and Napaktok Bay 1, Northern Labrador

     In July and August 2008 Jim Woollett (Université Laval) and Peter Whitridge (Memorial University of Newfoundland) directed survey and excavation of precontact and historic Inuit sites at Green Island 6 (HkCk-01; Figure 1) and Napaktok 1 (HlCo-01), northern Labrador.  This represented the second and final season of summer field work of a research program focussed on long-term change in Inuit household economies in northern Labrador funded by the International Polar Year initiative.  As part of this project Maryse Cloutier-Gélinas (Memorial) conducted MA research on precontact Inuit landscapes and and Félix Gagné (Laval) conducted initial work for an MA project regarding faunal resource usage.  The field crew was rounded out by Sacha Auclair-Vincent (Laval), Julia Ford (Nain), Kiara Hart (University of Western Ontario), Iky Merkeratsuk (Nain), and Brian Pritchard (Memorial).  In 2007 excavations were conducted at Inuit sites on Dog Island, Koliktalik Island and Iglosiatik Island in the Nain region, and at sites in Seven Islands Bay.  2008 field work focussed on the precontact winter village of Green Island 6, briefly investigated by Steve Cox in the mid 1970s and by a Smithsonian Institution survey team in the 1980’s.  In 2002 Jim Woollett tested House 11, noting the unusual lack (for winter house sites in Labrador) of historic material culture.  Those results encouraged us to return to Green Island in 2008, to expand House 11 excavations and excavate an additional winter house.

     From July 20 to August 14 we camped a few hundred metres southwest of the winter houses at HkCk-01 (Figure 2).  We surveyed the site vicinity and mapped features, finds and topography over an area of about 50 hectares with a total station.  The mapping recorded both the immediate topographic layout of the site and the wider local environs, as part of Cloutier-Gélinas’ investigation of the site in its landscape setting. Although our work was focussed closely on the winter house excavations, we made casual surveys of other parts of the island on several occasions.  Besides recent and historic Inuit camps, and Paleoskimo sites and structures, we encountered numerous cairns, including Inuit fox traps, caches, possible burials and “pinnacles”.  The latter, as also described for this region by Susan Kaplan, typically consisted of a roughly one metre long slender boulder that was either propped vertically with a small number of blocky pumpkin-sized boulders or wedged in a crevice.  Many of these structures are now collapsed.  They do not closely resemble Inuit inukshuit, which are formally different (though Norman Hallendy describes some analogous features) and usually more substantially built.  Several small Dorset lithic scatters next to the winter house village were mapped and collected (Figure 3); two of these consisted predominantly of nephrite flakes that will shed additional light on nephrite manufacturing and trade on the Labrador coast (an unusually high incidence of nephrite was encountered in 2007 IPY excavations at Iglosiatik Island).  A 1 x 2  m test pit was excavated in House 9 to provide contextual information on the house group of which House 11 (see below) is a part.  Oddly, this small test produced the single fragment of a soapstone vessel recovered from Green Island in 2008. This enigmatic thin, charred slab does not correspond to typical Inuit or Paleoeskimo vessel forms.

     House 11, explored initially by Woollett in 2002, is the largest house at the site (Figure 4).  It is a "clover-leaf" structure comprising two separate chambers sharing an entrance passage.  The house was almost completely excavated in 2008, with a 37m2 area opened focused on the interior, walls and innermost entrance passage.  The house proved to have been excavated into a sand dune and then covered by up to 80cm of sediment derived from several cycles of aeolian sand deposition and soil.  The entrance katak, the floor and other elements of interior furnishings were intact and very clear, nevertheless the walls were ephemeral, as the house itself was dug substantially into the sand bank.  The central floor area of the house was completely paved with pavers extending into the two side chambers, each a little less than 3 x 2 m in area and separated by a stone partition.  Each compartment had collapsed sleeping platforms, stone-lined storage compartments at the edge of the sleeping platforms, and walls built of stacked stone, upright stone slabs and some wood poles.  Two alcoves, lamp stands and storage compartments were built into the southern walls, one to either side of the entrance.

     Very few artifacts were recovered in the house; those recovered were primarily small flakes of slate found amongst the paving stones, fragmentary (and a few complete) ground slate tools (including knife blades and drilled triangular endblades) and nephrite flakes.  A notable find was a small collection of small marble-like round pebbles recovered in a space under a sleeping platform. No European-source material of any sort was recovered in House 11.  The comparative lack of artifacts and the very thin semi-organic deposits overlying the paved floor suggest, at least initially, that the house had a single episode of occupation, and that this was of relatively short duration.  The sparse accumulation of cultural materials in the house contrasts markedly with the dense and deep midden and floor deposits in 18th century winter settlements elsewhere in Okak Bay.  Very few bone or wood fragments were recovered either here or in House 4; the dry, acid and sandy soil provides a context hostile to organic preservation.  Nevertheless, a number of charcoal fragments were recovered in both features, affording the possibility of obtaining high-precision radiocarbon dates for the house, aiding the dating of the precontact Inuit presence south of the Torngats.

     House 4 was the easternmost winter house at Green Island 6, part of a loose cluster of five houses at this end of the site.  With House 11 (the westernmost) it spatially bracketed the village, and given the somewhat higher elevation (and likely earlier occupation) of Houses 1-5 compared to Houses 6-14, may temporally bracket it as well.  The house was bilobate, with sleeping platforms to the north and east, and a tunnel opening to the south.  Although a southerly tunnel orientation is common (probably typical) for Inuit winter houses, allowing easy refuse disposal away from the house in the face of prevailing northerly or northwesterly winter winds, this meant the dwelling (and most others at Green Island 6) “faced” inland and up slope; Inuit winter houses more commonly have their tunnel on the seaward and downslope side of the structure.  The entire house was mapped and a 14 m2 area excavated over most of the interior depression. 

     Excavation revealed a carefully paved flagstone floor in the central part of the house, abutting a northern sleeping platform bordered by vertically placed slabs and cobbles.  Trapezoidal compartments, probably for storage, cut into the platform area north and west of the floor, and were roughly paved below floor level.  An eastern probable sleeping platform was only partly exposed.  A large cobble cooking platform abutted the southwest wall, adjacent to the tunnel mouth.  A possible second lamp stand was partially exposed along the northeast wall, between the north and east sleeping platforms. Several largely intact slate artifacts (various forms of ulu and men’s knife) occurred at the interface of the southern lamp stand and the house floor, and appear to represent intact floor caches. 

     Although well-made slate artifacts were fairly abundant in House 4 (Figure 5), soapstone was entirely absent, a highly unusual situation for an Inuit winter house in Labrador. The house may have been too briefly occupied for soapstone refuse to have accumulated, but this explanation is not consonant with the relative abundance of slate debris.  Alternatively, soapstone may not have been available to the site occupants, as recent arrivals in an uncharted area.  Low-fired clay lamps were used in other parts of the Eastern Arctic by the first Inuit arrivals. Organic preservation was very poor; only a few bone fragments were recovered.  Most of these occurred close to the surface and probably postdate the precontact Inuit occupation of the feature, but one badly deteriorated fragment of whale bone was recovered from a precontact context next to the eastern platform.

     Napaktok 1 is one of three Inuit sod house villages in the eastern portion of Napaktok Bay, occupied in the late 18th century.  The site consists of four substantial sod house ruins on a steep raised beach terrace at 10m asl.  The site was mapped and sampled for plant, insect and animal bone remains for analyses of landscape change, site formation, household construction methods, and subsistence patterns, providing a vital point of comparison for recent analyses of similar 18th century sites at Uivak Point 1, Komaktorvik 1 and in the Dog Island region of Nain.  Small sampling trenches were excavated in the interiors of two of these houses, revealing stone floor pavements and sleeping platforms covered in thin deposits of turf and artifact assemblages consisting of traditional Inuit material culture items and European objects.  Bulk soil samples were collected for environmental archaeology analyses by Alison Bain (Laval) and Cynthia Zutter (Grant MacEwan College), and the locale was mapped with a total station.

     Areas outside of house entrances were probed with a soil core sampler, identifying notable midden deposits containing wood, bone and other refuse, on the steep terrace slope adjacent to the largest houses (1, 2 and 3).  Of these, the midden of house 2 appeared to be the deepest and to have the clearest association with a single house (Houses 1 and 3 are more complicated and perhaps comprise multiple superimposed house structures).  A 4 m2 test was excavated in the House 2 midden using 10cm arbitrary levels, revealing 50cm of natural soil, sediment and cultural deposits.  Due to the sandiness of the soil and the very steep dip angle, the midden is very well drained and lacked permafrost, which is present in some locations at the site.  A substantial collection of moderately well preserved animal bone was recovered, consisting predominately of ringed seal and bearded seal, but including dog, caribou and bear, as well as whale baleen.  A very plentiful artifact assemblage was also recovered, which included a great number of pieces of raw or roughly worked soapstone, fragments of finished soapstone pots and lamps, and manufactured ceramic and glass vessels, iron nails, knives and other tools.  The quantity of soapstone debitage and finished objects is remarkable in comparison with contemporaneous sites such as Uivak Point 1 and Komaktorvik and may suggest the heavy exploitation of local sources; one possible quarry site was observed adjacent to the sod house village.  A Dorset occupation of the locality is also indicated by the small chipped stone assemblage recovered.

     In summary, we had an interesting and highly productive season.  Although Green Island 6 did not generate faunal material, the mounting evidence that it lacks a significant historic component makes it useful for modelling household and community organization during the precontact exploration of the Labrador coast.  Napaktok generated the hoped for faunal samples, as well as a rich early historic artifact assemblage, and so will contribute greatly to our understanding of long term economic change in the region.  Laboratory analysis of spatial data, artifacts, faunal material, and botanical and sediment samples is ongoing.  Oral history research in Nain,  and communication of preliminary results, is planned for spring 2009.

 

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