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Archaeology in the Arctic

"Archaeology is about searching for ancient things, that ancient people once used. It is about searching for the answers to questions about how those people might have survived, how they lived and hunted, what tools they used and even what language they once spoke. Archaeology is also about helping people to understand ancient things that they find, and how they were once used."
Peter Totalik, Taloyoak

Archaeology in the arctic is very different from that in other parts of the world. Like the people whom they are studying, archaeologist must adapt to the northern environment. They have a short working season in remote locations, so fieldwork is an intense experience. The population of the Arctic has always been small, compared to the amount of land, so there are relatively few sites and artifacts to study.

However, there are some advantages to archaeological work in the Arctic. The cold dry climate means that ancient sites are often very well preserved. In other parts of the world, plants usually overgrow potential sites. Organic artifacts (object made from plants or animal material) rot and disappear. Not so in the Arctic. The lack of vegetation makes old camping sites and caches easily visible and the cold weather preserves organic material very well.
The survey of the Netsilik area found evidence of many campsites, villages and meat caches.

Storytelling and Archaeology

How can we learn about cultures of the past such as those around the Netsilik area? One way is through storytelling and oral traditions. Another is the science of archaeology.

Archaeologists survey and excavate ancient sites where people once lived and examine the physical remains. Tent rings, house depressions, caches, and gravesites are examples of the technology left behind from people like the Thule and Netsilingmiut. They are the only clues to understanding knowledge and skills that the ancient people had. We can also learn from recorded stories from visiting anthropologists and archaeologists. From theses, we can make inferences about the lifestyles and the world views of the inhabitants of long ago.

Past Visits

We can also examine the stories and information gathered from past visits to the area. Knud Rasmussen and a small band of colleagues traveled the arctic collecting archaeological information and oral narratives. He traveled to the Netsilik area during the Fifth Thule Expedition in the 1920's. He recorded stories and published this map of the area in 1931.
Previous surveys include one in 1977 by Polargas Archaeology Project by Dan Gardener as well as one carried out in 1982 by Savelle.

What do we know about the Netsilik River Area?

according to oral histories Netsilingmiut history beings with their arrival in this country, which they found already occupied by the "tunrit", who were a separate tribe and spoke a dialect that the Inuit could understand.

The Tunrit had lived in this country for some time, for they had already built various stone structures used for hunting caribou and trapping char. The early Thule people built semi-subterranean pit houses that they lived in during the winter. When members of their community died they placed their dead in rock structures. The Netsilingmiut "laid out", or exposed, theirs to the elements, sometimes ringing the body with cobbles or stones.

The Netsilingmiut and the Tunrit Food Cache




These were economic differences, too, between the tribes, for the Tunrit hunted more sea mammals than the Netsilingmiut, who focused on caribou and fish along the river. Although the Netsilingmiut and the Tunrit lived together for some time, violence eventually broke out, and the Tunrit fled the country.

Netsilik Area Archaeological Survey

The community of Taloyoak approached Inuit Heritage Trust with concerns of archaeological sites in the Netsilik area being looted and disturbed.
The community was pleased when an archaeological survey was organized to not only survey the archaeological sites of the area but to compare and evaluate this information to the collected oral narratives.

This survey was lead by archaeologist Ken Swayze, along with the help of IHT representative Ericka Chemko in August 2004

The Archaeological Survey

In coordination with the survey, a field school was set-up for students form the Taloyoak community. The students, Sandy Oleekatalik, Nancy Paniloo, Peter Totalik, and Kaylie Oleekatalik along with Ken and Ericka spent a total of nine days surveying the landscape.

They surveyed 15 of the 29 previously recorded archaeological sites in the Netsilik River Area. Along the way an additional 23 archaeological sites were observed and added to the record. No test pits were excavated and no artifacts were collected, the newly registered sites were identified and recorded. These are some of the sites surveyed. Continue on to explore what the survey found and what the elders had to say.


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