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Tanfield Valley: Europeans in Pre-Columbian Baffin Island? January 3, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

Tanfield Valley [A] is one of the most exciting sites to have come under the archaeologist’s trowel in the last fifty years: less golden but in its way as thrilling as Tutankhamen’s tomb. The valley – more a hollow – is an unusually green part of rocky Baffin Island and for five seasons, Patricia Sutherland, a Canadian archaeologist has dug away with a team in the ruins of some mysterious houses here. Her finds have leaked out in articles (one academic and several popular), papers given at conferences and through the archaeological rumour mill and their general direction is clear. It seems that there was a European presence here in the late Middle Ages (though there are serious dating problems as we will see).

Scholars resist the idea of Europeans in North America prior to Columbus and for reasons we’ve previously discussed the odds are against. However, the evidence that Patricia Sutherland has brought to light is persuasive: it certainly deserves a hearing though predictably enough she has walked into a firestorm. Her evidence includes pelt from rats from the Old World, stones that have been worked according to the traditions of European masonry, local wools turned into yarns (something native peoples in this region did not bother with) and whetstones with microscopic fragments of bronze, brass and iron (the clincher).

The real bugger is with the dates for the settlement. Carbon dating has brought up late medieval dates but also dates from the early Middle Ages. This was presumably a site that was visited by various groups then over centuries, including the Dorset peoples. Everything has become still more complicated because PS is the second archaeologist to work here: an earlier dig took place in the 1960s and concluded that this was a Dorset site.

So why, if we allow for PS’s thesis, were Europeans messing around here in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries? (We are in the same general area of Baffin Island as the mysterious ivory carving examined here a month ago).  The most obvious candidates are, of course, the Greenlanders from the Western and Eastern Settlement. We know that the Greenlanders had a name for Baffin Island. It was their Helluland or Flat Rock Land. Why would the Greenlanders trouble to come across to Baffin Island? Well, Tanfield Valley was a very reasonable three-days sail from the Western Settlement. And the Greenlanders may have come here to hunt and possibly to trade with the Dorset folk: was this a permanent or a temporary settlement? We know that the Greenlanders sent pelts and birds of prey south to Europe: possibly this part of Baffin Island proved a happy location for getting such goods either at first hand or through the Dorset. Our historical sources suggest that the Greenlanders were visiting – however, briefly – the New World in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. So none of this should be a surprise. An interesting question though is why here? There is a natural harbour, there is a particularly green bit of otherwise unwelcoming tundra… But looking at the map of the region it is difficult not to speculate that it was also a way station for voyages further south to Markland (Labrador) and the timber there.

Other Arctic evidence for medieval visits? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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Leif, an old friend of this blog writes in: Patricia Sutherland has apparently not submitted her findings for peer review, but instead has promoted her discoveries in the popular press [Armstrong]. In archaeology, this is a major breech of protocol, and it raises an eyebrow. She is not the only archaeologist to make questionable claims about Viking sites in the region. ‘Serious attention in recent years has been given to two archaeological projects in Canada… The first was undertaken by Thomas E. Lee in northern Quebec along the western shore of Ungava Bay at two sites (Payne Bay and Deception Bay). It would not appear unreasonable that Norse Greenlanders would have sailed south of Baffin Island through the Hudson Strait into Ungava Bay. Mr. Lee Discovered at these sites a number of longhouses as well as stone implements, a piece of bone, and an iron axe-head, which was apparently laminated. The material objects can be dated to the Viking age, and, although some opinion held them to be Norse, a scholarly consensus considers them not Norse buy Dorset Eskimo, having parallels with known Dorset-type materials found elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic.’ [Logan]  Sources: Armstrong, Jean. Vikings in Canada? 20 November 2012. http://www2.macleans.ca/2012/11/20/a-twist-in-time/(your post links to his article) Logan, Donald F. The Vikings in history.  London: Routledge, 1991. pp 99. (on Thomas Lee’s discoveries). Thanks Leif!

18 March 2013: Robert writes, Just a note to contradict your friend Leif’s unfair characterization of Pat Sutherland as not having submitted her evidence of Baffin Island Norse to peer review. He is simply quoting WilliamFitzhugh of the Smithsonian, who has long searched unsuccessfully for Norse in the area and cannot comprehend that Sutherland has found what he has missed. Here is a list of Sutherland’s reports. The 2009 article, which describes a lot of the evidence, can be found on the web at Helluland Project Publications by Patricia Sutherland: In Press The Norse in Arctic North America. In The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of the Viking World, edited by Judith Jesch and Christina Lee. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford. In Press Relations between Norse and Indigenous Peoples of Canada. In Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience, 4th edition, edited by C. Roderick Wilson and Christopher Fletcher. Oxford University Press Canada, Toronto. 2009 The Question of Contact between Dorset Palaeo-Eskimos and Early Europeans in the Eastern Arctic. In The Northern World AD 900-1400: the Dynamics of Climate, Economy, and Politics in Hemispheric Perspective, pp. 279-299, edited by Herbert Maschner, Owen Mason and Robert McGhee. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 2008 Norse and Natives in the Eastern Arctic. In The Viking World, edited by Stefan Brink and Neil Price. Routledge, London. 2002 Nunguvik and Saatut Revisited. In Nunguvik et Saatut: Sites paléoeskimaux de Navy Board Inlet, île de Baffin, by G. Mary-Rousselière, pp. 115-120. Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Paper 162, Gatineau. 2000 The Norse and Native North Americans. In Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga edited by William W. Fitzhugh and Elizabeth Ward, pp. 238-247. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. 2000 Strands of Culture Contact: Dorset-European Interactions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic. InIdentities and Cultural Contacts in the Arctic, edited by Martin Appelt, Joel Berglund and H. C. Gulløv, pp.159-169. National Museum of Denmark and Danish Polar Centre, Copenhagen. [www.civilization.ca/academ/articles/suth_01e.htm] Conference Papers: 2012 “Paleolimnology Meets Archaeology: Assessing the Impacts on Local Freshwater Ecosystems of Early Arctic Peoples.” (with M.S.V. Douglas, K.R. Hadley, K.M. McCleary, D. Antoniades, J.M. Blais, N. Michelutti, and J.P. Smol). From Knowledge to Action: IPY 2012 Conference, Montréal. 2010 “A Changing Perspective on the History of Arctic Canada during the Past Millennium.” IPY Canada Early Results Workshop, Ottawa. 2008 “Norse/Native Contact in Arctic Canada.” The Hvalsey Conference, Qaqortoq, Greenland. 2007 “Dorset Longhouses: New Evidence from the South Coast of Baffin Island.” Annual Meeting of the Canadian Archaeological Association, St. John’s, Nfld. 2006 “The Helluland Archaeology Project in Labrador.” The Many Faces of Labrador: Community and Archaeology in the Big Land Conference. Battle Harbour, Labrador.2006. Or you can refer to her home page. Thanks Robert!