Report from Indian Harbour, Labrador, Canada

I am Lisa Rankin, an Associate Professor of Archaeology at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada.  For the last three years I have been running an

Map showing the location of the Huntingdon Island 5 site

Map showing the location of the Huntingdon Island 5 site

excavation at the site of Huntingdon Island 5 (FkBg-3) at Indian Harbour on the south-central coast of Labrador.

It is a pretty remote location.  It takes us two days to get here.  First we have a 10 hour drive across the island of Newfoundland from St. John’s to St. Barbe where we spend the night.  The next morning we get on a ferry to Labrador and then drive another seven hours north on a gravel road to the community of Cartwright.

 

That is not the end of our journey.  Once in Cartwright, the crew and all of our gear have to be ferried by boat to Indian Harbour about 30 minutes away.  Once here we set up camp for the summer and stay for several weeks until our summer field work is completed.

 

 

 

We have been excavating a series of Inuit winter houses at this site which date between AD 1620 and AD 1740. This research is part of a much bigger project titled “Understanding the Past to Build the Future”.  Ultimately, the purpose of the project is to understand and interpret the development of the contemporary Inuit-Metis society who currently reside on the southern coast of Labrador.

Overview of the Huntingdon Island 5 site

Overview of the Huntingdon Island 5 site

The project is multi-disciplinary in nature and is combining research undertaken by two archaeologists, a religious historian, two anthropologists, a specialist in Aboriginal education, a geneaologist and the Inuit-Metis community organization called the NunatuKavut Community Council.  It is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  The archaeological focus of the research is attempting to answer questions about the migration of the Inuit into southern Labrador, the permanency of their settlement and their response to interaction with the various European groups that held sway on the southern Labrador coast beginning with Basque whalers in the early 16th century, then the French through much of the 17th and 18th century and ultimately the British who gained control of Labrador in the late 18th century.  The lives of the Inuit were quickly entwined with each of these groups, but none more so than the British whose colonial efforts on the coast encouraged inter-marriage with local Inuit women leading to the development of the Inuit-Metis community here.

This year my crew is made up of 10 people (including me).

Crew members excavating in Inuit sod house, July 29, 2011

Crew members excavating in Inuit sod house, July 29, 2011

Most are my students from the university but there are also three local students from Cartwright.  My crew chief is Robyn Fleming.  Having received her MA at Memorial University two years ago, Robyn has been working as my crew chief in the summer and lab director in the winter since then.  The excavation crew also includes Phoebe Murphy, who has just completed her MA thesis on the development of the Inuit Communal House phase, a response to intensive trading with the French, that occurred on the southern Labrador coast; Laura Kelvin, whose MA thesis combines local oral histories with archaeology in order to help us locate sites associated with various eras and ethnic groups that interacted in the region; Eliza Brandy, a zooarchaeologist and superb photographer who has been keeping our video and photo record; Andrew Collins, an archaeology student who will begin his MA studies this September; and Vicky Allen, an undergraduate archaeology student at Memorial University who also happens to be of local Inuit decent. The lab crew is made up of Brandon and Chelsea Morris a brother and sister from Cartwright, Labrador who are pursuing non-archaeology degrees at University, but who joined the project as high-school students and have returned to help us once again, and Kellie Clark, also from Cartwright who has just finished high school.

Every Friday the lab crew comes to Indian Harbour to help us excavate.  At the end of the day they return to town taking the week’s worth of artifacts with them to process.  A different member of the excavation crew goes with them each week to supervise the cleaning and cataloguing of the artifacts.  We all look forward to Friday as the crew also brings us news of the outside world – whether it is news of friends from town, or current affairs, it is very much welcomed after a week of isolation.

 

View of our camp at Indian Harbour

View of our camp at Indian Harbour

Today began like every day at Indian Harbour – up at 6:30 to get breakfast and down to the site to start work within the hour.
Because I have worked with some members of this crew for a long time we all work very well together and draw on one another’s strengths in both practical and interpretive work.

We keep a daily log that represents this.  We all share one notebook which is always in use by someone throughout the day. In keeping with that tradition this post is going to be made throughout the day today by my entire team.

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My name is Robyn Fleming and I have been working with Dr. Rankin on this project for two years, primarily in the field and dealing with the collections when we return from the field. As the crew chief one of my tasks is to place a grid, composed of 1x1m units, on the excavation area using a total station.

Mapping the site with a total station, July 29, 2011

Mapping the site with a total station, July 29, 2011

The first step in this procedure is to access the structure and determine where the limits of it may be. By doing this we know approximately how many 1x1m units we will need to excavate the structure. The next step in the process is to level the tripod and total station over the datum. Because the excavation of this site had begun the year before I joined the team a datum had already been in place when I arrived. The leveling of the total station is perhaps the most aggravating of the whole process. Once the total station is set up we check the back sight to make sure that nothing has moved since the last season. After this we can finally start putting in the grid. Laying out the grid usually takes a day to a day and a half depending on how many units are needed and I have had a number of people on the crew assisting me both with the total station and the prism. However, it often turns out that the limits of the structure expand beyond the units placed in at the beginning of the season. As a result my task for this morning was to set up the total station and extend our grid in the east, following the entrance passage, and the west to find the final wall of the structure. Hopefully the extra few units we placed in today will reveal the extent of the structure!

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My name is Andrew Collins, and I will begin my MA under Lisa’s supervision this coming September. This is my first opportunity to excavate an Inuit sod house, and the experience has been both wonderful and instructive. Because these homes were built for single-season occupation, there is no complicated stratigraphy at the site. As a result, we remove the soil in 10cm increments in an effort to keep an accurate record of the location of artifacts as they lay atop the slab stone floor of the structure. We begin by removing the sod layer and then remove the soil one 10cm level at a time.  In most instances there is no more than one layer to remove, but near the house walls the units can get quite deep.  Inside each 1m unit we keep track of the placement of any artifacts found by recording the unit they were found in as well as the quadrant inside the 1m unit and the layer.

Examples of decorated kaolin pipe stems recovered this year

Examples of decorated kaolin pipe stems recovered this year

Of course some parts of the home are more likely to yield cultural remains than others, and today I spent some time excavating near the end of the entrance passage. This location is a hotspot for artifacts, as debris or broken possessions were often discarded here or simply made their way here through the repeated use of the passage. This afternoon, in only a single quad and a single level, I uncovered a broken iron nail, several bone fragments, several ceramic sherds, a broken pipestem, and a flake of quartz. These artifacts not only tell us what possessions the residents had, but can also assist in the dating of the residence. Ceramics and pipestems in particular are useful in this effort, as they often were manufactured in specific time periods and places. For instance, the discovery of French Faience pottery indicates that the house was occupied during a period of French presence in the area, and pipestems with particular designs or makers’ marks can sometimes indicate very specific dates of manufacture. All in all, the location of particular items within the home and the overlaying soil are one of the most significant and informative tools at our disposal as well as being great fun to unearth.  This house appears to date to the early 18th century.

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My name is Eliza Brandy and this is my first time digging with my thesis supervisor Lisa, since my own research took me to a different location in southern Labrador. After arriving and taking in the surroundings of Indian Harbour, there is no doubt as to why the Inuit would have chosen to live on this island for so many generations. My interest in photography allows me to indulge in the rugged and vast beauty of Labrador’s landscape, while my experience as a zooarchaeologist brings a more practical appreciation for the richness of the natural resources all around. This afternoon I saw a small seal swimming just offshore from the site, a symbol of the traditional Inuit economy. A large patch of deep water here remains unfrozen year-round, allowing for easy access to good seal hunting.

Searching for bone fragments and tiny artifacts in the screens, July 29, 2011.

Searching for bone fragments and tiny artifacts in the screens, July 29, 2011.

Seals were important for their meat, as well as their skins for clothing and construction, and their blubber for oil lamps. From the bones excavated so far, we can tell that the residents of Indian Harbour indeed had a heavily seal-based diet, supplemented by caribou, fish, and mussels. Two caribou were spotted one evening behind our tents, and large herds would historically have passed right by here. Often we will spot boats checking their fish nets laid out across the bay, reaffirming the abundance of food resources in this place. Life on the island is intrinsically linked with the natural world. After cataloguing artifacts at the lab in town for the past week, I am anxious to return to sleeping on the ground and immersing myself in this place of history.

 

 

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I am Phoebe Murphy and this is my second season at the Huntingdon Island 5 site. The excavation at this site last year formed the basis of my thesis research and this year I’m back to participate in excavating one of the last houses identified at this location. We’re nearing the end of excavation now and we are starting to understand the internal lay-out of the house.

General view of the Inuit sod house

General view of the Inuit sod house

This house is very large (close to 60 square meters so far) and appears to be an early 18th century communal-type house. Communal houses appeared quite suddenly in Labrador in the 18th century and housed many families rather than the small, single family houses of previous periods. The communal style houses likely developed in response to the encroaching European presence during this period as during this time certain Inuit men became wealthy traders and liaisons who dealt directly with the Europeans. The Inuit were interested in obtaining metal items, ceramics, and other goods from the Europeans in exchange for whale and seal products. The residents of the house we are currently excavating were directly dealing with French settlers as the majority of the European items of material culture recovered are of French origin.  The French had control of Labrador until 1763. The house we are excavating has three raised sleeping platforms running along three of the four internal walls. The sleeping platforms are areas where each individual family would sleep, prepare meals, and work on other tasks such as sewing or tool making. The floor of the house is constructed of well placed and leveled flat floor stones. There is a sunken entrance passage extending to the northeast that serves the purpose of keeping the cold air out of the house proper. The residents used lamps fueled by sea mammal oil for heating, lighting, and cooking within the house. In about a week or so the entire house will be excavated and the whole crew is looking forward to seeing the winter house exposed in its entirety. Robyn’s iPod has been keeping everyone in good spirits as has the sunshine and lack of bugs today!

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My name is Laura Kelvin and this is my second field season working in Sandwich Bay. Last summer I conducted a series of interviews with local community members in order to locate archaeological sites that reflect different aspects of Inuit-Metis history.  As part of my MA research I compared Inuit-Metis settlement patterns to Inuit settlement patterns. I found that the Inuit-Metis’s and Inuit’s seasonal rounds differed, which determined their different settlement patterns. The Inuit-Metis settled in sheltered inner areas of the Bay during the winter to ensure optimal access to fur bearing animals and firewood. During the summer they would move out to their fishing stations that were located on outer islands of the Bay. The Inuit, who largely relied on marine resources for subsistence, appear to have lived on outer islands and headlands during both the summer and the winter. Next week Dr. Rankin will be surveying Sandwich Bay in order to find an Inuit site suitable for next year’s field season. In preparation for this survey, I am currently helping Dr. Rankin examine maps of the area to determine the best locations for surveying. I will be examining the Inuit-Metis sites next year for my PhD research.

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My name is Vicky Allen and I am an archaeology undergraduate student at MUN. I am originally from Rigolet, which is just north of Cartwright. My father is also from North River, which can be seen from the Indian Harbour site – this connection to the site allows me a unique perspective on the site. I am the rookie in the bunch, this is my first dig and everyone has been really great and helpful! I originally sought Dr. Rankin out after seeing her poster for fieldwork in Southern Labrador and I immediately called her wondering where the site was located; as I have spent a lot of my childhood in and around the Cartwright area. It was one of the best decisions of my university career, since coming to Indian Harbour it has only strengthened my love for archaeology and my heritage. Other sites in Labrador have fascinated me, but to participate in one so close to home is an amazing opportunity. As I have said earlier, I am the rookie, but all of the other archaeologists have guided me from day one, I love being in their presence – I feel like they have so much knowledge to share with me and I am just eager to listen. The site itself is amazing to me as well, I go to work every day hoping to find something, anything.

Portion of an Iron-bladed ulu recovered this year

Portion of an Iron-bladed ulu recovered this year

Most of the other guys are excited to find nail and bone, but we all hope to find the significant artifacts, ulus and end blades. But when I find something that I know was used by my ancestors, I feel elated, I always want to show it off – even if it is just a small piece of bone or a broken nail. It is also really interesting to see the artifacts from this site, they are distinctively Inuit but they also have hints of modernization and to see the transition first hand is amazing. I look at every rock and grain of sand hoping that they help to uncover the mysteries and secrets of the people who lived here so long ago. One of the best days of the season was when I found a miniature soapstone pot – fully intact, it was made by a child all those years ago! This season has opened my eyes to the wonders of the Inuit people and how amazing archaeology truly is, if I was not sure before that archaeology was for me, I most definitely am now.

 

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This Friday was a particularly exciting day at Indian Harbour.  Not just because of the “Day of Archaeology”, but it is also the day that the lab crew comes out from Cartwright to work on the site.

 

You can learn more about what has been happening in the lab, and with the project in general at our website www.mun.ca/labmetis/.  We are now leaving for town.  This is the first chance for several members of my crew to have real showers in almost four weeks.  We also get a chance to relax, have a beer and play some pool at the pub.  By Sunday morning we will be back at the site and will be here through mid-August.

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Report from Indian Harbour, Labrador, Canada by Day of Archaeology, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 thoughts on “Report from Indian Harbour, Labrador, Canada

  1. Linda Barrett says:

    Very interesting story. Chelsea and Brandon Morris are children of my niece Kim Hawkins Morris. My husband and I are very proud of them.Good Luck Chelsea and Brandon with your digs!!!

  2. Ron Roberts says:

    Nice to see and and read about Indian Harbour Labrador. My family had fished in Indian Harbour for hundreds of years. Have not been back to the Island since 1995 after my father Jim Roberts had passed away. Love to see more pictures of the Island and the old Roberts fishing premises.

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