arctic archaeology

Microscopes and… Posthumanist Archaeology? (Or That Year I Spent the Summer in the Lab)


This year’s Archaeology Day found me in a cold, air conditioned lab working on my PhD pilot project. I work with the Arctic CHAR project now (a joint initiative of the University of Toronto and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre), which has been running for three years in the Mackenzie Delta, N.W.T.

Arctic CHAR studies patterns of climate change induced environmental degradation at major Inuvialuit settlements across the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, using shoreline reconstructions and predictive modelling of erosion patterns, and also conducts salvage where required.

The project has seen the unearthing of an 18th century cruciform winter house, the first complete example of its kind, during the 2014 field season. The house is located at Kuukpak, on the east coast of Richards Island, a massive settlement of the Kuukpangmiut. Kuukpak was likely a whaling village and was abandoned sometime in the 1800s. Approximately 40 dwellings were initially present on the site but only 23 survive today due to erosion, which is why the project will resume work there in 2016.

In the upcoming years, we are expanding our research to include data on permafrost degradation, which is why I’m here! I recently finished my MA on the use of integrated soil analyses for the study of short-term occupations and outdoor sites. I completed a thesis on the briefly occupied warm season dwellings that line a (roughly) 16th – 18th century Inuit winter settlement in Sandwich Bay, South Labrador (Figure 1), where I described the environmental characteristics of three tent floors using soil micromorphology, paleoethnobotanical and soil chemical analyses (Figure 2). Given archaeology’s traditional dependence on large material assemblages for the interpretation of prehistoric Inuit lifeways, much of Inuit archaeology has focused on the winter settlement. This approach has allowed me to temporarily suspend this dependence on material culture and focus on environmental changes. The data provided answers to age-old questions about relative chronology and potential season of use but soon I found myself looking at differential vegetation growth caused by anthropogenic chemical inputs and plant species replacement that didn’t fit so neatly in a heritage framework anymore. At the time, I simply noted that this data is relevant when looking at differential vulnerability in relation to climate change.

Harbor View_from Huntingdon_NW view_best

Figure 1: South view of Indian Harbor Island on the beautiful coast of Labrador.

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Figure 2: A view of Huntingdon Island 5, a post-contact Southern Inuit settlement containing unique examples of communal houses in southern Labrador and evidence of early trade in European goods.

Today, I get to revisit and expand these findings. I am (literally) working at the limit of my MA research (Figures 3 and 4) both in terms of theory and methodology. I initially used a basic petrographic microscope to analyze my thin-sections, which limits the researcher to visual analysis and to a magnification of 400x. Today, I’m working with the UTSC biogeochemistry group to develop microchemical applications using thin-sections. This would enable the identification of organic compounds without the loss of visual data on sediment structure and composition and allow me to study the interaction of site-specific anthropogenic sediments with the immediate environment. So far we tested my thin-sections with a more traditional fluorescence microscope and then attempted the Raman microscope but encountered issues focusing the beam (Figure 5) (the issues seem to develop due to the difficulty of maintaining a consistent thickness when developing thin-sections of soils, something that I am trying to address at the level of the manufacturing process).

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Figure 3: Amorphous fine organic mass viewed at the highest magnification permitted by the petrographic microscope, a Nikon H 550 S. Microphotograph from one of the 17 thin-sections detailing characteristics of the floors of briefly occupied tents found at Huntingdon Island 5.


Figure 4: Thin-section MM8, on which the microphotograph was taken.


Figure 5: The Raman spectroscopy facility at the University of Toronto Scarborough

Meanwhile in the Western Canadian Arctic, my colleagues and my supervisor collected a new batch of undisturbed cores from an Inuvialuit house in McKinley Bay (Figure 5) during their regular yearly survey. The site contains at least 11 semi-subterranean houses dated between 1500 and 1700, and is likely associated with bowhead whale hunting. At this location, Dr. Friesen collected seven undisturbed cores from a section through the entrance tunnel that includes the undisturbed, sterile sands at the base, a cultural layer consisting of the tunnel floor with associated debris and tunnel collapse and overlying eolian deposits (many thanks to Dr. M. Friesen and Arctic CHAR). The cores are being developed at a petrographic facility and will be awaiting analysis!

Soil sampling - McKinley Bay

Figure 5: Dr. M. Friesen hammering in cores on the exposed profile containing the McKinley Bay house (reproduced with permission from the Arctic CHAR project).

I will eventually be testing a broader range of microscopes and comparing the results, while working through the theoretical significance of climate change-oriented projects in archaeology. This part of my work has already gotten me reading too much posthumanist theory for my own good!