Fieldwork 2015: Snapshots from the field

Between April and August 2015, 16 researchers from the NOW-project travelled to the North Water area in Thule (Avanersuaq) to carry out fieldwork in different sites.
Applying a variety of methods, and focusing on specific research objects, they all examined aspects of the relations between living resources and human societies in the region. 

Click on the titles below to see how fieldwork was carried out by the NOW-researchers in different field sites.

Spring hunt for narwhal (Kirsten Hastrup)

Strange animals under the midnight sun (Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen)

Food intersects the annual cycle with the social calendar (Janne Flora)

‘Piniariarneq’. Research methodology across knowledge boundaries (Astrid O. Andersen)

Searching for animal remains in old Thule middens (Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen)

On the track of the little auk (Kasper L. Johansen)

The Great Lake – Annikitsoq: a great place for us (Thomas A. Davidson)

Spring hunt for narwhal

Kirsten Hastrup

A hunting camp in Whale Sound (photo: Kirsten Hastrup).

In late spring the North Water opens up and expands in all directions. The ice edge is still relatively solid, allowing hunters from Qaanaaq and the other settlements in Kangerlussuaq (Inglefield Bay) to hunt for narwhals, arriving from south on their yearly migration.
            During fieldwork in May-June 2015, I went with a hunter and his 16-year old son on dog sledge to a hunting camp at the ice-edge. There, other hunters were waiting for the narwhals, and for the right moment to pursue and harpoon them. Only when properly harpooned and fastened by a line with a floater may they shoot the whale.
            After some unsuccessful attempts at catching a narwhal by the more seasoned hunters, suddenly the young man saw a single animal close to the edge and pursued it on foot, running at lightening speed, jumping from ice-floe to ice-floe, and finally able to harpoon it. His father caught up and shot it. The young man floated it back to the camp, where everybody gathered to congratulate him with his first narwhal. It was heartening to sense their shared pleasure and pride in a youngster, continuing the age-old practice of hunting, otherwise increasingly circumscribed. 

The young man and his trophy, being dragged towards the camp (photo: Kirsten Hastrup).


Strange animals under the midnight sunTil toppen

Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen

The strangest animal in the North Water polynya is the bewhiskered walrus. Is it an ugly, unkind beast or is it a beauty equipped with two magnificent teeth; the tusks?
For us (one biologist, five local hunters, and two anthropologists) who, in a small skiff, are approaching the red-brownish pile on the ice floe, it is hard to tell what is front and what is back of this smelly bundle of animals.
Space seems unlimited; they could each have their own ice floe, but they are tactile creatures. The tusks are magnificent contrivances used during feeding, but if one tries to rearrange the blubbery heap, the tusks are used to strike and order is re-established, leaving a bloody wound on the victim. The reaction of the walruses when we push a small satellite transmitter with a steel harpoon under the skin is modest, if noticed at all by the large mammals.
The transmitters reveal where the walruses roam during summer after they abandon the eastern part of the North Water. An early season with open water in 2015 provided a unique opportunity for tagging in an area not studied before. We met the walruses both on ice and in water, and surely when in the water the walrus is a beauty with a sly secret smile, and now we are learning where they spend their summer.

Walruses hauled out on ice floes in Wolstenholme Fjord (Uummannap Kangerlua). We approach them gently when deploying satellite transmitters (photo: Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen).

A satellite transmitter is deployed on one walrus that apparently is undisturbed by the activity while the neighbor is watching the event (photo: Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen).

Food intersects the annual cycle with the social calendarTil toppen

Janne Flora

A hunter places his neat stitches to wholly close the ungerlaaq. He hopes it will be ready to eat in time for his mother’s birthday (photo: Janne Flora).

Walrus is an important resource in the NOW area. In late June two anthropologists joined a team of two hunters from Qaanaaq on a walrus hunt to Etah and Anoritooq. They caught one walrus, which they shared between them in accordance with local unwritten laws. As walrus is recognised as the best dog feed, most of the meat was intended for their dogs. Their strength and well-being is decisive. But walrus meat is also for human consumption in ways that supersede economic and physiological needs. It is a delicacy:  the stomach contents, mussels, were sampled during the flensing; the heart cooked shortly before bedtime in the early morning after a night of hard work; and the fresh blubber, exquisite with the dried fish and meat we had brought along on the trip. While waiting for the sea ice to break and expose open water, each of the hunters made an ungerlaaq: walrus meat and offal, stitched into a closed parcel, and buried under a heap of rocks for some months to ferment. Traditionally, ungerlaaq was one of several ways people preserved foods for the months of winter where hunting was difficult. Today ungerlaaq is enjoyed only at times of celebration.

The ungerlaaq is entirely covered by rocks on a sunny hillside. Placing the ungerlaaq in a sunny and warm area encourages its taste and fragrance to be particularly delicious (photo: Janne Flora).

‘Piniariarneq’. Research methodology across knowledge boundariesTil toppen

Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen

Qaanaaq. Hunter hands over and goes through data collected with a handheld GPS on hunting trips in June to Janne Flora. His wife and son are joining (Photo: Astrid O. Andersen).

During the fieldwork of 2015, anthropologists of the NOW-project introduced a special-designed GPS software, ‘Piniariarneq’ (hunting trip), which hunters in the North Water area can take along when hunting. With ‘Piniariarneq’ hunters register their travelling routes, sites of catch, animals observed and caught, and they can take photos and make videos of the aspects of hunting they find important and relevant to show. For anthropologists ‘Piniariarneq’ is a new methodological tool that helps point out different resource spaces in the area, and that shows social and cultural aspects of hunting. The GPS software was developed by NOW-researchers from different academic disciplines. In May 2015, it was introduced to the hunters’ association in Qaanaaq, KNAPP, and hunters agreed to gather data during a full year. It is the hope of both researchers and hunters that the data can document where different animals are and in what quantities, and that the data will bring about new knowledge on animal-human relations. In this way, ‘Piniariarneq’ has become a collaborative instrument that creates room for conversation and collective thinking among researchers and hunters in the North Water area.

Flensing of narwhal in late June. During summertime, when children are out of school and the sea is open forsailing, hunting becomes a family activity (photo: Hunter with ‘Piniariarneq’).

Searching for animal remains in old Thule middens Til toppen

Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen writes about the archaeologist / archaeozoologist team: Martin Appelt, Jens Fog Jensen, Asta Mønsted, Mikkel Myrup, Bjarne Grønnow, and Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen.

Bones from game animals left on the soil surface also provide important information. Here the brain case of a bowhead which was sampled for future radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis.

The purpose of our 2015  fieldwork was to gather information on how the Thule people used the living resources of the North Water. Finding good preservation conditions for organic material is of utmost importance for the archaeozoologist when analysing animal remains to reconstruct past environments. Therefore, we began our fieldwork by grabbing our spades to dig a large number of test holes in front of Thule Culture turf houses, in search for animal bones. Many test holes were devoid of bones due to sandy soils and thin vegetation cover. Luckily, in front of a men’s gathering house a so-called Qassi, we found deposits with numerous animal bones, thousands of small splinters from tool production as well as broken and half-finished tools. The research team undertook archaeological surveys, recorded the archaeological features and excavated 36 m2 in front of the Qassi at the site of Nuulliit where we stayed during three weeks. The architecture of the turf houses and the tool inventory from the excavated deposits tell us that we found some of the early Thule settlers coming from Alaska, arriving to the region during the 12th century. The animal bones were shipped to Denmark for further analyses.

The thick turf mats are removed by the archaeologists Bjarne Grønnow and Jens Fog Jensen. Beneath the turf are the permanently frozen sediments providing excellent preservation conditions for organic materials (photo: Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen).

The deposits yielded a rich layer of well-preserved baleen from bowhead whale. All products such as meat, blubber, bone and baleen of the bow heads were used by the Thule Inuit (photo: Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen).


On the track of the little aukTil toppen

Kasper L. Johansen writes about the seabird team: Anders Mosbech and Kasper L. Johansen

Little auks swarming above the breeding colony (photo: Kasper L. Johansen).

The little auk is a key species in the North Water Polynya, along the shores of which it breeds in millions. It forms an almost inexhaustible resource to humans during summer, when it can be harvested at the breeding colonies. In an ecosystem sense, the little auk constitutes a main vector for the transportation of nutrients from the marine to the terrestrial environment, and in an otherwise quite barren landscape, the little auk colonies stand out as areas of green – resource spaces for terrestrial game like geese, hare, fox and musk ox…  and ultimately humans. Being highly dependent on the large lipid-rich copepods of the North Water to raise their chicks, the status of the little auk breeding population (in past and present) is a great indicator of the state of the North Water Polynya. 

This summer, we joined the lake and peat coring team at Annikitsoq. Here we managed to deploy GPS transmitters on nine little auks and tracked their movements between the breeding colony and at-sea foraging areas. From all tracked birds, we collected samples of the food they brought in for the chicks. We monitored the diurnal rhythm of the colony and collected data on the fertilization of the landscape through bird droppings. At the same time the navy vessel Ejnar Mikkelsen sailed transects through the main at-sea foraging area, and a biological team on-board managed to obtain data on physical oceanography and densities of zooplankton and seabirds from the ship.

Little auk with GPS-transmitter mounted on its back (photo: Kasper L. Johansen).

All these efforts serve to deepen the understanding of the coupling between the little auk and the North Water, and will form a guide for interpreting the history of the colony revealed through the lake and peat cores collected at the same site.

Looking down at the landscape from the breeding colony. Notice the string of plastic sheets that were used to measure the amount of bird droppings (photo: Kasper L. Johansen).

The Great Lake – Annikitsoq: a great place for us Til toppen

Thomas A. Davidson writes about the lake and peat coring team – Thomas A. Davidson, Frank Landkildehus, Ivan Gonazalez Beronzoni, and Sebastian Wetterich.

Overview of the Great Lake, polygonal peat development and the proximity to the sea.

During the 2015 field campaign the main aim of our group was to take samples that could give us a long-term (over the Holocene period, so 8,000-10,000 years) perspective on the landscape around the North Water. These landscapes are shaped by their connection to the marine ecosystem, which is largely dependent on sea-birds, which are in turn dependent on the North Water. To get this longer-term perspective we use the archives provided by cores of both lake sediments and peat and permafrost deposits. Lakes are not common in the landscape around the North Water, so finding a good site is not so easy. However, from maps, satellite images and from our exploratory trip in 2014 we had identified a very promising site we named “The Great Lake” as it had large sea-bird colony, a large lake and substantial peat deposits. Annikitsoq, the lake’s real name, did indeed prove to be a great site, as we managed to core both the lake and the peat deposits. The lake core appears to cover the entire period of sea-bird presence going back a time before the sea-birds were numerous at this location. The peat core was very long, at 3 metres from the surface, and provides another record of long-term change in the catchment. Taking these samples is the first step on a long road of analysis so now we wait for the samples to return to Denmark and the hard work to begin.

Left: Returning the shore with a sediment core. Right: the peat coring team (Borebisser).

A section of ice rich permafrost core from the Great Lake catchment.

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