Fieldwork 2016: Snapshots from the field

Between May and August 2016, several teams of researchers from the NOW-project travelled to the North Water area in Avanersuaq (Thule) to carry out fieldwork in different sites. Applying a variety of methods, and focusing on specific research objects, they continued their examination of aspects of the relations between living resources and human societies in the region. 

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

Wrapping up a one-year pilot study, and creating dialogue around ‘findings’ (JanneFlora & Astrid O. Andersen)

Archaeological fieldwork on a walrus hunting site on Appat (Saunders Island) (Bjarne Grønnow)

Towards a Cultural History of the North Water Walrus Population (Martin Appelt, Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen, Bjarne Grønnow & Mikkel Myrup)

Wrapping up a one-year pilot study, and creating dialogue around ‘findings’

Janne Flora and Astrid O. Andersen

In May and June 2016, Janne Flora and Astrid O. Andersen, anthropologists from the NOW Project, travelled to the North Water area to finalize the first year of a collaborative data-collection called Piniariarneq (Hunting trip). Aside from collecting the final GPS data, we had meetings with our collaborators: the occupational hunters, as well as our contact persons in Qaanaaq: a faithful and ever enthusiastic translator, and a diligent database manager / data-collector. We also held public outreach meetings in Savissivik and Qaanaaq, in which we presented the initial data results from the project, and discussed these with the inhabitants of the region. Both meetings were well attended, by a broad cross section of the population: men, women, children, young and elderly, hunters, and people with general interest. Our presentation of photographic and video material recorded by hunters, as well as a discussion of some preliminary maps and figures, spurred a rich dialogue about some of the broader changes in the landscape and challenges to the lives of a society that depends on hunting and living resources. Many participants expressed a desire for greater involvement in dialogues with scientific projects, such as this one.
The GPS project has made for a fruitful collaboration between hunters and scientists, that makes human activity on the land, sea, and sea ice visible in a new and systematised way, giving rise to a new kind of conversation between hunters, scientists, and stakeholders. The surge of geopolitical interest in the region, coupled with the changes in the landscape, the opening of the polar sea, emergent shipping routes, and the search for natural resources, the need for such dialogues become ever more pressing. It is our hope that this method for collaboration will allow hunters and the people who live in the region to bring their knowledge of resources and the world they inhabit, into such conversations.  

Dialogue after presentation of GPS project in Qaanaaq, June 2016.

Archaeological fieldwork on a walrus hunting site on Appat (Saunders Island)

Bjarne Grønnow

In july 2016, a NOW Project team – Martin Appelt, Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen, Mikkel Myrup and Bjarne Grønnow – undertook an archaeological and archaeo-zoological investigation of a site situated on the exposed western coast of the island Appat in the mouth of the Wolstenholme Fjord.
The place, Inersussat, is known from historical/ethnographical sources for its importance as a walrus hunting and bird catching site: it is situated on an isolated coastal plain (raised boulder beaches), adjacent to the feeding grounds of walrus following the ice edge of the North Water Polynya during spring, and the formation of new ice during fall. Moreover, Inersussat sits next to some of the richest bird cliffs in Greenland, where thousands of murre (Brünnich's guillemot) nest. In late Thule Culture/early historical times, Inersussat was a forerunner of the famous Uummannaq site, located 30 km to the East, on the main land. Following the establishment of the Thule Station in 1910, the population of Inersussat moved to Ummannaq to settle close to the trading post. With this move, the sites on Saunders Island were reduced to seasonal short-lived walrus hunting camps. Inersussat attracted our scientific attention because human exploitation of walrus and birds are among the key topics of the NOW Project.

Going ashore on the Inersussat site, July 29th, 2016, Appat (Saunders Island). (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow).

Working conditions on Inersussat were tough this summer. The site is exposed to waves and swells rolling in from the open sea, Baffin Bay, and this meant that we had to set up base camp at Umiivik on the opposite, somewhat protected side of the island.

One of two surviving winter house ruins on Inersussat. View towards south-west over the coastal plain and with Dalrymple Rock and Wolstenholme Island in the background. (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow, 2016).

First we noted that all of the 5 winter houses along the southern coast of the site described by the ‘Literary Greenland Expedition’ in 1903-04 had been washed away by the sea. Only remains of the back walls of these turf houses of the historical period are left, and they will be gone in a few years. We estimate that about 8 meters of the coastline have disappeared during the last century. Only few winter houses situated on terraces further away from the present beach have ‘survived’ erosion.
Next, we located a large number of tent rings, shelters, caches and graves on the plain between the coast and the scree of the steep cliff marking the edge of the main island, consisting of a 2 – 300 metre high plateau.

View over the area along the scree with graves and meat caches. The grave of the renown hunter Kale, who died in 1903 while the Literary Greenland Expedition stayed at Inersussat, lean against the big boulder in front. (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow, 2016)

On the raised beaches of the plain, traces of intensive spring and summer settlement of earlier times were seen. We located about 65 tent rings and a number of stone built shelters most of them probably from the later period of the site, i.e. within the last 100 – 200 years. Preservation and Lichen cover revealed that other shelters could be of older age. Some ‘platforms’ of small flagstones on the middle terraces could be traces of the many snow houses that were inhabited in early spring, 1903, when the expedition arrived. We recorded 70 graves with stone chambers along the foot of the scree.

The remains of the ‘Mountain Cave’ (‘Fjeldhulen’) built by the Literary Greenland Expedition (1903 – 04) as a winter house. To emphasize the ‘civilized’ status of the expedition the house was built well above the Inughuit settlement and with square living and sleeping quarters. However, the house proved ice cold and unusable and was only inhabited for a few weeks before the five expedition members moved back into the warm winter houses of the Inughuit families, first at Saunder’s Island, then, in December 1903, at the Uummannaq site on the main land. (Photo: Bjarne Grønnow, 2016)

Lots of walrus bones, in particular crania with the tusks removed either by chopping or sawing, where scattered on the site surface. We found 99 meat caches mainly located in the same area as the human graves. According to the size of the chambers and finds of bones the caches were stores for ‘packages’ of walrus meat and blubber, food for people and dogs and fuel for the blubber lamps. Together, these material ‘testimonies’ hint at Inersussat having been a very large Thule culture site at the time of original settlement. These findings resonate with historical/ethnographic sources that describe the site as a base for intensive walrus hunting.
The zoologist of the team recorded the distribution of the different anatomical parts of primarily walrus scattered at some tent rings and activity areas in order to gain information on the processing of ‘walrus products’ at the site. Furthermore, some caches for storing birds were located. In addition to traditional working methods, we surveyed the site with a fixed wing drone. This provided us with a database for making a detailed topographical site map, where the different features that were recorded by hand held GPS can be plotted. Likewise, the site and its features were documented by rotor-drone photography.
A comprehensive work with the data from the archaeological, zoo-archaeological and topographical fieldwork awaits us. The results from Inersussat will nicely supplement our earlier investigations of the comprehensive Thule culture sites in the area.

Towards a Cultural History of the North Water Walrus Population

Martin Appelt, Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen, Bjarne Grønnow & Mikkel Myrup

In late August, 2016, some 65 small whitish compact lumps of walrus bone were placed in a freezer at the Quaternary Zoology Department of The Natural History Museum of Denmark. This movement marks the end of the joint archaeological biological 2016-fieldwork, and the beginning of the coming months exciting work in laboratories and other workspaces.

Samples in the Freezer at the Quaternary Zoology Department of Natural History Museum of Denmark. (Photo: Kristian M. Gregersen).

The bone samples derive from a similar number of crania located on the soil surface at the late 19th/early 20th century Inersussat site. They form a crucial addition to the 14th century and late 20th century samples that we collected during our fieldwork at Nuulliit in 2015 and the walrus bone samples excavated on the 10th/11th century site Qeqertaaraq in the 1990s; all sites located adjacent to the North Water polynya.
Small, drilled-out, samples of the altogether more than 100 walrus bones will now become subjected to isotopic and paleo-genetic studies, the results of which will allow important insights into the dynamics of the North Water walrus population over time. We seek to identify possible “bottlenecks” and their timing in the North Water walrus population, which will form the basis for our discussions on the multi-faceted relationships between Walruses, Humans, and Climate in multi-scalar (anthropological, biological and archaeological) perspectives.

Sampling from walrus cranium at the Inersussat site situated on western part of Appat/Saunders Island 25 kilometres west of Thule Air Base/Dundas/Uummannaq. (Photo: Anne Birgitte Gotfredsen)

Important steps in the discussions have already been taken during the NOW-project 2015/2016 anthropological/biological fieldworks, highlighting the present-day walrus hunting and its social significance (Andersen et al. 2015) as well as a baseline demographic and movement studies of the North water walrus population (Heide-Jørgensen, Sinding et al. 2016; Heide-Jørgensen et al. forthcoming).