Prehistory Of Saglek Bay, Labrador

Most archaeologists who have worked in Newfoundland and Labrador will quickly recognize Saglek Bay as part of the important work conducted by Dr. Jim Tuck as referenced in the National Museum Of Man Mercury Series volume entitled Prehistory Of Saglek Bay, Labrador: Archaic And Palaeo-Eskimo Occupations. Any archaeologist who has written about or researched either cultural tradition in northern Labrador would certainly have begun their research with a careful reading through this volume. I recently came across a package of beautiful black & white photos which did not make it into the Mercury Series volume that I thought would be interesting to share.

View over part of Saglek Bay (Tuck).

In 1968, Mr. H.A. Williamson of Memorial University of Newfoundland Extension Service reported the presence of archaeological sites on Rose Island in Saglek Bay Labrador. Plans were made to investigate the sites but at the time, Dr. Tuck was excavating at what would become the National Historic site at Port au Choix and couldn’t get away for a trip to northern Labrador. Travel to remote areas in the North is difficult at the best of times, and particularly challenging if you have to transport a crew with excavation gear and supplies. In 1969 for his first trip to northern Labrador, Dr. Tuck had the assistance of the Department of Provincial Affairs, and the 924th A.C. and W. Squadron of the United States Air Force to get up to Saglek.

Saglek Bay showing the sites (red dots) found during the Saglek project.

That first season Tuck and his crew camped on Rose Island, now part of the Torngat Mountains National Park, that was heavily used by the Inuit as well as the people of the earlier Palaeoeskimo and Maritime Archaic cultures. The Island contained two important Inuit habitation sites Ikkusik and Tuglavina. That summer they also found the stratified site known as site Q and the first traces in northern Labrador of a Palaeoeskimo culture later known as Groswater Palaeoeskimo.

The 10 stratigraphic bands identified at Site Q, Rose Island (Tuck).
Rose Island Site Q, Feature 2 & 3, 10 July 1970 (Tuck).

Feature 2 was an early Palaeoeskimo hearth that provided enough charcoal for a radiocarbon date. The charcoal, collected from among flakes of chert and three burins, was dated at 3830+/-115 radiocarbon years B.P. Immediately under this hearth was a Maritime Archaic stratum, dated at 3890+/-110 radiocarbon years B.P.

Rose Island Site Q, Feature 4, July 15 1970 (Tuck).

Features 4, 5, 7, 10 were hearths from an early Maritime Archaic level. They were all roughly circular to irregular features (the latter probably a result of scattering or reuse of the stones) measuring up to six or seven feet in maximum diameter. All were composed of small boulders and cobbles which were simply laid or piled upon the surface with no attempt to dig or scoop out a depression in which to kindle the fire which shattered many of the rocks. It is actually difficult to say whether the fire was built around the rocks or whether the rocks were placed in a wood fire since in many cases a dense mass of charcoal virtually enveloped the burned stone. Most likely these were features which saw repeated use, probably as roasting platforms, upon which meat of some variety was cooked. Charcoal from Feature 10, provided the earliest date from Saglek Bay 4530+/-105 radiocarbon years B.P. (Tuck 1975)

Rose Island Site Q, Feature 5, 15 July 1970 (Tuck).
Rose Island Site Q, Feature 6, 20 July 1970 (Tuck).

Feature 6 was thought to be a hearth because there were flecks of charcoal found in the layer but there was no charcoal found directly with the stones. Several of the stones however were fire cracked.

Rose Island Site Q, Feature 7, 25 July 1970 (Tuck).
Rose Island Site Q, Feature 10, 7 August 1970 (Tuck).
Rose Island Site Q, Feature 13 (Hearth from the 3830 years B.P. layer), 14 August 1970 (Tuck).

In 1970-71, the project started to branch out into various areas of Saglek Bay including Upernavik Island, Glitch Island, Big Island and Ugjoktok Fjord. In total, the project located more than 30 sites.

Upernavik Island Site F. Locus 2. 29 July 1970. (Tuck)

Upernavik Island Site F contained 3 loci; the first contained looted Thule-Inuit graves, with a scattering of Dorset artifacts on the terrace. Locus 2 contained a typical Dorset assemblage and two houses. One is rectangular, and the other an unusual “heart-shaped” structure. Locus 3 contained primarily Pre-Dorset specimens and a possible small round structure measuring about 3m in diameter. The Pre-Dorset produced a single black chert true burin.

Running from 1969 to 1971, this was a very significant project. As mentioned above it was the first time Groswater Palaeoeskimo culture was recognized in northern Labrador, at the time the project produced the oldest dated Maritime Archaic site in northern Labrador and it was the first full scale archaeological survey and excavation in northern Labrador. The cultural timeline that came out of the project formed the basis for the cultural sequence for northern Labrador for years after the project.

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