Torngat Archaeological Project

Last week I had the chance to see four graduate student thesis proposals at the Archaeology Unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland. They were great proposals and included one that will investigate several Inuit sites in northern Labrador, including sites found during the Torngat Archaeological Project (PDF).

The Torngat Archaeological Project (TAP) is the largest archaeological survey ever conducted in Labrador in terms of distance covered and number of sites found, ~450 km of coastline and just under 350 sites. The survey was conducted by Dr. William Fitzhugh of the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with Bryn Mawr College in 1977 & 1978 and stretched from around Nain to the Button Islands. Prior to the TAP there were about 130 known sites in the same area. The project was to investigate the culture history of the area as well as the environmental relationships and processes of culture change which have affected Inuit, Indian, and European settlement (Fitzhugh 1980).

Torngat Archaeological Project
Torngat Archaeological Project – yellow dots are archaeological sites

The 1977 season focused on survey work while the 1978 season focused on full scale excavation. Despite being brief, just 33 days, the 1977 survey resulted in the discovery of 250 sites located, mapped, and tested. The plans for 1978 were to establish four person field crews at Nachvak, Seven Islands Bay, Home Island, and Killinek. However, logistic and equipment problems resulted in the crews spending several weeks in Seven Islands Bay. Despite all the issues the project resulted in 16000 cataloged artifacts, a large volume of faunal elements, written and photographic documentation on sites ranging in time from early Maritime Archaic ~6000 years ago to the present day (Fitzhugh 1980).

At the ~350 sites there are:
150 Inuit occupations
143 Dorset Palaeoeskimo occupations
65 Maritime (Labrador) Archaic occupations
50 Pre-Dorset Palaeoeskimo occupations
26 Thule occupations
14 Groswater Palaeoeskimo occupations
9 Intermediate Indian occupations
5 Recent Indian occupations

Some of the more significant sites found include:

Avayalik Island 1 (PDF): This is a major Dorset (early, middle and late) site with habitation structures and frozen middens that have excellent organic preservation. In fact the organic preservation is so good that a piece of muskox wool cordage found on the site is thought to show evidence of Dorset-Norse interaction.

Aerial view of Avayalik 1 (Sutherland)
Aerial view of Avayalik 1 (Sutherland)

Ballybrack 11: A Maritime Archaic site dated to 7770 BP with evidence of a longhouse, hearths, red ochre stains and scatters of lithic debitage.

Harp Isthmus 1: This site has Pre-Dorset structures and a possible Maritime Archaic longhouse. It also has two 19th or early 20th century Inuit sod houses.

Hebron 1: This site has evidence of Maritime Archaic, Palaeoeskimo and Inuit occupations. It is also the site of a Moravian Mission.

Moravian Mission at Hebron (Brake)
Moravian Mission at Hebron (Brake)

Hilda Creek 1: This is one of several sites in the Ramah Bay area that relates to the use of the Ramah Bay quartzite quarries. This particular site has Maritime Archaic and Palaeoeskimo components.

Johannes Point 1: This is a large Inuit-Thule site that has at least 14 sod houses, storage houses, middens, tent rings and graves.

Nachvak Village: This is another large Palaeoeskimo and Inuit-Thule site that contains between 15 and 17 sod houses, middens, caches and burials.

Nachvak Village. Getting set up for excavations at Nachvak Village (IgCx-3) (Whitridge)
Nachvak Village. Getting set up for excavations at Nachvak Village (IgCx-3) (Whitridge)

Nulliak Cove 1: This is probably one of the largest known sites in northern Labrador. It contains Maritime Archaic, Palaeoeskimo, Recent Indian and Inuit-Thule evidence. It has up to 27 Maritime Archaic longhouses, a caribou drive fence, caches, cairns, burial mounds and Inuit (potentially Thule) houses.

Ramah Bay Mission: This is another large site with evidence for Palaeoeskimo and Inuit occupations as well as a Moravian mission.

 Moravian Station at Ramah, ca. 1900
Moravian Station at Ramah, ca. 1900

Shuldham Island: This island is home to numerous sites but perhaps the most significant was Shuldham Island 9. The site has evidence for Maritime Archaic, Palaeoeskimo, Recent Indian and Thule use. It has up to eight sod houses, seven tent rings, 12 caches, a possible burial and midden. Perhaps it is best known for the tiny soapstone figurines carved by the late Dorset occupants of the island. There are carvings of Polar Bears, human beings, seashells, birds and a possible seal or walrus. While the site was found as part of the TAP, the figurines were found during the excavation of Shuldham Island 9 by Callum Thomson in the early 1980s.

Shuldham Island 9 soapstone polar bear
Shuldham Island 9 soapstone polar bear
Shuldham Island 9 soapstone person (Rast)
Shuldham Island 9 soapstone person (Rast)

These are just s select few of the nearly 350 sites recorded during the Tornagat Archaeological Project. The sites found during this project have led to several PhD & MA thesis and numerous publications. The amount of knowledge gained from this project is almost immeasurable.


FITZHUGH, William 1980 Preliminary Report on the Torngat Archaeological Project. Arctic, 33(3): 585-606.

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