Religion in the Archaeological Record

Religion and its associated rituals is a very personal thing to most people but it is an important thing for archaeologists to understand. Religion guides people and entire cultures through numerous aspects of everyday life from how they handle death to how they relate to the natural world. While being mostly intangible, religion can be hard to recognize archaeologically. However, there are times when it is plainly obvious. The following are just a few examples of religion and its associated rituals from the archaeological record of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roman Catholic or Anglican Ornate Iron Cross This cross is made of iron and some yellow metal with traces of gold gilt work.
Roman Catholic or Anglican cross from Ferryland is made of iron and yellow metal with traces of gold gilt work

The cross shown above was found at Ferryland in the forge. It is made mostly of iron and lined with brass with traces of gold on the surface indicating that it was once gilt. There are areas of the cross that appear to be where gems may have been. The forge building was destroyed in the mid-17th century meaning the cross is from the early part of occupation at the Colony. Since its discovery the cross has been examined by several experts and they cannot say for certain if it was used in the Roman Catholic or Anglican church. This is not surprising given that the idea of religious tolerance was written into the Charter of Avalon and the later Charter of Maryland by the founder of both colonies, Lord Baltimore (Colony of Avalon & Heritage NL).

In 2014 a small (2.8 centimeters (1.1 inches) wide at the arms) copper crucifix was found at Ferryland. While the top of the crucifix is broken it depicts a simple representation of Christ on the front and the Virgin Mary and Christ Child on the back. Unlike the iron cross discussed above this artifact is clearly Catholic in origin.

Crucifix front
Crucifix front
Crucifix back
Crucifix back

Dr. Peter Pope spent several years surveying the French Shore of the Northern Peninsula for early historic French fishing sites. He found several historic graveyards and sites that contained a calvary or calvaire in French, which is a type of monumental public crucifix, sometimes encased in an open shrine. In fact they recovered so much data on religious items and sites that Melissa Burns was able to write her 2008 Master’s thesis on this data entitled Symbols of the French Presence in Newfoundland: Breton Crosses and Calvaries – 1680 to Today.

North Bay 2, EjAu-41, Area B, Feature 5, anomalous vegetation shadow of grass on heath at a local summit, a likely cross or calvaire site (Pope 2010:45).
North Bay 2, EjAu-41, Area B, Feature 5, anomalous vegetation shadow of grass on
heath at a local summit, a likely cross or calvaire site (Pope 2010:45).
(Burns 2008: 88)
Dr. Pope and his crew were able to confirm the local tradition that this cross was built by the French navy in the 1930s, replacing an earlier cross much closer to the water (Burns 2008: 88)

Religion and its associated cultural rituals tend to be harder to see in the archaeological record the further we go into the past. Fortunately, in some instances, we can draw analogies between current practices and the archaeological record. Of course there is always the standard note of caution when drawing direct analogies between current practices and the past; just because something has meaning today does not mean it had the same meaning in the past.

A good example of a ritual that has been potentially recognized in the archaeological record is the ritual of the mukushan practiced by the Innu of Quebec and Labrador. The mukushan is an important communal meal held in honor of the spirit of the caribou after a successful hunt in which the caribou long bones are split and ground up. The remaining bones have to be properly disposed. Anthony Jenkinson in Volume 13 of the PAO Review states that there are “…uniform Innu rules which dictate the procedures for treatment of caribou leg bones. They are in summary: the major long bones, (humerus, radio-ulna, tibia and femur) are subject to strict rules governing their ritual treatment and disposal. The listed long leg bones must be scraped clean of meat and underlying membranes, until they are almost whitened. The oil bearing nubs (epiphyses) from these bones are broken off crushed into a paste and boiled in water to extract oil. The bone mash fragments are drained and put into the fire” (Jenkinson 2014: 95).

Penute Pukue Jr preparing caribou long bones for mukushan, Border Beacon 2008 (Jenkinson 2014).
Penute Pukue Jr preparing caribou long bones for mukushan, Border Beacon 2008 (Jenkinson 2014).

Large long bone mash deposits, similar to those produced at recent mukushan  feasts have been found in several archaeological sites in Newfoundland and Labrador. Jenkinson has found a large deposit at the site called Unkueiu at Kamestastin Lake which was radiocarbon dated to 710 +/-30 BP. Long bone mash deposits have also been found at Winter Cove-4 and Daniel Rattle-1 in Labrador. On the Island they have been found at the Bank site in Terra Nova National Park, Deer Lake Beach, Boyd’s Cove and most recently at Birchy Island Tickle and Birchy Lake 9. All of these sites date to the late Amerindian period of the province’s past. While it is not certain the precontact occupants of those sites were ritually disposing of the bones as would happen as at mukushan feasts today, they are similar deposits.

It appears as though the Beothuk may have participated in a mukushan-like feast based on the presence of long bone mash deposits at Boyd’s Cove. As well, in 1811 Lieut. Buchan noted several Beothuk wigwams on Red Indian Lake had a collection of nearly 300 caribou long bones stored, likely in preparation for a similar feast (Howley 1915: 79). We also know the Beothuk had rituals regarding red ochre. They covered their faces and entire body, as well as their clothes, weapons, utensils and canoes, with red ochre. The ochre was considered to be a mark of tribal identity, and the first coat was applied in infancy as a sign of initiation and a major ochring ceremony was held once a year.

A new aspect of Beothuk religion and ritual was recently postulated by Kristensen & Holly in their 2013 paper entitled Birds, Burials and Sacred Cosmology of the Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland, Canada. Simply put they suggest that the pendants found at many Beothuk sites and burial sites represent parts of Arctic Terns such as their wing and tail feathers and feet. These birds and the pendants that represent them form a bird cosmology that was central to Beothuk religion. “…the bone pendant, which depicts avian anatomy, movement and skeletal motifs suggestive of a transformative state between life and death. Pendants and bird parts are associated with burials, which we suggest connects birds to a belief in soul flight. The distribution of Beothuk burial sites on small coastal islands — places strongly associated with seabirds — further link the dead to birds. We conclude that birds were spiritual messengers enlisted to bring the dead to the Beothuk ‘happy island’ afterlife” (2013: 50).Kristensen & Holly 3(Kristensen & Holly 2013) Kristensen & Holly 1(Kristensen & Holly 2013) Kristensen & Holly 2(Kristensen & Holly 2013)

How societies deal with their dead is heavily dependent upon religion and ritual. I have written previously of the L’Anse Amour burial mound that was found in the mid 1970s in the Labrador Straits and excavated by Drs. Robert McGhee and James Tuck. That single excavation allowed us to learn a tremendous amount about the Maritime Archaic Indians such as how sophisticated their Maritime adaption was and how the construction of the mound itself showed a very different society than archaeologists would expect from a hunter-gatherer group.

I also wrote recently about several European family burial plots in Conception Bay South and how these family plots were common occurrences prior to the establishment of a formal church cemetery in an area.

This is a brief survey of just a few sites that allow us to see religion in the archaeological record, an aspect of culture which is mostly intangible. As archaeologists we have to use the tangible to see the intangible.

Of course the possibility that the Beothuk practiced a mukushan-like feast, extensively used red ochre and may have practiced a form of bird cosmology are certainly not the sum total Beothuk belief related practices. In fact other archaeologists have previously postulated alternate explanations for the pendants. In April, I received a comment from another archaeologist regarding Beothuk belief related practices and the Beothuk pendants. See the italicized text below.

Kristensen and Holly’s contention that the Beothuk brought their dead to islands as departure terminals for the soul and that birds ferried their spirits from the islands does not correspond to the facts. Only two Beothuk burials out of a recorded 25 contained one or more bird skulls and only one included bird legs tied to the burial shroud. The burial with the bird legs also included three small replicas of birch  bark canoes and a Mi’kmaw shaman has explained that it is the spirit  of the miniature artifacts that accompanies the spirit of the dead  (artifacts in burials are often broken to release their spirit). If the individual in this burial was to use a canoe spirit to get to the “happy island” he is unlikely to have been taken by a bird.

The pendants have previously been interpreted as representing mammals with a central vertebrae and shoulder and hip joints (Marshall, 1996, pgs.387-391). Three-dimensional pendants in the shape of bear (?) claws with two of them prominently displaying joints would support this idea. There is evidence that the Beothuk celebrated mokashan – a meal in honour of the caribou spirit – the caribou having been their most important source of food. But other mammals were likely to be honoured as well, including the bear which played an important role in other native cultures.

Considering that it was mammals who provided most of the Beothuk’s sustenance as well as clothing and other useful materials, such as bone and sinews, it is suggested that most of the pendants were representing these animals rather than birds and their feathers, though the short 2, 3, or 4 pronged pendants which are very much in the minority may have been symbols of birds.


Burns, Mélissa
2008 Symbols of the French Presence in Newfoundland – Breton Crosses and Calvaries – 1680 to Today. MUN, MA.

Howley, James
1915  The Beothucks or Red Indians, The Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland. Cambridge University Press.

Jenkinson, Anthony & Jean-Pierre Ashini
2014  Tshikapisk Archaeological Activities at Kamestastin, Spring 2014. In PAO Review, Volume 13.

Kristensen, Todd J. & Donald H. Holly Jr.
2013  Birds, Burials and Sacred Cosmology of the Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland, Canada. Cambridge Archaeological Journal , 23 (01), pp 41 53.

Marshall, Ingeborg
1996  A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Quebec.

Pope, Peter
2008  The Archaeology of France’s Migratory Fishery on Newfoundland’s Petit Nord. In Christian Roy and Hélène Côté, eds, Rêves d’Amériques: Regard sur l’archéologie de la Nouvelle France, 38-54. Montréal:  Archéologiques, Collection hors série 2.

2010 An Archaeology of the Petit Nord – Summer 2009 Preliminary Report.  09.12.

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.

Enthusiast of a different kind – Metal detectors

As an archaeologist people who have found artifacts such as old pieces of ceramic, square nails or various stone tools while they are out on a walk or building a new fence on their property contact me on a regular basis. I think these people show us their artifacts because they are history enthusiasts. They are genuinely interested in knowing about our past. Increasingly, we are hearing about another type of enthusiast, the metal detector enthusiast. We are not sure exactly how prevalent this activity is in Newfoundland and Labrador but we are sure it is becoming more popular. I informally polled the Provincial Archaeology Offices across Canada and discovered that this activity is occurring right across the country. Using and owning a metal detector is legal, however, it becomes illegal when these tools are used to find archaeology sites and dig up artifacts.

In this Province, I get the impression that most metal detector enthusiasts are searching public areas such as parks, beaches and popular walking trails looking for things such as recently lost coins or jewellery. As an archaeologist, this type of activity makes me very nervous, but for the most part, it will not harm an archaeological site. However, there are also people who use metal detectors in places such as National Historic Sites and archaeological sites. These areas cause us the most concern with regard to archaeological resources being disturbed or destroyed.

Signal Hill, National Historic Site.
Signal Hill, National Historic Site.

If someone is using a metal detector on a National Historic Sites or an archaeological site it is more likely they are looking for archaeological artifacts. Chances are these people are collecting artifacts to add to their own personal collection or to make a profit by selling them. According to the Historic Resources Act Section 11(1), all artifacts are the property of the Crown and Section 11(2) indicates that it is illegal to sell or buy artifacts. All archaeological artifacts in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador belong to the Crown and it is illegal to look for such artifacts without an archaeological permit. If a person does discover an archaeological object he/she is obligated to report it to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation via the Provincial Archaeology Office as outlined in Section 10 (1) of the Historic Resources Act.

Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.
Iron nails found at a site that was found by a metal detector user.

Metal detector users may argue that they are not harming anything by collecting. Not surprisingly, I would argue otherwise. In reality, they could potentially be destroying an archaeology site, a part of our collective history. Every archaeology site and every single artifact tells a story. Once the site is disturbed, that story can never be told again. It goes beyond the artifact to something called context, where the artifact was found, for example, was it associated with a fireplace, stonewalls or inside a tent ring? These are things that metal detector users are not seeing when they take artifacts out of context. Each artifact and its location is part of a story. Taking artifacts out of context is essentially the same as walking into a library and ripping pages from books. Those pages out of context are just sheets of paper and what is left behind are incomplete stories.

Ripping pages from books.
Ripping pages from books.

Some people may say it’s just a handful of artifacts, how much damage can that do to an archaeology site. Any amount of disturbance and the removal of only one artifact is too much damage. Let me give you an example. The very first archaeology site I worked on was on the west coast of Newfoundland. We knew the site contained both Groswater and Dorset Palaeoeskimo tent rings. These people lived on the Island from around 2800 years ago to just under 1000 years ago. During the excavation of one of the tent rings, we found a beautiful Little Passage culture stone arrowhead. Archaeologists have recognized the people of the Little Passage culture as the direct ancestors to the Beothuk. I distinctly recall sitting around our campfire that night and talking about this little point and its implications. Up to the time of our excavations, Little Passage sites were only known from a few places on that coast. The next day we found several pieces of what we think were worked pieces of iron nails in the same tent ring as the Little Passage stone arrowhead. The pre-European contact aboriginal people of Newfoundland did not have iron; therefore, we realized that we were not in a Little Passage tent ring but a Beothuk tent ring. We ended up finding 24 pieces of iron in that tent ring. This site is one of just two Beothuk sites known to exist on this coast. If a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered or disturbed the context of that iron, we would have never known that site had a Beothuk component. One of just two Beothuk sites on that coast would have been gone. For that matter, let’s flip this scenario around. Lets say a metal detector user had found that site first and had recovered the iron; they never would have known they were in a Beothuk site. In addition, if they had brought the iron to an archaeologist asking for help to identify what they had found, the archaeologist would never have known the iron was from a Beothuk site. Context is as important as the artifact itself.

Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.
Little Passage complex or late Newfoundland Recent Indian arrowheads.

Fortunately, we have reached some people and they now understand the problems caused by using metal detectors to find and dig up metal objects beyond recently lost coins or jewellery. In some cases, this has lead to the discovery of sites in places like O’Donnells, Hant’s Harbour and Trinity. Once it was explained to the metal detector users the concerns we had with the use of metal detectors we believe that these people discontinued to look for archaeological artifacts that they could dig up. Now when they find concentrations of metal hits they let the Provincial Archaeology Office know. I also know that the staff of the Provincial Archaeology Office would be happy to sit down with anyone and discuss this issue.

What’s in a name? Part 2

Two weeks ago I brought you a post about the names used by archaeologists to identify the precontact groups in Newfoundland and Labrador. Archaeologists do not know what the people of these groups referred to themselves as. The name most Aboriginal people apply to themselves in their own language usually means something like ‘the people’ or ‘human’.

 Recognized Precontact Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland Labrador
Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI) Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI)(Earliest Settlers, First Explorers, Labrador Archaic)
Intermediate Indians (II) Intermediate Indians (II)
Palaeoeskimo (PE) Palaeoeskimo (PE)
Recent Indians (RI) Recent Indians (RI)

The table above shows the generally accepted sequence of precontact aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador’s precontact past. Two weeks ago, I tried to explain how archaeologists derived the names for the MAI, II and RI. In this post, I’ll look at where the names for the Palaeoeskimo & Thule came from.

Palaeoeskimo Early & Late

According to the definitions I provided in my post two weeks ago for Traditions, Cultures, Complexes and Phases, I see Palaeoeskimo as the Tradition. The Palaeoeskimo Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador was divided into an Early and Late period by William Fitzhugh in 1980. The people of the Early Palaeoeskimo Tradition were the first people whose culture was adapted to Arctic North America. Obviously, the Late Palaeoeskimo Tradition refers to similarly adapted peoples who came into and adapted to Arctic North America at a later period. It is not clear if the people of the Early and Late periods are directly related (ancestor-descendant relationship).

In the early 1900s, the term Palaeoeskimo was initially applied to a group of people who were thought to hunt musk-ox and were believed to be the ancestors of the present day Inuit. Today, the term refers to a technology based on very small and finely made stone tools used by groups of people that spread eastward from Alaska. Although not as widely used today, the term Arctic small tool Tradition used to be applied to these groups because of the small jewel-like quality of their stone tools.

Dorset endblade on a finger tip.

Pre-Dorset Palaeoeskimo

The earliest Culture in the Early Palaeoeskimo Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador is known as the Pre-Dorset (~4200-~3000 BP). The Pre-Dorset culture is seen on sites only in northern and central Labrador. There is a slightly earlier, but temporally and geographically overlapping, Palaeoeskimo Culture which shows up in the Eastern Arctic and Greenland referred to as Independence I but it is not clear how they are related to the Pre-Dorset and they have never been positively identified in the province.

There is not a clear beginning for the term Pre-Dorset. The Dorset Culture was the first Palaeoeskimo culture identified in the Arctic in 1925. The term Pre-Dorset came about as researchers began to identify material culture that they knew was not Dorset and was older, hence the term Pre-Dorset.

Pre-Dorset endblade from Baffin Island. (Rast)
Pre-Dorset endblade from Baffin Island. (Rast)

Groswater Palaeoeskimo

Near the end of the Pre-Dorset Culture period archaeologists recognize a new Palaeoeskimo Culture known as Groswater Palaeoeskimo. Sites with Groswater occupations exist through the whole province from northern Labrador to southern Newfoundland during the period of ~3000 BP -~1800 BP. The Groswater Culture is the terminal manifestation of the Early Palaeoeskimo Tradition in the province. According to the research done by Elaine Anton for her Master’s thesis, the Pre-Dorset and Groswater cultures were probably not related.

The term Groswater Palaeoeskimo was first applied by William Fitzhugh in 1972 to sites he found in the Groswater Bay area of Labrador. Initially, he referred to the Culture as a Phase and named it Groswater Dorset because it was not well understood and, at the time,  he thought it was a localized Dorset variant. Today the Culture is known as Groswater Palaeoeskimo and is not believed to be directly related to the Dorset Culture.

At around the same time that Fitzhugh identified the Groswater in central Labrador James Tuck was working in Saglek Bay northern Labrador He discovered the same types of stone tools as Fitzhugh. Like Fitzhugh Tuck also recognized this group as something slightly different that regular Dorset.  At the time Tuck named the culture Early Dorset but they have since been recognized as Groswater Palaeoeskimo.

Groswater Palaeoeskimo toolkit (reproduction Rast)
Groswater Palaeoeskimo toolkit (reproduction by Rast)

Dorset Palaeoeskimo

The Dorset Palaeoeskimo were the first group of Palaeoeskimo’s to be recognized archaeologically. In 1925, archaeologist Diamond Jenness named the Cape Dorset culture after a collection of artifacts he had received from Cape Dorset, Nunavut. The Dorset Culture, the only manifestation of the Late Palaeoeskimo Tradition, came to this province somewhere around 2000 years ago and remained here until about 800 years ago.

In 1939 & 1940, W. J. Wintemberg recognized the Dorset culture in collections from Newfoundland and Labrador. By the 1960s the Dorset Culture on the island was know as the Newfoundland Dorset, a name applied by Elmer Harp. The name has since been  shortened to Dorset.

Throughout the Eastern Arctic, the Dorset Culture has also been divided into Complexes or Phases with the names Early, Middle and Late being applied to variations in the Dorset Culture. All three manifestations were in Labrador while the Middle Dorset are spread across the entire province having also been found on the French islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon.

    Dorset Palaeoeskimo toolkit (reproduction Rast)
Dorset Palaeoeskimo toolkit (reproduction by Rast)


The people of the Thule Tradition are the ancestors of the Inuit living in Labrador and the Arctic. The culture is named after Thule, Greenland where the culture was first identified.

In this province, Thule sites are only known from northern Labrador with the earliest dated sites coming from around 800 years ago. There is some confusion about the Thule Culture in Labrador. Some researchers have even suggested that the Thule had contact Europeans before reaching Labrador and that technically they should be considered Inuit by the time they reach Labrador.

Thule Harpoon (reproduction by Rast)
Thule Harpoon (reproduction by Rast)

Tuck, James A. & William Fitzhugh 1986  Palaeo-Eskimo Traditions of Newfoundland-Labrador: Re-Appraisal. Palaeo-Eskimo Cultures in Newfoundland, Labrador and Ungava. Reports in Archaeology No. 1, Memorial University of Newfoundland, pp 161-167.

What’s in a name?

Archaeology is often about the classification of objects, which can be done in a variety of different ways, such as material type, size, method of manufacture and style, among others. Classification can be used to help determine such things as function, age, use and cultural affinity. In essence, archaeologists arrange pre-contact artifacts into like-groups that come to represent “cultures” for which we have no written record.

 As is the practice elsewhere, the cultures of the precontact period people in this province are classified according to a hierarchical taxonomic system. There are generally accepted definitions for each of the terms in this hierarchical taxonomic system but in this province, many of these terms are used loosely and at times interchangeably therefore the cultural classification system in this province probably requires updating. The classification system below is not meant to be definitive and is certainly open to discussion and it is just my opinion but it is how I see the classification of the precontact period in Newfoundland and Labrador.

 At the top of this system is the classification Tradition. This term denotes a set of cultural traits that appear to develop and exist over a long period and over a geographic area. In this province, Tradition could be applied to the Maritime Archaic Tradition, Palaeoeskimo Tradition and the Recent Indian Tradition. In the past under Tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have had subdivisions called Cultures, Complexes, Phases and Components. The latter three terms are not applied to as many groups any more thanks in part to Neilsen’s 2006 thesis.

 The classification system in Newfoundland and Labrador right now has a classification of Culture below Tradition. I see the term Culture in this context as being similar to Tradition but having a shorter temporal extent and specific cultural traits as seen in material culture, economic adaptations, settlement strategies and social organization that are more specific to an area (Helmer 1994). Therefore, the generally recognized Cultures in Newfoundland and Labrador are the Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Groswater cultures under the Palaeoeskimo Tradition; the Intermediate Indian culture; the early & late Labrador Recent Indian and the early & late Newfoundland Recent Indian cultures under the Recent Indian Tradition.

 We maintain the terms complex and phase for portions of cultures. Fitzhugh originally defined a complex “as a unit for which comprehensive information is lacking, but which constitutes a definite grouping based on a series of related site components for which a relatively large amount of information is known.” Originally, the early & late Newfoundland and Labrador Recent Indians were thought of as complexes but I think our understanding of that Tradition has gotten to the point where we are lacking very little information and these groups can be thought of as Cultures. Whereas I don’t think the same can be said of the Saunders complex or the Northwest River phase of the Intermediate Indian culture. Phase remains as Fitzhugh defined it “to indicate an assemblage which is chronologically and spatially distinct and can be distinguished from other phases so conceived.”

 Now, for the non-archaeologists in the crowd, we are still left with how archaeologists name those Traditions, Cultures, Complexes and Phases. Archaeologists do not know what the people of the precontact groups in Newfoundland and Labrador referred to themselves as. The name most Aboriginal people apply to themselves in their own language usually means something like ‘the people’ or ‘human’.

 Recognized Precontact Aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland Labrador
Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI) Maritime Archaic Indians (MAI)(Earliest Settlers, First Explorers, Labrador Archaic)
Intermediate Indians (II) Intermediate Indians (II)
Palaeoeskimo (PE) Palaeoeskimo (PE)
Recent Indians (RI) Recent Indians (RI)

The table above shows the generally accepted sequence of precontact aboriginal groups in Newfoundland and Labrador’s precontact past. This post will try to explain how archaeologists have derived the names for the MAI, II and RI. In two weeks, I’ll look at where the names for the Palaeoeskimo & Thule came from.

Within each of these major groupings, there are minor archaeologically recognized groups that are temporal or geographic expressions of the overall group. The table follows the broad temporal pattern of oldest on top and youngest on bottom. There is evidence in the archaeological record of different waves of people moving into the Province during these time periods; the names are used by archaeologists to denote that they had similar cultural characteristics and we therefore classify them under the overall group name.

Earliest Settlers and First Explorers

The terms Earliest Settlers, First Explorers, late Palaeo-Indian and Early Archaic have been used variously to refer to the first people in Labrador nearly 9000 years ago. The names Earliest Settlers and First Explorers come from the idea that these groups of people were the first known in the Province. The names late Palaeo-Indian and Early Archaic are based on the idea that the people of these Traditions were Palaeo-Indian descendants and ancestors to the later Archaic. As far as I understand, these groups have never really been formally named. In Labrador, sites for these First Explorers are seen near the southern Labrador community of Pinware at the sites of Pinware Hill and Cowpath. A visitor to The Rooms today will see this definition for the first groups of people referring to them as the First Explorers.

Description of the First Explorers from The Rooms exhibit.
Description of the First Explorers from The Rooms exhibit.

Maritime Archaic 

The MAI, (~7500-3000 years ago) were first described in the northeastern United States as the ‘Red Paint People’ after their burials, which used large quantities of red ochre to cover both the bodies of the dead and grave goods. The best-preserved ‘Red Paint’ cemetery was accidentally discovered in the late 1960s in Port au Choix. The excavation of this cemetery led Dr. James Tuck to define the Maritime Archaic Tradition. He used the term Maritime because he saw the Tradition as comprised of people ‘who were well acquainted with the resources of the Atlantic and how to exploit them and whose close relationship with the sea appears to be reflected throughout their culture.’

Typical MAI tools found at Port au Choix (reproductions - Rast)
Typical MAI tools found at Port au Choix (reproductions – Rast)

Intermediate Indian

Intermediate Indians are named because of their position in the province’s culture history and the archaeological record, between the preceding Maritime Archaic Tradition and the later Recent Indian Tradition. Initially, when first defined in the 1970s, six precontact groups were thought to be part of the Intermediate Indian Culture and they were thought to be limited to just Labrador. A recent Master’s thesis by Neilsen has, I think convincingly, narrowed this down to just two groups. The Saunders Complex, dating to 3500-2700 BP, and the Northwest River Phase dating to 2600-1800 BP in Northern and Central Labrador including Hamilton Inlet. Recently a few small spot finds of artifacts on the Island have led archaeologists to think that maybe the people of the Intermediate Indian Culture did make their way to Newfoundland.

The name Saunders came from a 1978 article by Christopher Nagle about the Intermediate Indian Culture in central Labrador. William Fitzhugh suggested the name to Nagle after Mr. Jim Saunders, a resident of Happy Valley, Labrador in the 1970s, for his contribution to the knowledge of this period of Labrador prehistory. The name Northwest River Phase was also proposed by William Fitzhugh because originally the first Northwest River Phase sites were found in the community of Northwest River.

Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen 2010)
Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen)

Recent Indian

Like the Intermediate Indians, the Recent Indian Tradition (Labrador Recent Indians & Newfoundland Recent Indians) is named because of it’s position in the province’s culture history and the archaeological record; after the Maritime Archaic Tradition and the later Intermediate Indian Culture. Some archaeologists would argue that all of these groups form a cultural continuum going back nearly 9000 years. But, I think most archaeologists see them as separate groups. With the data we have right now, it is not clear if the people of the MAI are related to the people of the later II or if they in turn are related to the people of the later RI.

Early Recent Indian bifaces are on top, the bottom right two bifaces are late Recent Indian. The biface on the left of the bottom right is transitional between the two.
Early Recent Indian bifaces are on top, the bottom right two bifaces are late Recent Indian. The biface on the left of the bottom right is transitional between the two.

On the Island, the Recent Indian Tradition can be sub-divided temporally into early & late Newfoundland Recent Indian Cultures, based on projectile point styles (Originally defined as Beaches Complex~1900-800 BP and Little Passage Complex ~800 BP-European Contact). These two periods form a cultural continuum from the precontact to European contact. The Beothuk are not part of the precontact Recent Indian Tradition, rather they are descendants of the people of this Tradition. The name for the Beaches Complex comes from the type-site at Beaches, Bonavista Bay. The Beaches has been known as an archaeology site since the 1800s. The name for the Little Passage Complex comes from the type-site L’Anse au Flamme at Little Passage, Hermitage Bay. L’Anse au Flamme was found and excavated by Gerald Penney in 1979-80.

The Cow Head Complex Recent Indians (ca.1900-1000 B.P.) appear on the Island around the start of the Recent Indian period. Recent research suggests they are not part of the Newfoundland Recent Indian cultural continuum. The site name comes from the community Cow Head where the artifacts of that Complex were first recognized. The type-site is known as Cow Head, Spearbank and was excavated by Dr. Jim Tuck in the mid 1970s.

Broad bladed expanding stemmed bifaces.
Broad bladed expanding stemmed bifaces.

As on the Island, the Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador is composed of an early and late Labrador Recent Indian Culture based on projectile point styles. (Originally defined as Daniel Rattle Complex ca. 2000 B.P. – 1000 B.P. and the Point Revenge Complex ca. 1000 B.P. – 350 B.P.). These precontact Cultures form a 2000 year old cultural continuum that represents the Recent Indian Tradition in Labrador. The people of these Cultures are the likely ancestors of the Innu of Labrador and Quebec. The name for the Daniel Rattle Complex comes from a site in Labrador near the former community of Davis Inlet. Stephen Loring found and excavated the site in the early 1980s. The name Daniel Rattle comes from a body of water near the site that doesn’t freeze over in the winter and is referred to as a rattle. The Point Revenge Complex name came from the type-site Winter Cove 4 which was found and excavated by William Fitzhugh in the early 1970s.

Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the left, late Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the right.
Early Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the left, late Labrador Recent Indian Ramah chert biface on the right.

In two weeks I’ll look at where the names for the Palaeoeskimo and Thule groups came from.


Fitzhugh, William 1972 Environmental Archeology and Cultural Systems in Hamilton Inlet, Labrador A survey of the Central Labrador Coast From 3000 B.C. to the Present. Smithsonian Contributions the Anthropology Number 16. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Helmer, James W. 1994 Resurrecting the Spirit(s) of Taylor’s “Carlsberg Culture”: Cultural Traditions and Cultural Horizons in Eastern Arctic Prehistory, in D. Morrison and J.-L. Pilon (eds), Threads of Arctic Prehistory: Papers in honour of William E. Taylor, Jr., Hull, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Archaeological Survey of Canada, Mercury Series, 149: 15-34.

Nagle, Christopher 1978 Indian Occupations of the Intermediate Period on the Central Labrador Coast: A Preliminary Synthesis. Arctic Anthropology, XV(2): 119-145.

 Neilsen, Scott W. 2006 Intermediate Indians: The View from Ushpitun 2 and Pmiusiku 1. M.A., MUN

Tuck, James A. n.d. Atlantic Prehistory (Draft).

1970 An Archaic Indian Cemetery in Newfoundland. Scientific American, 222(6): 112-121

At the same time: Part 2

This is the continuation of  post I started two weeks ago.

5000-4000 years ago

This millennium saw the rise of Egypt’s Old Kingdom and the start of construction of the Egyptian pyramids; they would remain the tallest and largest human constructions for thousands of years. Also in Egypt, pharaohs began to posture themselves as living gods made of an essence different from that of other human beings. This period saw the first evidence of gold being used and is considered the high point of Ur in Mesopotamia. This period saw the completion of first phase of the Stonehenge monument in England. In the Americas, the oldest known medicine wheel is constructed.

Recent research in Africa has revealed amazing 5,000-year-old skeletons lain on beds of flowers found in the Sahara showing how the desert was once green and lush.

In Newfoundland and Labrador we see the start of occupation at sites like Aillik West 1 which is a Maritime Archaic habitation site with rectangular structures, boulder pits, fox trap-like structures, and a small stone chamber with lintel doorway. Also occupied are Nukasusutok 5 and Windy Tickle 1 both large Maritime Archaic habitation sites with longhouses. We also start to see increased Archaic occupation in the Saglek Bay area.

Looking northwest over Area 1 and Area 2 at Nukasusutok Island 5. (Brake)
Nulliak Cove longhouse. The figure is standing in the longhouse outlined by the light coloured stones. (Hutchings)
Labrador coastline 4000 years ago. The longhouse is in the background. (CMC)

On the island, the Archaic occupation of the Northern Peninsula and Bonavista Bay is well underway as evidenced by sites at Big Brook, Bird Cove, Cow Head, Beaches and Cape Cove.

At the end of this period, we see an ethnically different people enter the province from the north, the early Palaeoeskimo.

4000-3000 years ago

During this millennium, we see the beginnings of Judaism, the beginning of the Iron Age, the development of the alphabet and the founding of Athens.

Recent research revealed the first temple in Peru during this period. Using a clump of hair preserved in permafrost in Greenland, geneticists identified Asia and not North America as the ancestral home to the Palaeoeskimos and their descendants.

It is during this period that the Maritime Archaic cemetery at Port au Choix is first used. The Maritime Archaic on the island are still focused on the Northern Peninsula and Bonavista Bay but they are also starting to spread farther over the island including the south coast as seen at L’Anse a Flamme.

In Labrador, this period is tumultuous in terms of culture change. A new group of early Palaeoeskimo are recognized, the Groswater. One of the more important Groswater sites is occupied during this period, the Postville Pentecostal Site. The Groswater are known for making some of the most skilfully crafted bifaces in the archaeological record. Their workmanship has a jewel-like quality.

Groswater bifaces (endblades) (Renouf)
Groswater bifaces (sideblades - these were mounted into the sides of harpoons to increase cutting area) (Renouf)

New groups of Indian people, known as the Intermediate Indians, start to move into central and southern Labrador. By the end of this period the Archaic are no longer archaeologically visible on the Island or in Labrador.

Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen PAO Review 2011)
Intermediate Indian biface from Sheshatshiu, Labrador. (Neilsen PAO Review 2010)

3000-2000 years ago

In this millennium, we see a rapid development of the cultures in Central America and South America including the rise of Teotihuacán in Mexico, spreading of the Olmec culture as La Venta replaces San Lorenzo as the Olmec capital, ball courts appear in Olmec centres and the first Mayan hieroglyphics. In North America, Northwest Coast native populations flourish and we see the start of mound building in eastern North America and the rise of Adena culture in Ohio.

Recent research indicates Native Americans first tamed Turkeys 2,000 years ago

In Europe first Olympiad is held, Rome is founded and the Roman Republic established.

In the province, this millennium sees the end of the Groswater Palaeoeskimo in Labrador and the introduction of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo to the whole province. Intermediate Indians start to flourish in Labrador.

Dorset end blades - the one on the left has been tip fluted (Rast)

2000-1000 years ago

This millennium sees the spread of both Christianity and Islam. This period also sees the construction of Hadrians Wall by the Romans, the florescence of the Norse culture and the settlement of the first Norse colony in Greenland. In the Americas, this period sees the start of construction on the Pyramid of the Sun, the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá is built, as is the Great Serpent Mound.

In this period of the province’s history the Groswater become archaeologically invisible on the island and the people who are the likely ancestors of the Beothuk and Innu, the Recent Indians, are first seen in the archaeological record. This is also the high point of the Dorset Palaeoeskimo culture in the whole province. In this period, the massive Phillips Garden Dorset Palaeoeskimo habitation site reaches its pinnacle.

Artist's conception of a Dorset house with whale ribs and poles and covered with seal skins. (Renouf)

1000-0 years ago

The first millennium sees the establishment of Cahokia and the founding of Cuzco.  During this millennium the magnetic compass is first used at sea, coffee is brewed for the first time, the Crusades occur, Norsemen abandon Greenland, the Black Plague ravages Europe, Europeans meet North Americans at L’Anse aux Meadows and a few centuries later they settle here.

This millennium in the province sees the end of the most populous of precontact cultures, the Dorset Palaeoeskimo. The millennium will also see the end of the descendants of the Recent Indians on the island, the Beothuk. However, not before their occupation of sites throughout Notre Dame Bay, along the Exploits River and the Red Indian Lake area. One of their best known sites is Boyd’s Cove, which is now a Provincial Historic Site.  Boyd’s Cove contained 11 Beothuk housepits and a Recent Indian occupation as well.

Excavation of several Beothuk housepits at Boyd's Cove.

This time period also see the introduction of the Thule in the precontact period (who we recognize today as the Inuit). We also see the arrival of the Innu and the Mi’kmaq.

Archaeological sites from this period also include the National Historic site at L’Anse aux Meadows, the only recognized Norse settlement in North America, the National Historic site at Red Bay and the first English settlement in Canada at the Provincial Historic site at Cupids.

At the same time

Most people do not realize how much human history there is in this province. Many think that the first aboriginal inhabitants were the Beothuk when in reality the first aboriginal inhabitants were here nearly 9000 years ago. With this post, I am going to try to place these 9000 years of occupation in context of world events.

The events and sites I have selected here are in no order of significance

>10000 years ago

The exact timing of the first people in North America is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that he Palaeo-Indians (Clovis and Folsum cultures) were not the first people. There are several sites in North America and South America with convincing evidence of earlier occupations such as Meadowcroft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania that is dated to 16,000 years ago.

The archaeological site at Monte Verde in southern Chile has been dated to nearly 15000 years ago. Back in North America the Paisley Caves in Oregon have human remains dated to just over 14000 years ago.

The earliest known site in the Atlantic Canadian provinces is the Palaeo-Indian site of Debert in Nova Scotia, dated to nearly 11000 years ago. It would be at least another 2000 years before we have evidence for people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Stone tools from Debert.

9000-8000 years ago

The earliest dated site in this province is Pinware Hill, that is dated to nearly 9000 years ago. The nearby site called Cowpath is a few hundred years younger. The people who occupied these sites appear to be descendants of the Palaeo-Indians, which is eventually recognized as Maritime Archaic.

Pinware Hill bifaces.

At around the same time, new research indicates that horses were domesticated 9,000 years ago in Saudi Arabia. Between 10000 and 9000 years ago in northern Iraq, the cultivation of barley and wheat begins.

8000-7000 years ago

Between 8000-7000 years ago in world history we start to see evidence of copper smelting in Europe and evidence of  the invention of the wheel and the spread of proto-writing. Recent research indicates that grapes were also domesticated around this time.

In Newfoundland and Labrador the Maritime Archaic culture has fully adapted to into a maritime oriented culture. The evidence is seen in the tools buried with the child at the L’Anse Amour Burial mound including a toggling harpoon and a hand toggle for a harpoon line. The Maritime Archaic would be the only archaeologically recognized aboriginal culture in the province until about 4000 years ago.

Artifacts from the burial mound included a toggling harpoon (centre, top) and a hand toggle (right). (McGhee 1976)
Burial mound plaque placed by the Historic Sites and Monument Board.

7000-6000 years ago

During this period, rice is domesticated in China and is later introduced to the rest of Asia and agriculture starts in ancient Japan. The plough is introduced in Europe and beer brewing is developed. Recent research suggests Ancient Peruvians snacked on popcorn 7,000 years ago.

The Maritime Archaic Indian culture has spread from the southern coast northward into central Labrador. Some of the more interesting sites from this period include the burial mound from Ballybrack 10, and the boulder pit houses and other boulder structures at Karl Oom Island 3. This period would also see the start of occupation of the large multi-component site at Nukasusutok 5. In southern Labrador, well-known early Maritime Archaic sites like Fowler, Juniper and Arrowhead Mine are occupied at this time.

Labrador boulder pit house (Archaeology in NL 1984)
Arrowhead Mine bifaces (Renouf 1974)
Juniper - lithics were found near the notebook in the centre of the photo.
The Arrowhead Mine is contained in the blow out in the centre of the photo

6000-5000 years ago

This one thousand year period sees the end of the predynastic period in Egypt, the beginning of Sumerian “proto-cuneiform” writing and the development of first cities developed in Southern Mesopotamia. The date August 11, 3114 BC is thought to be the start date of the Mayan calendar and around the same time first pottery is attempted in Colombia which is considered one of the first attempts at pottery in the New World.

Around 3300 BC—Ötzi the Iceman dies near the present-day border between Austria and Italy. His body is rediscovered in 1991 buried in a glacier of the Ötztal Alps.

Ötzi the Iceman

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Maritime Archaic culture continues to spread throughout the province. Up until this point the northern branch of the Maritime Archaic (more recently called the Labrador Archaic) seem to have had the province to themselves. At around 6000 years ago a new culture shows up in Labrador with a lithic technology that is different enough from the northern branch to warrant the new title of southern branch Maritime Archaic (more recently called the Maritime Archaic). During this time, the first Archaic group enters Newfoundland at Port au Choix first and a little later at South Brook, near Pasadena. Lithics from the South Brook site include several bifaces made from quartzite and a fully channeled gouge both of which are indicative of sites in the 6000-8000 year range in Labrador.

Fully channeled gouge from South Brook

In my next post I’ll go through the last 5000 years of the provinces history.

McGhee, Robert  1976  The Burial at L’Anse-Amour

Renouf, M.A.P.  1974 A Late Paleo-Indian and Early Archaic Sequence in Southern Labrador. MUN, MA Thesis.