Bowdoin Archaeologist Headed to Greenland to Investigate Ancient Arctic Mystery

Etah archaeology.003

The site of Etah is located on the grassy triangular patch to side of the river.

Etah, on the northwest coast of Greenland, has for at least 1,000 years been a favorite destination for walrus and dovekie hunters. These days it holds more allure for archaeologists. 

Underneath the green grass and sedge that blanket the triangle-shaped site, which is tucked into the side of a fjord and protected by high stony cliffs, could lie important clues about what happened to this land’s early inhabitants.

More than three thousand years before the Thule (ancestors of today’s Inughuit) arrived on Greenland around 1200 or 1300 AD, the region was occupied by the Dorset. But around the time the Thule appeared, the Dorset disappeared. It is unknown why they vanished, or whether there was ever any contact between the two groups.

Archaeologist Genevieve LeMoine, who is the curator of Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, has received a National Science Foundation grant to travel to Greenland this summer to excavate Etah with students and her two colleagues—John Darwent, of UC Davis, and Hans Lange, of the Greenland National Museum. Bowdoin junior Lara Bluhm, who wants to pursue a career in archaeology, will be part of the team.

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Genny LeMoine and Lara Bluhm ’17

Etah—which is also referred to as Iita—is of particular interest to LeMoine because in earlier digs her team has found traces of both Thule and Dorset people—possibly from the same period. “One of the holy grails of archaeology is to find out if the Dorset and Thule people were in contact, and that is a very difficult thing to prove,” LeMoine said. “But this site seems to be one of the kinds of sites that would be able to do that, perhaps, if it in fact happened.”

The reason Etah could provide the answer to this enduring question is that it, unlike most high-Arctic sites, has stratigraphic layers of soil containing remains of short-term occupations. Archaeologists rely on this kind of chronological build-up of soil to date their findings. But soil doesn’t accumulate in Greenland because of its scarcity of plant life. Thus Dorset sites, when they are discovered, are typically found on the surface, where they are likely to have been disturbed and their remains jumbled up with the leftovers of other human activity. Etah, however, is unique because the different occupation layers are separated by layers of soil caused by the slumping off of material from the cliffs above the site.

The NSF grant comes at a critical moment because Etah’s archaeological remains are in danger of being eroded away by a turbulent sea. “With less and less ice, and more stormy weather in the fall when there isn’t any ice, the bank has been eroding,” LeMoine explained. Since 2006, substantial areas of the shoreline have washed away.

map of etah

Once they arrive at Etah around June 23, LeMoine and her team will stay in tents on the site. They have already arranged to have food flown in to sustain them through the six weeks they’ll be working. To reach Etah, they must fly from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Thule Air Base in Greenland, and then take a helicopter the remaining miles. Being so far north, they will have constant daylight, and the temperatures will hover between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. “The sun is already up all the time now,” LeMoine said, “and doesn’t set there until mid-August.”

On a map of Greenland that hangs in LeMoine’s office, the name Etah has parentheses below it reading “abandoned.” But for at least 1,000 years, and continuing until fairly recently, the site has drawn hunters that have left behind remains such as broken tools (some made from an iron meteorite that crashed into Greenland 1000s of years ago), whale baleen (used for nets, shoes and toys), and the stone walls of semi-subterranean homes. The Dorset and Thule both used the site has a base for hunting walrus and other sea mammals. In addition, a huge colony of dovekies nest on the cliffs at the head of the fjord. Both the Dorset and the Thule traveled to Etah in the summer to hunt these birds. While the groups never settled at Etah permanently, they stayed for prolonged periods throughout the year over many generations.

If the investigation in Etah this summer is fruitful, LeMoine said she will apply for more funding for future digs.

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