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Uncovering history
Ikaahuk Archaeology Project prepares for next year

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 19, 2013

An archeological research project near Sachs Harbour aims to tell the human history of Banks Island, says the project's lead researcher.

NNSL photo/graphic

Researcher Letitia Pokiak uses a total station instrument to map the distribution of archeological features at Inuinnait (Copper Inuit) site on Banks Island this summer. - photo courtesy of Trevor Lucas

Lisa Hodgetts said the Ikaahuk Archaeology Project is looking at everything from population trends of muskox and caribou, to how and where people built their homes.

"The first archaeological evidence for occupation on the island goes back about 3,500 years," Hodgetts said. "We're interested in how people's use of the land has changed through that time."

Hodgetts, an associate professor at Western University's Anthropology department, said the project is also documenting Inuvialuit knowledge of the area and using it to help focus research. She was joined by the university's Laura Kelvin and Colleen Haukaas, as well as Letitia Pokiak of Tuktoyaktuk.

This summer, Hodgetts and the small team of researchers travelled to Sachs Harbour to interview elders and perform surface investigations on four sites in the area.

"We're hoping to turn it into a community-based project so the people of Sachs Harbour have as much input as possible into what we end up looking at and what that ends up looking like in terms of final product," Hodgetts said.

The group looked at both Inuinnait (Copper Inuit) and Thule sites. The Thule are the ancestors of modern Inuit and Inuvialuit, Hodgetts said.

The team has already made some interesting discoveries, she added.

The first was found near Agvik, a group of sod houses about 25 kilometres east of Sachs Harbour. While the site was already known, Hodgetts said there were additional structures located inland that she believes are more sod houses. These houses were located near lakes rather than on the coast.

"That surprised me," she said. "Previous archeologists who worked on the Agvik site just talked about them as features. They didn't actually come out and say these are houses. I think it's pretty clear that they are."

Their location suggests people visited the site at different times of the year and for different purposes, such as fishing.

At an Inuinnait site further east along the coast, the team found sik sik (ground squirrel) bones. Because sik sik don't live on Banks Island, the presence of bones suggests people transported the animals to the site from the mainland for food, Hodgetts said.

The site also contained polar bear bones, including an entire polar bear skull that was found in a nearby cache.

"I find it mind boggling these people were out there hunting polar bears with nothing but spears and their bare hands," Hodgetts said. "That really struck me as impressive as well."

The team also explored two other Thule sites, including one near Cape Kellett, which is possibly the oldest Thule site in the Arctic, Hodgetts said.

By studying animal bones, the team is also working on determining the rise and decline of muskox and caribou in the area. Hodgetts said that in some years, caribou populations are large while muskox populations are low then the trend seems to reverse.

"We know from modern biological data, and also some accounts of Inuvialuit elders, that the muskox and caribou populations on the island have gone through these big ups and downs in recent years," she said. "We're interested in how those dynamics have played out in the past."

In addition to research, the team also used their field work to test how certain instruments used in southern archeological projects worked in the Arctic, Hodgetts said.

Geophysical instruments, including a magnetic susceptibility meter, were used to gather information about the sites without doing excavation work.

The instrument finds variances in magnetism in the ground, which can be detected in areas where campfires or garbage dumps were once located.

"They measure really tiny differences in magnetism, kind of like a super-sensitive metal detector," Hodgetts said. "They find not just metal, but anywhere that people have done something that might influence the magnetism of the soil."

Pokiak learned how to use the equipment, including a total station instrument, which is used to calculate distance and angles. The information is being used to make 3-D maps and models of sites and artifacts.

In an e-mail to News/North, Pokiak stated some of the most interesting finds this summer were shards of pottery found near one of the Thule sites.

"This Thule site was like a tiny village, and it would be so neat to go back and do an excavation to see if we can find more cool remnants of the past, adding to history of Banks Island," she stated.

Now that this summer's field work is finished, Hodgetts said the team is preparing for next year.

She hopes to meet with elders and residents before next season to get direction from the community.

Hodgetts also hopes to travel to Sachs Harbour this fall and visit Inualthuyak School to share the team's findings with students.

She also said the group might apply to the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation to secure funding for summer student researchers.

"It would be great to have some people from Sachs Harbour and to give them the training and skills so they might think about pursuing archeology down the road," she said.

In the meantime, Pokiak said she is happy about what the team learned this summer.

"I think the research from this field season can add to what the Inuvialuit people already know about the history of Banks Island," she said. "It would be a great to have a more thorough understanding of how the Thule people survived in the Arctic before contact."

The team has a Facebook page where residents can ask questions and look at photographs of this year's research.

The federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funds the project, Hodgetts said.

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