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QkHn-12, a Thule Site on Devon Island

These pages describes a small archaeological excavation undertaken in the Canadian High Arctic during the summer of 1986. Each summer from 1979 to 1986 a non-profit organization called the Northern Heritage Society conducted an archaeological field school in the Canadian Arctic. The field school provided training in archaeological techniques and instruction about Arctic prehistory for young students from Northern communities. The 1986 field season was to have been the first year of a three year research project under my direction but unfortunately a number of circumstances (including funding difficulties) prevented us returning in 1987 or 1988. Nevertheless, the results of that one summer's excavations provide a good example of archaeological fieldwork in the High Arctic.

Background to the research

This excavation was undertaken with two main research goals. One was related to the development of the Thule culture in the part of the High Arctic islands north of Lancaster Sound but south of the region occupied in Historic times by the Polar Inuit of Greenland, and the eventual abandonment of much of that area by the Thule. Most of the sites that had been excavated in this large area appear to relate to quite early manifestations of Thule culture—what Robert McGhee (1984:89-92) refered to as the Ruin Island and Resolute phases. Possible exceptions are the Deblicquy and Port Refuge sites. In particular, there was very little excavation excavation from the Jones Sound region: the study area. Lethbridge (1939) had reported on the excavation of several houses at nearby Cape Hardy and, while not numerous, the artifacts suggest an occupation later than the above-mentioned phases. In a paper on the 1960 excavations at Cape Sparbo, Lowther (1962) mentioned test excavations of Thule houses. However, he provided no description of the material found. The only other excavations from this general region (Bentham and Jenness 1941; Schledermann 1977) suggested that a significant later occupation may indeed be present. It was therefore hoped to see whether such a later occupation was present at site QkHn-12 (although this site had been chosen for the field school excavations for reasons quite unrelated to the Thule remains there). If so, then more could be learned about the development of the Thule occupation of this region and perhaps about the reasons for its eventual abandonment. If not, then this might be helpful in confirming that our present sample of excavated sites is not hugely biased by the various researchers' interest in early Thule.

A secondary goal of this project was to investigate Thule subsistence practices in this part of the Arctic. The study area presented an unusually rich and well documented terrestrial environment for this part of the High Arctic, and the ice core data from the nearby Devon Ice Cap provides a detailed climatic history for the area as well. Faunal data from the excavations would be analyzed in an attempt to determine the nature of the Thule subsistence base here, and to find out if the rich nature of the environment resulted in any specialized local adaptations. James Helmer of the University of Calgary carryied out an extensive, multi-year project studying Paleoeskimo occupations in this region so data from the Thule occupation could be compared with that from earlier occupations, and in addition would complete the culture history of the area.


The Northern Heritage Research Project's 1986 field school excavation was carried out under Government of the Northwest Territories archaeological permit #86-595, issued to the author, and with the consent of the Grise Fiord Settlement Council. Funding for the project was obtained by the Northern Heritage Society from the Arctic Institute of North America, the Science Institute of the N.W.T., the Government of the N.W.T., the Economic Development Agreement, and the Secretary of State. Logistical support in the field was provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Project of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, the Arctic Institute of North America, and the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

The archaeological staff on the project all those years ago consisted of myself, Martha Johnson and Deby English. To Martha and Deby I owe a huge debt of gratitude for making the excavation both successful and fun. I also want to thank the other N.H.S. staff on the project: Paul Parker ensured that we had nothing to worry about except the archaeology itself, which was greatly appreciated, and Claire Mailhot generously assisted with the excavation when her own work allowed.

The student participants on the project were Madeleine d'Argencourt, Sally Karetak, King Kingwatsiak, and Gilbert Nitsiza. Their interest and enthusiasm made the teaching part of the project rewarding for all concerned and their hard work allowed the completion of the rather ambitious excavation

The Study Area >>