Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday Archaeology Blogging
Actually appearing on a Friday, this time!

Dorset bone disc

So, I though maybe I'd look at something a wee bit closer to home this time. Inuit stories speak of a people they encountered when they first began to spread across the Eastern Arctic in about A.D. 1000, a people the Inuit referred to as the Tuuniit, or "giants." In all likelihood, these large but gentle and even timid people were members of what archaeologists have termed the "Dorset" culture. This culture occupied the Eastern Arctic from c. 500 B.C. until the early years of the second millennium A.D. They hunted seals on the ice, and lived in rectangular longhouses.

Remains of a Tuuniit longhouse

Some of the most striking pieces of Tuuniit material culture are the driftwood masks that have been found at Dorset sites. These are generally interpreted as having a ritualistic or shamanistic purpose (someday I'm going to do a Friday Archaeology Blogging on the tendency of archaeologists to label anything we don't immediately understand as a "ritual object", but today is not that day). Other art objects, such as the bone disc shown above, are also associated with the Tuuniit. Oddly for a culture that had perfected ways of hunting in winter despite the abnormally cold climate of that time, the Tuuniit do not seem to have knowledge of the bow, either as a projectile weapon or a means of drilling holes. This is particularly strange given that both the predecessors of the Tuuniit and the people who came after them made ample use of that tool.

Driftwood mask

In about A.D. 1000 , the temperature in the Arctic increased, and the effects of this warming eventually spelled the end of the Dorset culture. First of all, it must have played merry hell with the sea ice, with a commensurate disruption of seal hunting. Secondly, it increased the prevalence of game animals, and that brought other people into the region. The Thule culture, ancestors of the modern Inuit, arrived from Alaska, and even the Vikings got in on it, settling in Greenland and Newfoundland. It is tempting, and probably even correct, to identify the "Skraelings" encountered by early Viking settlers with the Tuuniit, as the Skraelings shared, according to some Norse legends, the qualities of size and gentleness (although it must also be pointed out that "Skraeling" may have been a generic term for all the peoples the Vikings encountered on this side of the pond). The newcomers from both directions were more technologically advanced than the Tuuniit, particularly in the area of boats, and by about A.D. 1500, the Tuuniit were gone, essentially squeezed out of their original territory, although there is some speculation that isolated communities of them survived until the early 20th century.

Anyway, a fairly basic and general Friday Archaeology Blogging this week, and I'll confess that part of the reason I wanted to blog about the Dorset/Tuuniit people was as an excuse to put up that gorgeous picture of the driftwood mask. Back to Romans next week, but in the meantime, I'll leave you with a shot of the sort of terrain in which the Tuuniit lived and prospered for 1500 years.

Bylot Island, where the mask shown above was found


Scout said...

very cool! i'd never heard of these people before. the mask is awesome! as for ritualitstic purposes, ya, it's a generic for 'wtf?'

Bazz said...

The whole "ritual object" thing has reached the stage of "running joke" on the dig I work on in the summers. If you find anything even vaguely mysterious (including interestingly-shaped clods of dirt), somebody will pop up and declare it, tongue-in-cheek, to have a ritual purpose. It keeps us amused, I suppose!

Anyway, back to staring in awe at that picture of Bylot Island, and wondering how anybody could survive there year-round.