An Archaeological Site on the North Coast of Ellesmere Island

  • G. Hattersley-Smith
Keywords: Long-tailed Jaegers


In July 1965, at the end of a long walk westward from Alert, I marked down an Eskimo site on the south side of the well-developed delta terrace at the mouth of the Wood River, 82°30' N, 63°07' W. In setting and lay-out it resembled sites of the Independence I and II cultures that we found at Tanquary Fiord in 1963 .... It was not until August 1972 that I was able to revisit the delta of the Wood River.... The Eskimo site is 11.5 m above sea level ... and lies 3 m from the edge of the delta terrace and about 60 m from the sea. The level terrace, composed mainly of shingle and gravel with scattered flat rocks and small boulders, ends above the foreshore in a steep bank, the material of which is more or less at angle of rest and lightly vegetated. The distinctive feature of the site is the central hearth, which measures 260 cm in length by 69 cm in breadth. It is oriented at right angles to the shore so that the entrance of the tent ring faces the sea, and it is formed in the usual way of flat slabs (in this case 3 in number) of fissile rock set on edge in the ground. Outside the central hearth only 4 rocks define the tent ring .... About 6 m to the north of this main structure there is a rough circle (1.5 m in diameter) of small boulders, and a similar feature 35 m to the south; the latter comprises 6 boulders with maximum dimensions of 35 cm set on the arc of a rough circle about 2 m in diameter. The site is protected to the south by a cliff in bedrock to a height of about 100 m. In the middle of the central hearth, with minimum disturbance of the floor, we made a small collection of charcoal and charred bones for radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon analysis of the charcoal ... has yielded an age of 1070 ±270 yr BP .... The discovery of the Wood River site raises the question of how many others remain to be discovered on the north coast of Ellesmere Island. Very little is to be seen at the surface, and it is likely that similar sites in the Alert area to the east have escaped notice, although by now they may have been destroyed by the passage of vehicles. On the long coast of northern Ellesmere Island no other archaeological sites have been found but then few people have had the interest and opportunity at the right time of year to look for them. ... Two further comments are offered with diffidence, since I am not an archaeologist. First, the radiocarbon age of the charcoal, if it can be accepted as a maximum age for occupation of the site, belies what appeared to be a distinctive feature of the Independence culture, namely the central hearth. Can it be that this was a feature that persisted to the end of the Dorset period in certain areas? Secondly, on the question of the movement north of these Eskimos, they may all have crossed the plateau southwest of the Grant Ice Cap from the Lake Hazen area and then followed the valley of the Wood River to its mouth, thus by-passing the Robeson Channel coast. From excavations in 1958, Dr. M. S. Maxwell concluded that hunters from the south visited the Lake Hazen area during the period from about A.D. 1000 to 1450. However, sites of both Independence and Thule cultures have since been found at the head of Tanquary Fiord .... Thus, although Maxwell found no evidence that Eskimos had made the passage from Tanquary Fiord to Lake Hazen, it now seems certain that immigration came from that direction at some time, thus completely by-passing the Smith Sound route.