Baffin Island / Nanook (Canada): building established by the Norse (Vikings) around 1300 or possibly earlier

Ottawa researcher’s firing derails Viking project

Don Butler

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 7591296.jpgDr. Pat Sutherland working at an archeological site on Baffin Island known as Nanook. She believes the excavation was a building established by the Norse (aka Vikings) around 1300 or possibly earlier so they could trade for furs, narwhal tusks and walrus ivory prized by nobility in Europe. The story of Sutherland’s research will be told on the CBC show The Nature of Things on Thursday, Nov. 22.  Photograph by: Handout photo , 90th Parallel Productions

This should be the best of times for Pat Sutherland. November’s issue of National Geographic magazine and a documentary airing Thursday night on CBC’s The Nature of Things both highlight research the Ottawa archeologist has been doing in the Canadian Arctic for the past dozen years that could fundamentally alter our understanding of our early history.

If Sutherland is right, Norse seafarers — popularly known as Vikings — built an outpost on Baffin Island, now called Nanook, centuries before Columbus blundered on to North America. Moreover, there’s evidence they traded with the Dorset, the Arctic’s ancient, now-vanished inhabitants, for as many as 400 years.

”That’s incredible,” says Andrew Gregg, who wrote, directed and produced The Norse: An Arctic Mystery, the CBC documentary that recounts Sutherland’s findings. “That rewrites all the history books.”


Photograph by: Handout photo, 90th Parallel Productions

But Sutherland’s pleasure at the recognition her discoveries are receiving has been sharply tempered by a harsh reality. Last April, even as the documentary about her work was being filmed, the 63-year-old, then curator of Arctic archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, was abruptly dismissed from her job.

At the same time, museum officials also stripped her husband, Robert McGhee — himself a legendary Arctic archeologist described as “one of the most eminent scholars that Canada has produced” — of the emeritus status it had granted him after his retirement from the Gatineau museum in 2008.

No one involved will say why the museum severed its relationships with Sutherland and McGhee. When asked, Sutherland responds hesitantly, choosing her words with care. “I can’t really talk about my dismissal,” she says.

Her union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, is treating her firing as a wrongful dismissal, but won’t comment because the case is before an arbitrator.

Museum officials also decline to offer an explanation, though Chantal Schryer, the museum’s vice-president of public affairs, says the reasons are well known by Sutherland and her husband.

“They both know exactly why Dr. McGhee lost his emeritus status,” Schryer says. “And she knows why she is no longer an employee of the museum.”

Two sources told the Citizen that the rupture followed a year-long external investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment. But they are unwilling to speak on the record, and neither Sutherland, her union nor the museum discuss the matter.

Gregg suggests Sutherland’s dismissal may be linked to the museum’s impending transformation into the Canadian Museum of History. “It’s a complete shift in ideology,” he says. “The narrative that’s coming out through this government and our institutions has no room for a new story about the Norse.”

However, Schryer flatly denies that. The departure of Sutherland and McGhee “has absolutely nothing to do with the change of name and change of mandate,” she declares.

Sutherland — the only female archeologist the museum has ever employed — won’t comment on that. But, she points out, “people have expressed concern that the announced changes are going to lead to a neglect of archeology and ethnology, and my work comes under that heading.”

Schryer says the museum “remains interested in archeology, including in the Arctic.” However, it’s clear the museum is committing fewer resources to that area than it has in the past.

Since Sutherland’s departure, it no longer has a curator of Arctic archeology and none of its eight archeologists is devoted exclusively to Arctic research, though museum officials say one is working on a project related to the Arctic. A few years ago, the museum had five Arctic archeologists on staff.

The whole episode has been traumatic for Sutherland, who had been associated with the museum for 28 years and was hired 12 years ago to run the Helluland archeology project. (Helluland was the Norse name for Baffin Island and adjacent part of the Eastern Arctic.)

“It’s had a profound effect,” she says. “This work was important to me, and I thought it was important to look at a new aspect of early Canadian history.”

Until now, the only confirmed Viking settlement in North America was at L’Anse aux Meadows, established around the year 1000 at the northern tip of Newfoundland, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But archeological evidence suggests the Norse only stayed for a decade or so, and there’s no sign that they traded with the natives. There’s not even any archeological evidence that the Norse at L’Anse aux Meadows had contact with the aboriginal population, though Norse sagas — oral histories written down two or three centuries after the events — tell of the settlers being driven away by fierce and unwelcoming natives.

Current evidence suggests the Nanook site on southern Baffin Island, about 25 kilometres from the village of Kimmirut, was established around 1300 AD, though Sutherland says it could date from a much earlier period. If so, it’s conceivable that Nanook was the place of first contact between native North Americans and Europeans.

The site was originally excavated in the 1960s and at the time, was thought to be a Dorset settlement. But based on evidence she has painstakingly assembled over a dozen years, Sutherland says she’s certain the Nanook site is of European origin.

“I’m very confident that what we have is an indication of a Norse presence in the Canadian Arctic that we weren’t aware of before, that it was over a longer period of time, and that the interactions with the aboriginal people were more complex and extensive than we thought before.”

It’s a “no-brainer” that trade would have been involved, Sutherland says. The Dorset had the goods, including walrus ivory, narwhal tusks and furs, that the Norse were after. And they were only a two-day sail from Norse outposts in Greenland. “One could reasonably argue that the travels to the east coast of Canada, to the Arctic, was over a period of four centuries,” she says.

As Sutherland has accumulated evidence, her conclusions have become more widely accepted within an initially skeptical archeological community.

James Tuck, an emeritus professor of archeology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., says Sutherland’s evidence “seems to be getting better all the time.” He adds: “She’s created a project that has brought together all kinds of different lines of evidence and experts, and they all are pointing in the same direction.”

Tuck called Sutherland’s dismissal from the museum of civilization a “tremendous setback” for the project. ‘I don’t think it’s a death knell, but it’s damn close to it.”

Some of the artifacts Sutherland had assembled were on loan from other institutions, and within days of her dismissal, they were sent back to museums in Newfoundland and Greenland. Others belong to the government of Nunavut. Negotiations are under way between the museum and Nunavut to determine their fate.

Sutherland intended to co-publish her findings with 15 international collaborators, but her dismissal dashed those plans. She also wanted to work with the community of Kimmirut to get national historic site designation for the Nanook site, something that would have generated tourism and jobs. “There’s a lot of disappointment and dismay that this work isn’t going ahead,” she says.

Sutherland’s main objective now is to regain access to her research. But whether that happens hinges on the resolution of her dispute with the museum. “We are in discussions with Dr. Sutherland and her representative, trying to solve issues,” Schryer says. “Dr. Sutherland is not being denied anything. We just need to solve some past employment issues.”

That can’t happen soon enough for Sutherland.“I’m excited about what we found,” she says. “I think it’s significant. I think it’s a project that is of interest to the Canadian public.

“I really want to be able to complete this work. At this stage in my life, this is kind of a legacy, I guess.”

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