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August 14, 2013

Helluland, Stone-slab Land

Memorial University archaeologist Pat Sutherland has unearthed the remains of a second Norse site in North America, a Viking outpost on Baffin Island.

That would mean that the Vikings took their longship far beyond the northern tip of Newfoundland. It would also mean that Europeans were living amonst the Inuit in what is now the Canadian north long before Cabot, Frobisher or poor Mr Franklin started poking around for the Northwest Passage.

If you are wondering why you had not heard about this discovery before now, you might also ask whether the history of the Norse in Canada fits the narrative advanced by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, being rebranded as a museum of Canadian history, and why Pat Sutherland no longer has access to her twelve years of research findings.

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.

Images of the dig site at Baffin Island’s Tanfield Valley at the first link and a CBC Radio interview with Sutherland at the second.

Also: More images at National Geographic and a director's statement on The Norse: An Arctic Mystery. Sutherland first spotted Viking yarn from Baffin Island in 1999 and since found previously overlooked artifacts excavated from another three sites ranging a thousand miles from Baffin Island to Labrador.

To anyone familiar with the history of the period, the fact of a farfaring Viking presence comes as no surprise. And to anyone who has worked in archaeology, still less to learn learn that clear evidence of this presence should have been systematically overlooked for so long.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at August 14, 2013 08:27 AM