Ikaahuk Archaeology Project 2014

Lisa Hodgetts (NWT Archaeologist’s Permit 2014-015)

This summer, our team excavated a dwelling at the Agvik site (OkRn-1) on the south coast of Banks Island. Our crew consisted of two field assistants and two wildlife monitors from Sachs Harbour, and three graduate students and the project director from the Anthropology Department at Western University. Agvik includes the remains of at least 14 dwelling structures and appears to have been used at two different times, initially around 1400 AD, and later around 1550 AD. This period of Banks Island’s history is poorly understood. Many of the dwellings cluster around the edge of a rapidly eroding gully, and we chose to excavate one of the dwellings closest to the gully in order to better understand how it was used before it is destroyed by erosion.

Before beginning excavation, we used a gradiometer and a magnetic susceptibility meter to measure tiny differences in the magnetic properties of the soils across the surface of the dwelling. These techniques can indicate the presence of buried archaeological features, since human activities such as burning, garbage disposal and digging can affect soil magnetism. Initial survey with both instruments across other areas of the site in 2013 produced promising results, and we hoped to be able to map the internal structure of the dwelling prior to excavation. Unfortunately, a great deal of permafrost activity near the gully edge made it difficult to identify more subtle magnetic differences caused by the archaeological features.

Our excavation of the dwelling revealed a shallow circular depression approximately 3.7 m across. The structure had an earth floor and was surrounded by a turf wall and accessed through an entrance tunnel, which was supported by a few short whale bone posts. There was a “kitchen” area close to where the tunnel entered the dwelling, indicated by a concentration of burnt soil, ash and burnt bone. We also found a series of round pits outside the rear of the dwelling, filled with animal bone, skins, and in some cases tools and other artifacts. There were large amounts of refuse material in the entrance tunnel, within and above the collapsed wall, and immediately around the dwelling. We believe that this structure is a qarmat, a shallow semi-subterranean dwelling with sod walls and a skin roof. Historically, these dwellings were occupied primarily in spring and fall, though they were sometimes used throughout the winter.

Huge numbers of slate ulu fragments and Arctic fox skulls were recovered from within and around the dwelling, which suggests that preparing fox skins was an important activity in the qarmat. Such work was likely done by women. The diverse animal bones, including large quantities of ringed seal, Arctic fox, caribou, snow goose, and fish, and smaller amounts of bearded seal, polar bear and muskox indicate that the occupants ate a varied diet. In addition to hunting tools such as harpoons, we also found fishing lures, boat parts, amber beads, polar bear tooth pendants, pottery fragments and a range of other items which are currently being stabilized at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa before they are returned to Western University for further study.

More photos and information about the project, as well as links to 3D models of the excavation area and some of our finds are available on our project Facebook page.

(Edited by Shelley Crouch, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)