In the last post I described the warming-driven erosion that is destroying Iita, along with untold numbers of other important places in the Arctic. Today I’m writing about the other reason we were there this summer: the terrific archaeology, of course.

When we worked at the site in 2006, we were interested in the historic Inughuit occupations (if you are a glutton for punishment you can hear me talk about some of that work here), and incidentally in the expeditions that occupied the site, particularly the Crocker Land expedition.

House 2 overview before floor removal, looking north

The interior of one of the historic Inughuit houses we excavated in 2006, occupied in the late nineteenth century. During the Crocker Land expedition it was used for refuse disposal.

In the course of that work we discovered earlier occupations, for which there were not surface indications – an early Thule house, and Paleo-Inuit, likely Late Dorset, occupations. (The Avataq Institute has a nice graphic showing the different prehistoric cultures in the Arctic here).

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North wall profile

A view of the stratified deposits we found in front of House 1 at Iita in 2006.

This sounds like standard stuff for archaeology – in most parts of the world, when people reoccupy the same place over many 100s and 1000s of years, the remains build up in layers, with the oldest occupations at the bottom and increasingly younger ones above: stratigraphy. But the Arctic is not like the rest of the world. There, we more often deal with what is sometimes called horizontal stratigraphy. Basically, the land was pushed down by the great weight of glaciers during the ice ages, and it now still rising, or rebounding. Over 1000s of years this means that shorelines are always retreating, rising and exposing new ground. In some places the shoreline from 4000 years ago, for example, might now be 10, 20 or more meters above sea level.

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A ~4000 year old Paleo-Inuit feature on a high beach mapped in 2004 at Cape Grinnell. The figures in the distance are looking at Thule features much closer to the modern beach.

Because the maritime-adapted people who lived in Arctic tended to live near the shore, this means that older sites are at higher elevations and further inland than more recent sites – thus horizontal, rather than vertical stratigraphy. Adding to this is the fact that in the Arctic soils develop very slowly, if at all. In the high Arctic especially it is common to find sites that are 4000 or more years old still on the surface. Taken together, this means that classic vertical stratigraphy is pretty rare, especially in the high Arctic.


The remains of a Paleo-Inuit tent ring high above the modern beach, showing the lack of soil, even after 1000s of years.

There is one fairly common exception to this: Thule people, ancestors of contemporary Inuit, often built their winter houses directly on top of Late Dorset occupations. They were taking advantage of the vegetation that grew up on these sites to cut sod blocks for their homes, thus often incorporating Late Dorset artefacts into their walls. This has made it very difficult for archaeologists wanting to study the possible interaction of Thule and Dorset people, since so many of the sites are mixed up.

Enter Iita. The Paleo-Inuit deposits we found in 2006 were intriguing enough that in 2012 John and Hans returned to the site for a brief visit to investigate them.

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The profile drawing, and profile of one of the test units from 2006, showing the amazing stratigraphy.

They confirmed that the earlier deposits were indeed Late Dorset, and multiple radiocarbon dates suggested that they were at the site at nearly the same time as the early Thule people (keeping in mind that radiocarbon dates are not always precise). Even better, they found that in some places they could identify multiple occupations – dark layers in the soil that indicated vegetation growth and/or living surfaces. These layers were separated by lighter layers that seem to be sterile. They likely represent sediment that has slid or washed down from the steep hill behind the site. This discovery was very exciting – a rare opportunity to study relatively brief, unmixed occupations spanning the time when Late Dorset people disappeared and Thule people moved in. John, Hans, and their small team had time for a only few test units. Clearly more work was required, and so we returned this summer.

Next up, and at long last: what we did!