Quttinirpaaq National Park’s Oldest Artifacts

By Tim Rast

Four thousand five hundred years ago, small groups of muskox hunters lived with their families on Northern Ellesmere Island, in what is now Quttinirpaaq National Park. This was not a scientific outpost or military expedition, but family camps, including children and elders who lived, laughed, and told stories at the highest latitude than anyone has ever lived. They were the first pioneers into the High Arctic at a time when there was no one there to ask for directions. What’s more, they were doing it using tools with stone tips as small as your fingernail. In 2010, I was asked by the Parks Canada Agency to make reproductions of some of these tiny tools and in 2013 they sponsored a pair of weeklong workshops in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord to teach people how to make their own stone tools and hear their thoughts on the artifacts.

Archaeologists began uncovering traces of the very first people on northern Ellesmere Island in the 1960s. These early artifacts and tent rings belong to a culture called Independence I, named for Independence Fiord in northern Greenland where the first traces of these people were identified by the Danish archaeologist Count Eigel Knuth. Knuth conducted the initial and most comprehensive archaeological fieldwork during the 1960s on the archaeology sites around Kettle Lake in what would become Quttinirpaaq National Park. Subsequent research by archaeologists, including Patricia Sutherland, Margaret Bertulli, and Douglas Stenton, have helped flesh out the story of the very early Independence I settlers in the area as they flourished and vanished cyclically over thousands of years. The Independence I occupation of the park dates from approximately 4,500 to 3,200 years ago and over that time there would be periods of intense activity lasting for a few generations and then the area would be abandoned. After a couple hundred years people would return, hunt muskox, raise families, and eventually vanish again. The pattern repeats itself over several thousand years and suggests that the muskox herds on which people relied would similarly rise and fall in numbers as the area was hunted out and then naturally replenished over time.

Arrowhead-insetThe people who left behind the Independence I artifacts took some time to adapt to life at the top of the world. There are aspects of their culture that would seem quite foreign to many people familiar with life in the High Arctic. For example, they relied more heavily on muskox and the fish and animals on the interior of Ellesmere Island, than on seals and the resources of the sea. They burned willow, grasses, driftwood, and muskox bones in open fireboxes rather than burning seal oil in soapstone lamps. They lived in above ground tents year-round that were most likely covered in muskox hide, rather than moving into semi-subterranean sod or snow houses for the long winters.

I’m an archaeologist who specializes in reproducing the artifacts of Canada’s Arctic and sub arctic. I don’t make casts or 3D printed models; instead the reproductions that I make are constructed using the same tools and techniques as people in the past. These artifacts look, feel, and age the same as the original tools that they are based on. They are meant to be handled.

As a flintknapper, I chip stone tools just like the Independence I tool makers did thousands of years ago. The reproductions that Parks Canada contracted me to make are exact copies of artifacts recovered at Kettle Lake in Quttinirpaaq and can safely travel to local communities without risking damage or loss to the actual artifacts. In November of 2013, along with Patrick Carroll, a Cultural Resource Management Advisor with the Nunavut Field Unit of Parks Canada, I travelled to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord. These two communities are the nearest settlements to Quttinirpaaq, and Patrick and I went to share the story of the archaeology of the Independence I muskox hunters and teach school kids, and anyone else interested in learning, how to flintknap and use their own stone tools. I took several of my own replicas along, Parks Canada supplied the reproductions that I completed in 2010, and we borrowed a set of artifact casts, representing other time periods and cultures, from the Canadian Museum of History.

The tiny stone tools left behind by the pioneering Independence I people were chipped out of a silica-rich type of rock called chert. Chert fractures like glass and despite the very small size of the tools, the artifacts created by the Independence I people were sharp, functional, and masterfully crafted. The tools include steep edged scrapers that would have been lashed onto driftwood handles with sinew. These scrapers were used for working soft organic materials like animal skins, wood, horn, or antler. Burins are another very common tool on Independence I sites. A burin is a specialized engraving or carving tool made by removing long, thin flakes from the edge of a worked piece of chert. Like the scrapers, they would have been secured onto handles. On the rare occasions when bone or antler artifacts are preserved, the incised marks and grooves on their surface often match the working edge of a burin. Small chert knives and arrowheads are also found at Independence I sites.

The reproductions I made of the Kettle Lake artifacts include all of these tool types. They are exact copies of the tools in the condition that they were found, including all of the small breaks, blemishes, and even the patches of lichen that grew on their surface. Soil formation in the High Arctic is extremely slow, so even tools and tent rings dating back thousands of years are still lying directly on the ground surface. Because the artifacts were lying exposed on the ground, Parks Canada archaeologists decided to collect the Kettle Lake artifacts. On a reconnaissance visit to the park in 2007, keen-eyed archaeologists spotted the tiny Independence I artifacts on the ground within and around a tent ring. The area was criss-crossed with muskox tracks and there was concern that if the artifacts were left in place, they might be damaged by trampling, so on a return trip in 2010 the artifacts were carefully documented and collected.

During the trip to Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord, we focused on the tiny stone arrowheads found in Quttinirpaaq. The Independence I sites at Kettle Lake were littered with tiny stone arrowheads and hearths filled with muskox bones. Archaeologists concluded that the arrowheads were used to hunt the muskox. In his book, Ancient People of the Arctic, Robert McGhee suggests that muskox would react to dogs accompanying Independence I hunters in the same way that they would react to wolves, by forming a defensive circle. This strategy may be effective against wolves, but it made the muskox easy targets for Independence I archers. The hunters were most likely armed with bows and arrows built from driftwood, and reinforced with horn, antler, or bone and held together with sinew. Over the course of the workshops I made a complete Independence I arrow with a knapped chert point and lashed together sections of driftwood. It was built using locally available materials and without the use of any glue, just twisted sinew held in place with friction.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a complete Independence I arrow found, so I used some uncannily well-preserved sites in Greenland as references for the organic pieces. The reference arrows that I used come from a related culture called Saqqaq. You can see the reference arrow parts in Bjarne Grønnow’s 2012 article in Études/Inuit/Studies called, “An archaeological reconstruction of Saqqaq bows, darts, harpoons, and lances”. The Saqqaq arrows were made from driftwood logs that had been split, whereas I used small diameter driftwood twigs and branches to form the arrow shaft. Otherwise I followed the Saqqaq model as closely as possible for arrow shaft dimensions and design details.

The main design elements that I incorporated from the Saqqaq arrows into the Independence I reconstruction were the open bedded style of haft for the arrowhead, the 14 cm long fore shaft, the use of wedge shaped “scarf ” joins to build the shaft out of multiple short sections of wood, the diameter and cross-section of the main shaft and the shallow nock style. The reproduction arrow is spliced together from three pieces of driftwood and measures about 70 cm in length. For the point, I used Independence I artifacts from Quttinirpaaq National Park as my reference. The two feather fletching style is based on more recent Inuit arrows while the twisted sinew lashing and glueless design is representative of both Inuit and Palaeoeskimo hafting techniques.

Rant-toolsThe Saqqaq arrows are missing feathers, although they are presumed to have had them. I completed the reproduction arrow using a raven feather supplied by a teacher in Grise Fiord. I split the feather down the middle and used each half for the fletching. I don’t think it will spin quite right, but it looks fine for a display piece and I like that it’s finished with local materials. For the use of the feather, I left the arrow with the Umimmak School in Grise Fiord.

The program delivered in Resolute Bay and Grise Fiord was a pilot project and thanks to the support of the teachers at Qarmartalik and Ummimak schools I was able to work with all of the students enrolled at each school. With the addition of evening demonstrations I met dozens of parents, elders, and other members of the communities and while I shared what I knew about flintknapping, they shared with me stories and insight into how the different tools were used and made. I learned a great deal from this trip and given the success of this trial project, my hope is that we can bring the program to other communities, focusing on the incredible archaeology of the National Parks nearest to them.

Tim Rast is a Canadian archaeologist and Flintknapper who specializes in artifact reproductions from the Arctic and sub arctic. You can see more of his work on his blog: