Hubbard Point: excavating ancient Thule ruins


    By Dr. Virginia Petch

    In 1997 while conducting a helicopter survey of archaeological sites along Manitoba’s coast north of Churchill, Dr. Virginia Petch discovered a most significant site at Hubbard Point on Hudson Bay. Her findings suggest a once thriving seasonal settlement that was home to a small Thule settlement almost 1,000 years ago. In 2014, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada, Ducks Unlimited, Winnipeg Branch and the Inuit Heritage Trust, a small research team, including Elders and resource users from nearby Arviat and Rankin Inlet, and led by Dr. Petch, returned to Hubbard Point to begin recording the ancient ruins. Radiocarbon dating at the site indicated a date at 960 ±30 years.

    Imagine this, you have an insatiable curiosity and passion for discovery and you have been handed the uncommon opportunity to follow that passion into an area where little or no research has been conducted. This is my life!

    HubbardPoint-01My good fortune began in the late 1980s when I conducted a number of archaeological surveys on the Churchill West Peninsula and along the Manitoba coast. In 1997 I had the rare opportunity to conduct an archaeological survey along the Hudson Bay coast between the Seal and Caribou rivers. The ancient Thule settlement at Hubbard Point was the crowning glory of that fieldwork. Sixteen years later in 2013, Kristin Westdal of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada, Winnipeg Branch, asked me to return to Hubbard Point. No arm-twisting was needed. A new adventure was about to begin.

    It is believed that explorer Thomas Button first named Hubbard Point as Hubberts Hope, aTher Josias Hubart (sp.), the pilot of one of his ships, in 1612. The Inuit have always referred to it as Qikiqtaarjuit, or place of small islands (L. Suluk and P. Alareak 2014). It is an area of outstanding wild beauty.

    The Land
    The northern coast of Manitoba, one of our best-kept secrets, abounds in beauty and ecological diversity. It is easy to fall in love with the ancient rocks, the signs of those who went before, the incredible wildlife and the rich oral and written history that work in unison to make this a researcher’s paradise.

    This unique gravel bar, Hubbard Point, a remnant of the former Tyrrell Sea, quickly rises about 30 metres above the frigid waters of Hudson Bay in a tumble of boulder and gravel terraces. The lee side gently slopes to a chaotic array of deltaic wetlands and ribbons of the Caribou River. The stark beauty is punctuated by well-placed ancient stone structures that remind us of a once vibrant settlement.

    HubbardPoint-03The effects of isostatic rebound are abundantly evident. Proceeding inland one can’t help but notice the erratic display of boulders, gravel bars and beach ridges. This is an area of danger: wetlands, thickets of tangled willow and polar bears. The nearest beach ridge is about 11 km inland from Hubbard Point. This is the ridge that Samuel Hearne and his Dene guides would have followed from Churchill to the Barrenlands in the mid-1700s. The local Inuit are also very familiar with this area; remnants of giant “board” games such as Nalluujarviit (caribou crossing) and Qillalugaujarviit (beluga) constructed of boulders can be found on these upper beach ridges.

    This part of the world is known for its unpredictable and unforgiving weather. The Hubbard Point Ecodistrict, as part of the Maguse River Upland Ecoregion, is uniquely situated along a narrow strip of coastal land that extends north into Nunavut. Long, cold Arctic winters are followed by short, cool summers. A narrow window of opportunity exists in July, when a temporary calm means that fieldwork can be hurriedly completed.

    The People
    The Thule people, the immediate ancestors of the Inuit, are believed to have rapidly expanded eastward across the High Arctic from their ancestral home in Alaska some 1,000 years ago. They made it as far as Greenland. With all the archaeological research that has taken place since Matthiassen’s initial descriptions in 1927, the record of this movement is still not completely understood. We do know that the Thule may have been affected by a climatic warming, which, in turn, may have presented opportunities for movement through the Northwest Passage. We do know that marine mammals such as whale, seal, and walrus formed the main part of their diet and that they built large house structures out of stone, bone or sod depending on availability of resources and season, and, finally, that they stored food and oil for future use. The archaeological remains scattered across the coastal north suggest that a well-organized mode of production was in place. This would be critical to survival.

    The archaeological site at Hubbard Point presents supportive evidence of Thule expansion that not only went east, but also south along the western coast of Hudson Bay.

    The Findings
    The adventure began at 3 a.m. on July 6. Why so early you askTh We had a high tide to catch; any delays and we would be stranded for 12 hours on one of the offshore tidal flats, a popular dining area for polar bears. Still sleepy and dying for a cup of coffee, we piled our gear into the zodiacs, piloted by Terry and Andy of the Seal River Heritage Lodge; they were also our bear guards. The sky was a soTh gold and the water mimicked the sky. An hour later the rise of Hubbard Point could be seen and as we pulled into the Caribou River delta we were greeted by hundreds of belugas, seals, sea birds and, of course, polar bears. Eleven of them, fat, healthy and shiny white, reclined on the craggy rocks that lined the point.

    The emotions of returning were overwhelming and humbling. As we climbed the gentle back slope of Hubbard Point, the stone features began to reveal themselves: kayak rests, magnificent stone circles, burials and dozens of food caches. A reconnaissance across the site revealed that there were more features than the original 68 I had quickly noted in 1997. A datum was set up at the highest point of land. This would act as our anchor for all future inquiry. Two crewmembers began the task of recording the coordinates of each feature, numbering and photographing them as they moved along the top of the ridge. Other crew were set to shovel testing so that we could get some idea as to the depth and composition of soils. Others helped me excavate test units as we hoped to get an idea of what the Thule may have been eating and also recover sufficient organic material for radiocarbon dating.

    A film crew followed us around recording the findings and interviewing the Elders and crewmembers. As well as the regular photography, geographer Jeremy Davies of the Pew Charitable Trusts operated a drone that gave us a bird’s eye view of the site and its many features. This new technology provided incredibly detailed views of features and the patterning of activity areas that became evident amazed us. Organization of structures means societal organization and it appears that the Thule who called Hubbard Point home were well organized and well-stocked.

    Dr. Petch and a field crew will return to Hubbard Point in 2015 to continue investigations.