Arctic Neighbours: Did the Norse and the Dorset Form the Original ‘Special Relationship’?

A dying ancient culture, strange visitors from a far away land and a changing climate that helped bring them together.

Whether you believe Dr. Patricia Sutherlands research or not, you have to acknowledge one thing she tells an incredible story!

Its a tale of how two dynamic, but ultimately doomed, cultures co-existed together the Greenland Norse and the Dorset of the Canadian Arctic.

Dr. Sutherland is a curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa Canada. She has been conducting Arctic archaeology research for more than 30 years.

The Norse and the Dorset

The Norse people hardly need an introduction given their fame. They occupied Iceland in the 9th century AD and founded two settlements on Greenland in the 10th century AD. They then founded the first European colony in the New World, at LAnse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, in the early 11th century. That colony didnt survive long, with textual evidence suggesting that hostilities with the native people forced them to leave.

The Greenland colonies had better luck, surviving up until the 15th century vanishing sometime before the voyages of Columbus.

A climate shift around the 14/15th centuries that made Greenland colder is often cited as one of the reasons why the Greenland settlements collapsed.

The Dorsetare a people that will require more of an introduction. They appeared around 500 BC, but they are believed to be the descendents of a pre-Dorset culture that went back further into ancient times.

They lived in the Eastern Arctic in a time of great change. Around 500 BC the climate was becoming colder, forcing them to adapt.

Its an irony that the same climate change which may have doomed the Dorset, also led to the Norse pushing west – an event that brought Europe and North America together for the first time.

They developed the now famous igloo buildings. They also took to hunting sea mammals (such as seals) by camping out on the abundant sea ice using harpoons to kill their prey. Their artwork included depictions of faces, animals and spirits. They also produced tiny miniature carvings that may have been the work of people with shaman-like abilities.

Why the Dorset vanished is a mystery. Dr. Sutherland told me that the answer is, probably a very complex scenario. Its known that a group called the Thule (ancestors of todays Inuit) spread east from Alaska around 1000 AD it has been hypothesized that they may have displaced the Dorset in some instances.

Climate change is another culprit. Evidence indicates that the climate was warming around 1000 AD (a time period known as the medieval warm period). This may have impacted their ability to hunt on the sea ice.

Sutherland said that the latest radiocarbon dates from the Dorset come from the 14th century AD.

On the other side of the coin this warm period is often credited with making Greenland more habitable leading the Norse to colonize it and explore further west.

Its an irony that the same climate change which may have doomed the Dorset, also led to the Norse pushing west – an event that brought Europe and North America together for the first time.

Finding Answers in the Arctic

Dr. Sutherland explained to me that doing archaeology in the Arctic is quite a challenge. For starters there is the cost involved. Its fairly costly to undertake research in the arctic. Youre travelling into remote areas requiring the assistance of aircraft, she said.

The Polar Continental Shelf Project is a program run by the Canadian federal government. It provides the team with aircraft and pilots. Were very fortunate to have that agency because they provide us with fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters support to get to our location, said Dr. Sutherland.

In terms of the digging she outlined three major challenges:

  • The weather is very cold and tends to change quickly. Its common for the temperature on Baffin Island to go to -30 degree Celsius.
  • The soil can also be a problem. Were digging usually into ground thats frozen for most of the year, she said. It slows down the process of excavation… were only able to skim off what the sun gets at during the day… excavate only an inch or two at(a) time.
  • Global warming is changing the situation but not necessarily in a positive way.

The permafrost is melting in some areas, she said. However, what the thawing of the permafrost is doing is causing deterioration of organic remains of the site.

Climate change is also causing the researchers to have more encounters with polar bears. As the climate warms up the bears are having trouble hunting on sea ice, causing them to spend more time looking inland for food.

Polar bears didnt used to be such a problem but now they are, said Sutherland.

Europe Meets North America – For the First Time

Dr. Sutherland has been researching the evidence for interaction between the Norse and Dorset through an ongoing initiative called the Helluland Archaeology Project. Helluland is the name that the Norse gave for an area to the west of Greenland. It likely refers to Baffin Island and the areas nearby.

Baffin is more than twice the size of Great Britain but, today, has a population of less than 15,000 a testament to the harshness of itsenvironment.

As mentioned earlier in the article, the Norse made their way west from Europe at a time of warm climate. Its believed that they came into contact with the New World ca. 1000 AD.

Evidence of interaction between these two cultures comes in several forms. Perhaps the most compelling evidence is that of spun cordage which has been found at several sites in the Eastern Arctic including northern Labrador and Baffin Island.

The technique of spinning fibres into textiles was common in Europe and many examples have been found from the Norse settlements in Greenland. However, Dr. Sutherland says that there is no tradition in North American arctic for spinning wild animal hair into cordage… its much easier to make clothing out of cut-skins that are sewn together than it is to spin cordage.

She said that it would make little sense for the Dorset to develop this technology. They are living in a cold arctic environment, (cut-skins) is much warmer and much easier to make in fact than clothing woven out of textiles.

The cordage found on Baffin Island and Northern Labrador is made out of a variety of material and is directly comparable to yarns that were used in textiles in North Greenland.

Another line of evidence is found in Dorset art.

Wooden carvings have been in the arctic that appear to show images of people with European features such as long beards and western styleclothing. Unfortunately I dont have permission to republish photos of this artwork but you can see examples of them on this page here.

Wooden artefacts have been found that indicate interaction. Some of them are made with fir and white pine, a type of temperate tree that you do not usually see in the arctic. Some contain holes that appear to have been made with iron nails. Arrowheads have also been found that bear a resemblance to those found in Greenland. Again I dont have permission to republish these photos but you can see them here.

Dr. Sutherland hinted that a new line of evidence may be appearing soon.

She told me that she is excavating a unique site on the southern coast of Baffin Island (see the image of the site above). It has a building with architectural features unlike any Dorset features that I know of and Ive been working at this for many years. She said that she has not yet been able to prove for sure that this itis a Norse building but she hopes to get confirmation soon. Alongside the building there is evidence of Dorset occupation.


Professor Robert Park, of the University of Waterloo, has been critical of Dr. Sutherlands idea that the Dorset people had extensive contact with the Norse.

In a 2008 paper in the journal Antiquity he rebutted her arguments. In regards to the textile spinning evidence he wrote that it is possible that the Dorset could have developed this technology themselves or obtained the yarn from cultures further south.

Archaeological evidence for textiles in the temperate or Boreal forest regions of North America is limited due to problems of preservation, said Professor Park.

Dog hair textiles are known from the north-west coast with the oldest archaeological example coming from the Ozette site in Washington State. Textiles, including ones made from rabbit hair, are also known from Early Woodland, Hopewell and Mississippian sites.

He added that some examples of yarn appear to long pre-date the ca. 1000 AD arrival of the Norse.

The best documented and dated examples come from two sites: Avayalik 1, in northern Labrador, and the Nunguvik site (on Baffin Island), he said.

At the Avayalik 1 site numerous examples of musk ox hair cordage came from a sealed midden deposit which produced several radiocarbon dates placing the occupation in the fifth to seventh centuries AD, all predating the Norse colonisation of both Iceland and Greenland.

He also said that there have been examples of Dorset carvings found long before 1000 AD, which appear to show Norse features.

There are many examples of Dorset carvings exhibiting at least some of these characteristics that are from sites which clearly predate AD 870, he said in his paper.

I asked Dr. Sutherland about these criticisms and she said that she has an article coming out soon that will rebut Parks arguments in detail. She said that it makes little sense for the Dorset to develop spinning technology given that cut-skins make better clothing. She also said that the yarn she found is similar to those found in Norse Greenland.

Sutherlandalso added that the artwork is not stand-alone proof that this contact occurred. Instead it complements the yarn and wooden artefacts.

Voyaging in North America

I thought that I would end this blogpost off with a bit of fun.

In North America, archaeology lovers often speculate on whatareas the Norse explored before the Greenland settlements died out in the 15th century.

Indeed over the past 100 years there have been a number of hoaxes where people actually planted supposed Norse artefacts, such as swords and runestones, in an attempt to show that they went as far afield as Northern Ontario and (if you can believe it) Minnesota.

Aside from these hoaxes, there has also been speculation as to what exactly Vinland refers to. Is it Newfoundland or somewhere further south?

Given that Dr. Sutherland is probably one of the most qualified people in the world to answer these questions I decided to ask her what her thoughts are.

She said that the Norse could have gone as far north as Ellesmere Island (which wasnt really that far away from the Greenland settlements). Its highly unlikely that they went down the St. Lawrence into modern day Ontario, she said.

In regards to Vinland, Sutherland suspects thatthe wordrefers to the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

While it is tempting for people to imagine far off voyages down the US eastern seaboard, we must always remember that the land was occupied, she said. They didnt have a free pass to travel wherever they wanted.”