Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Bishop's Sea: Nanook

The Nanook, or Tanfield Valley, site, has appeared in these pages before. Lying along the southeastern coast of Baffin Island, it is a fairly prominent site of prehistoric settlement. Michigan anthropologist Moreau Maxwell excavated here from the 1960s to the 1980s, apparently informed of ancient relics by a local informant.

As for "Nanook" itself, I'm reminded of Henry Collins' excited description of the Sadlermiut site, published in a 1954 National Geographic, and inspiring generations of speculation that appear to end, sadly, in concluding that there is no there, there. I'm obviously very impressed by the fact that the population of the high Arctic did not exceed 5000 people at any point in prehistory, because I repeated it twice in two paragraphs in my last "Nanook" post. It remains, I think a fair point that any site with eighty house ruins, several hundred graves, and hundreds of meat caches is going to bulk very, very large in the human story of the high Arctic. Something significant happened here. The  disappointing thing about Sadlermiut is that it happened too recently to be romantic. Nanook is another matter.

Unfortunately, it is not similar to Sadlermiut in having numerous ruins. The far southwest of Baffin Island is resource-rich, for the High Arctic, and had a high prehistoric population, and within the region, the Tansfield Valley stands out  as what pioneering investigator, Moreau Maxwell, called an oasis. Although tending to damp in the summer, it is an obvious camp ground. The problem was the lack of obvious ruins, although that can be explained by the absence of good building stone, and alternatives such as ivory, sea mammal bone, and caribou antlers, all unavailable for various reasons. Instead, Moreau concluded, structures in the area would be cut from sod, a scarce resource in the area, in general, but copiously available here.

Maxwell's excavations justified the hypothesis. In particular,  he was struck by ruins that could be interpreted as the foundation walls of a (Norse-style) sod longhouse, although many other explanations have been put forward. Along with the exciting discovery of muskoxen fur, analogous to the bison, muskox and brown bear hair found at the famed "Farm Beneath the Sands," the prospect beckoned of larger exchange networks uniting the farthest northern reaches of the High Arctic with the Canadian boreal forests, and perhaps beyond.

This attracted Canadian Museum of Civilisation (now "History") archaeologist, Patricia Sutherland,  and her Helluland Project, with the usual (or "highly controversial," choose your preferred modifier) agenda of looking for Norse, which she tentatively concluded she had found. As is equally usual, in the absence of anything signed in authentic, contemporary handwriting, nothing definitive was found, and killjoy DNA studies soon revealed that the supposed exotic hairs were nothing of the kind. Good thing hair analysis was never relied on for anything important! The problem is that the carbon dates have yielded Medieval, that is, pre-Norse carbon dates. Since we seem (for now) to have moved beyond dismissing paradigm-upsetting carbon dates as Bad Science, it is at least worth considering what that might mean. Sutherland is willing to go for "early Medieval" seafarers, and points to the new, early dates for the settlement of the Faeroes and the situation in Iceland as a license for going halfway towards full "Wayfarer-"dom. 

For prosaic values of "imaginable."
If you've followed the Google search leads up just a little less far than I, you may note that I seem to have a better source on the Tanfield Valley than all the repetitious blogs and news stories. I do! Karen Riley's 2009 doctoral dissertation, "THE SIGNIFICANCE OF CHOICE IN THE LATE DORSET TECHNOLOGY OF DOMESTIC ARCHITECTURE" has been put up as a pdf. Thank Heavens for the excellent scholarship of others. It makes it so much easier to be a dilettante. Dr. Riley's intention is to apply chaine operatoire methodology to get from architecture to architect. This is challenging for time-challenged people like me who have to dedicate whole half-hours to reading doctoral dissertations. but I'll take it as read that the ruins at Nanook are sufficiently well understood to lead our speculations towards a very "anomalous" Dorset Culture builder. The obvious problem is that if this architect is a monk of Birsay, he has chosen to make his presence known at the furthest westward extension imaginable.

 Fortunately, we have this, which reads, "Erling Sigvatsson, Bjarne Tordsson and Eindride Oddson erected these cairns on the Saturday before Rogation Day, and runed well," in the translation provided by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad in their monograph on L'Anse aux Meadows. Found at a site on Disko Bay on the central northwestern coast of Greenland, it was agreeably close to a number of good walrus-hunting grounds, and the date is a plausible one for hunters who might have recently arrived by oarred boat from the Western Settlements. Setting more colourful interpretations aside, it is solid evidence of regular hunting expeditions into Greenland's remote, northern reaches, otherwise confirmed in contemporary texts. There's also something of interest to say about the date, which is the first day of the midnight sun at that latitude. (I'm told, anyway; this unchurched lad was surprised to discover that there are three Rogation Days in the Christian calendar, clustered between late April and early May.)

Fredrik Charpentier Lindqvist takes the Kingigtorssuaq rune stone as the starting points of two lines of argument, while dropping a quotidian technological tidbit that took me by surprise and which is well worth following up below. The first is logistical. He explains the Nanook site as a plausible point in a rotation around the Davis Strait basin that might occur in a particularly mild year in which the ice opened up quickly, and in which walrus might be more easily found in the leads off southern Baffin Island than in Disco Bay. Having reached and hunted out the Disko populations, the hunters might cross over to Ellesmere Island, descend to Nanook, and complete their hunt there. This would then allow them to proceed on to Labrador to cut timber, which Lindqvist plausibly argues is a thing that could happen and which would resolve some issues relating to the Norse Greenland settlement's lumber supply.

The second line of argument is social, and is essentially a riff on the labour shortage that limits marginal northern communities. "Northern" resource gathering is essential to the Greenland settlement. Without exotic exports, in particular, walrus ivory, the chiefs will not have exotic European imports to distribute, and will not be able to reward their followers for living Norse, but one of the necessary prerequisites of living Norse is having the hay to keep the herds through the winter. All hands must be on deck by mid-August to mow the hay, and that greatly limits the range the young men have for adventure.

The inadvertently fascinating technological point begins with a wild goose chase after the putative musk oxen, brown bear and bison hairs. All point the hunters' range well beyond the Disko-Bay-Nanook-coastal Labrador axis, and it is as well for economy of speculation that we now know that the hunters are not reaching the uttermost-northern ranges of the muskoxen or the interior of North America. However, having dealt with things now known to be forensic error, he addresses the iron problem. Unlike timber, which Lindqvist thinks could not have been practically imported from Europe, he concludes that iron was, accepting isotope analysis that suggests that the iron recovered in Norse contexts was high-quality European imports rather than local or Labradorean bog iron.

This demands an explanation for evidence of ironworking in the settlements, which is dealt with in lapidadry fashion. Prractically the metalworking resources the community had to spare, were absorbed in maintaining the edges of their hay scythes.

Screen cap from Wikipedia of someone maintaining a Continental-style scythe. Norse-style scythes are made of harder, forged steel, and are not peened, but rather ground two or three times during the season. It probably has something to do with the quality of the meadows, and you'd think that Greenland meadows would have been pretty rough. 

What? I. .

Somewhat hippy-dippy but invaluable re-enactor source

This is an innovation of the Iron Age? To be fair, hay was cut with sickles before the scythe came along, perhaps as early as 500BC, but, more likely, rather later. It is just a question of effort, investment and payoff. Archaeologists of the Iron Age in the Middle East have been campaigning to minimise the impact of iron for years on the basis that the earliest iron was not that much better than precursor materials for purposes as diverse as war and harvesting grain. This is not the case for a substantial hay mow. 

Is there scholarship, you may ask? James Greig asked this question in the early 1980s, in connection with the "flowery meadows" of the English midlands, which are a category of scheduled monument under English heritage (because of course they are).


Greig was able to put together profiles that might enable a researcher to identify a pollen or archaeological waste signal of at least a Midlands hay meadow. His report can be found in this annoyingly old fashioned-auto-downloading pdf, and there we stop, since the data doesn't capture much haymaking. If we accept the argument that some of the three-post structures in early hillforts were hay racks, then haymaking surges forward in the earliest Iron Age and is another "killer app" for the new technology. On the other hand, tree leaf fodder is easy to identify from pollen and archaeological remnants, and clearly dominant from the earliest Neolithic in many sites.

So the earliest phases of use of stabled livestock, at least in Europe, were dependent on maintaining the mast forests. Hay meadows, and, in particular, water meadows, depended on the prior development and wide distribution of iron tools. Using surviving tools as an index, we see haymaking (with iron scythes) begin perhaps as early as 500BC, and then develop gradually until it becomes general in medieval times.

This post was inspired by T. M. Charles-Edward's bold attempt to make sense of Early Christian Ireland, published in 2000, to very little attention from scholars I've so far followed, which perhaps suggests some controversy I'm not picking up on the Internet (I see a 2003 review by Alex Woolf at ResearchGate, but I'm not feeling in the mood to jump through their data-gathering hoops this morning). But an attempt last weekend to turn up recent scholarship on early monasticism on the Atlantic fringe turned up little besides this, and it is certainly a deadly tome by a great publisher, so let's cut the man some slack and suppose that his account of Ireland in the 400s-500s has some connection with reality.

Charles-Edwards sees ogham stones as an attempt to assimilate Latin culture into an Irish context, which the distributions of Roman goods are fairly self-explanatory, and a pretty clear, if mute argument that the only things that Romans cared to take from Ireland apart from what was funneled through Dublin (that is, everything), was Atlantic exotica funneled through the Northern Isles. The stone distribution is linked to Irish activity in Britain, in particular slave-and-missionary taking. The sudden influx of slaves (once we get our minds out of the gutter) speaks to a sudden acceleration in agricultural activity, one which is pretty clearly driven by animal products, and if you will forgive a further speculative leap in the dark, the insistence on female slaves in particular points to a need for textile workers. To the extent that monastic settlements serve in lieu of towns in the far Atlantic, we have further evidence of the economic context of Christianisation, something that the historic Patrick may have got into hot water over.  Patrick, Charles-Edwards thinks, was, before he became the foundation of Armagh's claim to the archepiscopate (of which perhaps more later), was above all the apostle of the farthest reaches of Ireland, in contrast to the more conventionally evangelised south and east; and just as he is, much later, the foundation of Armagh's rise, so he is to be linked in the nearer horizon of the 500s and 600s, to the rise of the Ui Neill to dominate at least our vision of Ireland, if not, in fact, the whole island. Something about north and west is special.

To follow up on one last point left dangling, without getting into Charles-Edwards interesting take on the tangle between Armagh, Kildare, Canterbury and Wilfrid's York over the "northern" metropolitanate that might extend the pre-eminence of one or the other of these bishops over the vast Atlantic, I'll note the centrality of the Paschal dating controversy in the whole discussion. Astronomy, and in particular solar astronomy, is pretty central to all of this, and finding three much later Norse hunters, far up north under the polar sun, erecting cairns in celebration of the midnight sun, an event correlated, perhaps not perfectly, with Rogation Day, is . . interesting. For all that we focus on ("embedded") economic motivations for far voyaging, there is clearly some prestige to be had in witnessing the midnight sun, one not incidental to the central intellectual problem of the early Medieval Atlantic world, the date of Easter.

Apparently walrus ivory was cherished for its ability to bring out "angelic" skin tones. Adomnan devotes the last third of his biography of Columba to the saint's ability to see angels. For what it's worth. 

At one pole of attention, our connection with the divine and immanent world of the angels; at the other pole, the rise of high-volume hay production, which might explain the quickening of the Irish economy in the sub-Roman.

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