MHS: I went in thinking it was an interesting hypothesis that there was a Norse trading post in Baffin Island.
First, I performed an initial physical analysis of the material, which included spun sinew, spun yarn, woven textiles, and raw wool of unknown species. Second, I needed to date it. And third, I got permission to sample the pieces and do some DNA analysis to identify the animal fibers in them.
One textile piece from the high north was Norse, and several others from a site called Okivilialuk were also clearly fragments of woven European cloth, but not Norse. However, strands of yarn from southern Baffin Island, at sites called Nanook, Nunguvik, and Willows Island 4, were obviously different, and not Norse.
This yarn, when I analyzed it, immediately struck me as distinct. The materials were wrong for Norse textiles, made of maybe musk ox or arctic hare rather than sheep or goat. The fibers were very tightly spun, very consistent, with very little variation in how it was made, which is not what you see in Norse textiles.
At that point, we worked with a commercial laboratory, Beta Analytic, using the protocol Gørill Nilsen [of the Arctic University of Norway] developed, which is critical in accurately dating textiles contaminated with marine mammal oils.
In the high Canadian Arctic, people live predominantly off marine mammals. They would hunt seals, whales, and other animals and use the fats for a range of purposes. The oils from these mammals permeate archaeological sites and artifacts, including textiles. Because of what is known as the marine reservoir effect, in which sea mammals absorb ancient marine carbon, the radiocarbon date of artifacts with marine oil on them can be thrown off by 400 to 800 years.
Nilsen’s method essentially “shampoos” out the oils so Beta Analytic could use Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating to give us an accurate age.
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Source: Gillian Kiley-Brown
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