Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Groundbreaking Research in Archaeology

The Journal of Archaeological Science has published two papers this month featuring Haffenreffer Museum staff and collections: 

Bacterial tetraether lipids in ancient bones record past climate conditions at the time of disposal

By James T. Dillon, Sam Lash, Jiaju Zhao, Kevin P. Smith, Peter van Dommelen, Andrew K. Scherer, and Yongsong Huang.  

The paper outlines the development and testing of an innovative new method to extract ancient climate data directly from bones excavated from archaeological sites. This method, which allows scientists to recover data on the temperature (and in some cases precipitation levels) when bones started to decay – as much as 30,000 years ago –  has the potential to “turn every archaeological site in the world into a new library of high-precision climate data,” according to co-author and Haffenreffer Museum Deputy Director, Kevin P. Smith. The project studied bones of caribou and seals from the Cape Krusenstern excavations, housed in the Circumpolar Laboratory. This collaborative research by faculty, staff, and graduate students from Brown University’s Department of Anthropology, the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World, and the Department of Earth, Environment, and Planetary Sciences, was funded by a Research Seed Grant from Brown University’s Vice President for Research. A Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Training and Research Award (UTRA) allowed six undergraduate students to collaborate in the research and in additional projects – still to be published – using the new method.

Dorset, Norse, or Thule? Technological transfers, marine mammal contamination, and AMS dating of spun yarn and textiles in the Eastern Canadian Arctic

By Michèle Hayeur Smith, Kevin P. Smith, and Gørill Nilsen.


The result of an innovative collaboration between Museum Research Associate Michèle Hayeur Smith, Gørill Nilsen of the Arctic University of Norway’s Archaeology Department, and the Haffenreffer Museum’s deputy director, Kevin Smith, this paper challenges previous theories about technology transfers between Greenland's Norse settlers and the Dorset and Thule civilizations. Until recently, the presence of marine mammal oils on archaeological samples made dating organic remains from Indigenous Arctic sites complicated and unreliable. In this paper, Dr. Smith and her colleagues "use a recently developed protocol for removing marine mammal organic contaminants entirely from radiocarbon samples, making AMS dating possible and reliable for Arctic research." By using this new method of cleaning and dating samples of spun yarn and textiles from sites in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, they have confirmed that the Dorset and Thule knew how to spin yarn centuries before European contact. Their research also demonstrates there Greenland's Norse settlers were in contact with the Thule in High Arctic Canada by the late 13th century and documents contacts between 16th century Inuit and European explorers in Baffin Island. Hayeur Smith’s research was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Social Science program and was done in collaboration with the Canadian Museum of History.


Michèle Hayeur Smith and Kevin Smith discussed the study with Brown University, (published August 20th)

Q: What was the impetus for undertaking this study?

Michele Hayeur Smith (MHS): I am a specialist in Norse textiles, and I was researching the production and circulation of textiles from the Viking age to the 19th century. I started this project because it came to my attention that there were huge collections of pre-modern textiles in Iceland, which is where I started out. I was also interested in looking at women. Textiles happen to be a very gendered activity in Norse society — men had no involvement whatsoever with it. In Iceland, it became very important because it was a form of currency for almost 800 years: Everything was based on the value of cloth.

I eventually expanded my research to the rest of the North Atlantic to see what was going on in the other Norse colonies in terms of textiles. There were some fragments of cloth and yarn that had been found in the Canadian High Arctic, and there was an assumption that it came from the Norse. I went through the collections at Canadian Museum of History — a sizeable collection of pieces of yarn that had been claimed to be Norse. The assumption was that Norse had taught the Inuit how to spin, that it was a cultural transfer.

Q: What did you discover?

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 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.

Q: And you used this new method to date the yarn and textile samples?

Kevin P. Smith (KPS): First, we tested Gørill's method on two pieces of cloth — we split one piece of yarn and tested it without using her method. The date came back older than any known date for human occupation in the Arctic, so we knew it was contaminated; but after we used her method to clean the sample, we re-dated it and it fit other evidence from the site beautifully. Then we tested her method on another piece of cloth whose age we already knew and received an identical date. These tests showed us that the method could remove contaminants without damaging the cloth and affecting dates on it.

Then, we applied her method to one piece of spun sinew and seven pieces of spun yarn from Dorset culture sites, to one piece of Norse textile from an ancestral Inuit, Thule culture site, and to two of those mysterious pieces of European cloth from Okivilialuk.

Q: What did the AMS date tell you about the yarn and textile samples?

KPS: The results were jaw-dropping.

The oldest Dorset pieces were made almost 1,000 years before the Vikings settled in Greenland, around 1000 AD. In fact, the oldest piece of yarn, from a site on Willows Island, was dated to between 15 B.C. and 50 A.D. And the most recent piece of Dorset culture yarn was spun around 725 A.D. We knew then that the Dorset had been spinning yarn for more than a thousand years before the Vikings arrived in Greenland and was a consistent part of their culture for at least 800 years! It's also interesting that there appears to be no evidence that the Dorset people shared this technology with the Thule people, ancestors of today's Inuit, who migrated across the Canadian Arctic and eventually to Greenland, in the late 1200s A.D.

However, when we turned to the piece of woven cloth from an ancestral Inuit site called Skraeling Island, we confirmed that those Thule ancestors of today's Inuit were in contact with Norse explorers in the High Arctic around 1275 A.D., almost 300 years after the Vikings had tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a colony in North America.

Finally, those pieces from Okivilialuk were both woven in the 1500s, suggesting that the Inuit there were in contact with some of the earliest post-medieval explorers the Arctic, perhaps including Martin Frobisher [an English navigator who reached Labrador and Baffin Island in 1576].

Q: In the study, you note that archaeologists have been somewhat reluctant to acknowledge the possibility of an indigenous fiber technology. Why do you think that is?

MHS: I would say that the assumption that indigenous people did not know how to spin is ethnocentric. This is a problem in our field. The sewing skills and abilities of Arctic peoples are unbelievable. They are able to stitch garments made out of gut that are entirely waterproof because the stitching they’re using is so sealed and so tight. If you’re already spinning sinew because you’re making thread out of it, and you happen to come across a piece of musk ox hair on the ground, you know how to spin. It’s a very intuitive technique. I've also seen Thule baskets made with spun grasses. If you know how to make baskets, you know how to weave. Why is the idea of indigenous fiber technology shocking, surprising people so much? I don’t know.

Q: What other questions do your findings raise?

KPS: One of the big questions that it raises is, what is the fiber technology of the Dorset? It also shows that the history of contact between various Indigenous cultures of the North (the Dorset and the Thule) with one another and with different European explorers was more complex than expected — and can be unraveled with such unexpected artifacts as yarn and cloth. But I think the most important finding is that the analyses document nearly 1,500 years of creativity, innovation, selective acquisition and use of textiles by the Indigenous people of the Arctic rather than forcing us to believe that spinning yarn and other cultural changes in the North required a brief period of technological transfer from Europeans.


The Haffenreffer Museum supports faculty, staff, and student research and its research staff are engaged in cutting age research through major grants. We look forward to sharing more updates and news on this topic as it becomes available.