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I SPENT MOST OF THE SUMMER OF 1966 VISITING native communities across the Canadian Arctic from the north tip of Labrador to the Alaskan border. My purpose was twofold: to gather material for a book, and to record interviews for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Northern Service.
I travelled in a single-engined Otter float plane, a heavy-paunched beast with the plodding pace of a plough horse and the voice of an outraged dragon. But she was reliable. She carried the pilot, an engineer, and me into and out of any number of unlikely places. When the weather was too bad to fly, her cabin provided us with a dry floor upon which to unroll our sleeping bags, and a place to dine, quite literally by candlelight, on such delicacies as boiled caribou tongues and sun-dried Arctic char.
My original plan had been to visit only Inuit and Indian communities, but on August 11 I made a departure from the schedule.
Several years earlier, while deep in research for Westviking, I learned that William Taylor, an archaeologist employed by the National Museum of Canada, had made a remarkable discovery on Pamiok Island at the mouth of the Payne River, which drains into the west side of Ungava Bay. Local Inuit had led Taylor to what he described as: "a huge rectangular structure measuring 85 feet long by 20 wide.... The walls, which were collapsed, were made of stone."
Taylor had time for only a hurried look at this imposing structure, which was quite unlike anything previously reportedfrom the Arctic. Reasonably enough, neither he nor any other specialist cared to hazard an opinion as to its provenance until it had been properly excavated.
If, and when. By 1965 most of a decade had slipped away without the National Museum having evidenced any further interest in the Pamiok Island conundrum, the solution to which might, I hoped, shed light on Norse ventures to the Canadian Arctic. When I asked a friend at the museum the reason for the institution's lack of interest, he replied that certain quarters felt it could turn out to be archaeologically embarrassing, so had decided to leave it alone.
A short time before setting off on my 1966 Arctic journey I heard that Thomas Lee, an archaeologist from Quebec's Laval University, planned to conduct a dig at Pamiok that summer. Although Westviking had already been published, I decided, time and weather permitting, to visit Pamiok.
On August 10 we were at the Inuit village of Povungnituk on the east coast of Hudson Bay, about as close to Pamiok Island as we were likely to get. I decided to try for it on the morrow.
The eleventh broke overcast and threatening; nevertheless, an hour after dawn, the Otter was in the air labouring eastward across the 250-mile-wide waist of the Ungava Peninsula.
We were buffeted by a strong headwind that held us to what seemed not much better than a fast gallop. A monochromatic panorama of water, rock, and treeless tundra slowly unrolled beneath our wings. To counter the effect of the gale, the pilot flew so low that we several times sent herds of caribou streaming away from us as if we were a gigantic hawk and they a mob of mice.
From the midway point at Payne Lake we thundered down the valley of the Payne River at "deck level" until we came to a broad stretch about ten miles from its mouth. As driving rain and mist threatened to obscure everything, we made a hurried splashdown in front of a small Hudson's Bay Company trading post.
There was no hope of flying on to Pamiok in such foul weather, so I arranged with Zachareesi, a local Inuk, to take me the rest of the way in his outboard-powered canoe.
The tidal range on the west Ungava coast is of the order of thirty feet, and the tide was falling fast as we set out into a confusion of channels and islets. The post manager, a young fellow from Orkney, warned me of the necessity of getting clear of the estuary before we became marooned in a morass of mud and broken rocks from which there would be no escape until the rise of the next tide.
The murk became thicker as Zachareesi fishtailed his canoe through a swirling maelstrom of currents pouring past, and over, unseen rocks. He was "smelling his way" towards the northern headland of the estuary.
Suddenly he shouted and pointed to the left. Wavering in the gloom was a dim shape. The fog swirled away, revealing a stone tower nearly twice the height of a man. Smiling broadly, Zachareesi announced we had reached Tuvalik Point at the mouth of the river and were free of the tormented waters of the estuary.
We went ashore for a smoke. I examined the structure with great interest, and some affection, for it had served us well. It was constructed of flat stones carefully fitted together without mortar to form a cylinder nearly five feet in diameter. It had evidently once stood twelve or more feet high, but had lost a number of upper-level stones, which were scattered around the tower's base. Notably, the undersides of these fallen stones lacked the thick, crusty coating of age-old lichens which clothed the undisturbed surface of the tower.
I asked Zachareesi who had built this useful beacon and when. He grinned and waved his stubby pipe-stem to the north.
"Old-time people. Not Inuit anyhow."
The canoe was in imminent danger of being left high and dry by the receding waters, so we pushed off and in a little while reached Pamiok Island.
This barren mound of sea-wracked rock facing the swirling fogs of Ungava Bay could hardly have seemed less inviting. Seen through a scud of driving mist and rain, it appeared to be a singularly inhospitable place. But appearances were deceptive. Situated close to the mouth of a major river route to the interior caribou country, convenient to bird islands, walrus haul-outs, and excellent sealing grounds, it had been the chosen home of countless generations of human beings.
However, when our canoe nosed up on Pamiok's stony shore, we found the island inhabited by only two people: Thomas Lee and his teenage son, Robert. Their home was a squat tent, struggling to keep a grip on the ground in the teeth of a stiff easterly wind pelting in over the icy waters of the bay.
Lee waded out through the fringe of kelp to greet us. He was then fifty-one years old and looked somewhat like a burly and grizzled barrenland bear graced with a round and ruddy face and a Roman nose.
He had no time to waste. I had barely introduced myself before he was leading me off to tour the island. Late that night I recorded my impressions.
At least this Godforsaken place has no mosquitoes! Too wet, cold, and windy for the little bastards. A corpse shroud of fog came rolling in as I stumbled after Lee across a jumble of shattered rocks and sodden muskeg....
We came to a bunch of knee-high mounds of stones. "Tombs," he told me cheerfully. "Look Inside." I bent down by one, peered through a crevice, and saw a jumble of what could be human bones, but no skull. "I collected the skull," said Lee. "Perhaps it's Eskimo, but I doubt it. I've found five skulls altogether and at least two are more European than Eskimoan. The others look in between."
Almost every little hollow or more-or-less-level bit of ground on the island seems to have its stone tent ring, some of them twenty feet in diameter. There are also numerous depressions Lee said were the remains of semi-subterranean winter houses of ancient pre-Eskimo cultures.
Near the east end of the island we came to three cairns, cylindrical and about six feet high. They don't look anything like the Eskimo inuksuak [stone men] I've seen all over the Arctic. I made the point to Lee and he agreed: "Yes, too big. Too regular. Too well made. Not Eskimoan at all. And look at the thickness of the lichen growth on them. They're too old to belong to the historic period."
We trudged back along the south shore. The tide had fallen so far that the sea was only distantly visible across a vast, glistening plain of jumbled rocks, boulders, and mud. Lee pointed out a sort of broad pathway or ramp running seaward from the high-tide line. Somebody had put in a hell of a lot of work clearing it of the worst of its jagged rocks. Again Lee ruled out natives: "No Eskimo would go to that much trouble to make a boat landing. They wouldn't need to for kayaks and canoes. I think this must have been a haul-out for big boats."
By now I was rain-soaked below the waist and sweat-soaked above. Whatever else he may be, Lee is a bloody dynamo. He trotted me into a bit of shelter behind a ridge of frost-shattered rock to the site he was digging.
Not very impressive. A muddy rectangle about forty-five feet long by maybe fifteen wide, with turf, moss, and stones stripped away to a depth of a few inches, at which point the diggers had hit bedrock. I could just make out the remains of some low stone walls. Lee waited about ten seconds for questions, then beat me to the punch.
"This is some sort of longhouse. Not the kind the Six Nations and other Indians built in the south, but its own kind. There are three like it on Pamiok—two this size and one much larger. The Eskimos say there're several more to the north. Nothing like them has ever before been described in Canadian archaeology.
"I've traced the outline of this one. See, it's somewhat boat-shaped, with slightly curved sides and rounded ends. The walls were of stone and turf and low—four feet at most. I've found little in the way of artefacts except a lot of Dorset-culture [pre-Eskimoan] litharge [scraps and flakes of flint], much of it on top of rotted turf from fallen walls. Dorsets seem to have camped here after this longhouse was abandoned."
Young Robert Lee had been busy making tea. He caught up to us and almost apologetically suggested his father and I might like to come to the tent for a warm-up.
"Not now," Tom replied brusquely. "Too much still to show this man. Let's look at the big house."
He led me up an easy slope and I almost stumbled over the ruin before I saw it. Boulders, tumbled every which way, blended so well with the mess of other rocks, It needed to be pointed out to me. Then I could make out the shape of what looked like a tomb for Gargantua. It was at least eighty feet long, maybe twenty wide, and bloody massive!
In some places the walls still stood three feet high but were mostly broken down, with their boulders rolled into the central space. I say boulders because that's what a lot of them were. Lee guessed some weighed more than a thousand pounds. All were coated with a layer of lichens that must have taken hundreds of years to grow.
Looking across this enormous jumble, Lee summed up his thoughts: "Difficult to believe this was built by Eskimoan people. What earthly reason would they have had? Eskimos may have sometimes pitched their tents inside these longhouses, and Dorset- and Thule-culture [palaeo-Eskimos] probably did the same. But I doubt any of them built these longhouses."
"Then who did?"
He smiled quizzically. "Well, now, Mr. Mowat, I suppose that's for me to find and you to ask. At this stage a cautious professional wouldn't say. But I don't think you'll be surprised if I predict they'll turn out to be Europeans. Possibly Norse."
In the years ahead Tom and I became friends, exchanging findings and opinions. He supplied me with copies of his meticulously detailed archaeological reports. I gave him the results of my research into early Norse history. In 1967 he went back to Ungava and found an even larger longhouse on another island a few miles north of the Payne. He then returned to Pamiok and began an intensive investigation of the big house there. This dig required three seasons to complete and yielded remarkably little enlightenment in view of the enormous amount of time and energy Lee expended on it. Nothing emerged to satisfactorily explain its purpose or identify its builders. It remained an enigma comprising a number of mysteries.
One of these was how the Pamiok big house or, indeed, any of these Arctic longhouses, could have been roofed. Lee's excavations (together with those undertaken in later years by other archaeologists on similar sites) have failed to produce evidence of roof supports, whether of wood or of such possible substitutes as whale bones. Furthermore, the nearest timber suitable for roof construction at the time they were built was at least 120 miles to the south of Pamiok, and 1,500 miles to the south of a group of similar longhouses found in the 1970s on the shores of Kane Basin in the high Arctic.
The roof question has bedevilled every archaeologist who has investigated it. Some have concluded the longhouses weren't "houses" at all and so need never have been roofed. But, if not houses, what were they? The orthodox opinion seems to be that they served some kind of ceremonial or religious purpose; but there is no evidence to buttress such a hypothesis and, as we shall see, the distribution of the sites makes such an explanation inherently improbable.
Tom Lee would have none of it. He suspected the structures were temporary shelters built by Norse voyagers visiting the region around A.D. 1000. Indeed, ground plans of Norse croft houses of that period in Iceland, the northern British Isles, and parts of Scandinavia resemble these Canadian Arctic longhouses. All are long and narrow, often with slightly curved side walls. Proportions and dimensions are generally comparable. There the resemblance ends. Norse (including Icelandic) longhouses were invariably roofed, with sod, turf, bark, or thatch supported upon robust wooden frameworks which have, almost without exception, left archaeologically identifiable traces.
A number of years were to pass following my visit to Pamiok Island before the Arctic longhouses began revealing their mysteries to me. They first did so on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean.
It rained almost incessantly during the first visit of my wife, Claire, and me to Shetland. This cluster of treeless, windswept rocks off the northern tip of mainland Scotland, which, together with its sister archipelago of Orkney, comprises Britain's Northern Isles, was living up to its reputation as a womb of bad weather.
We hardly cared. We had come to Shetland at the Invitation of salmon farmer and antiquarian Alistair Goodlad, who had promised to immerse us in Shetland history until, as he inelegantly put it, "'tis coming out your orifices."
Under Alistair's guidance we sloshed our way to many ancient monuments, including five-thousand-year-old pit houses, recently excavated from under thick layers of peat; subterranean stone tombs of later mesolithic settlers; crumbled neolithic promontory forts; Bronze Age village sites; Iron Age broch towers; and the tumbled walls of Viking houses built a mere thousand years before our time.
Shetland seemed to be a world of ruins, not all of them ancient. Croft house after croft house stood abandoned, slowly crumbling back into the land from which generations of pastoralists had raised them.
Alistair was savage about the empty crofts. "Modern times leave no room for the wee chap, be he fisherman or crofter. After five thousand years making a living on these islands his like has to get out of it now to make way for oil refineries and nuclear power stations. But that's the way of a world gone witless, wouldn't you say?"
We came across other curious things in the course of our wanderings. Along the eastern coasts of the islands of Yell and Unst stood several drystone beacon towers. Some were on headlands, but others were obscurely located near the bottoms of bays and inlets. They reminded me forcibly of those I had seen at, and near, Pamiok Island.
But what particularly captured my interest was a number of buildings roofed with overturned fishing vessels that had, presumably, outlived their seaworthiness. Some of the structures were lowly cattle byres and outbuildings; but others were, or had been, human habitations. One that we later saw on Orkney was fully modern, elegantly built of brick, and sporting two large picture windows staring out, wide-eyed, as it were, from beneath the beetling brow of a capsized wooden vessel that must have been sixty feet in length.
We learned from Alistair that it was an ancient island custom to convert ships that had served their time at sea to this final service. Many Shetlanders, he told us, had been "conceived, lived, and died under or in a boat."
On the final day of our visit he took us up on the hogback of Yell to show us Fetlar, a smaller island seemingly adrift in a wind-whipped sea to the eastward.
"'Tis a weird wee world of its own out there. Supposedly the place the Old Ones held out the longest. There's some believe they're out there still, coming and going in ghostly boats from places the like of which we only get to see in dreams.... "
Shetland and Pamiok were but two steps along the tortuous path I would follow as I worked my way back in time. But telling the tale backwards as it actually unravelled is not the way the old story tellers would have done it. They always began at the beginning.
And so shall I.
|WHY AND WHEREFORES||xiii|
|Chapter One BEGINNINGS||1|
|PART ONE—THE OLD WORLD||13|
|Chapter Two FARFARER||15|
|Chapter Three TUSKERS||23|
|Chapter Four PYTHEAS||36|
|Chapter Five ALBANS AND CELTS||46|
|Chapter Six ARMORICA||56|
|Chapter Seven WAR IN THE NORTH||65|
|Chapter Eight PICTLANDIA||75|
|Chapter Nine FETLAR||82|
|Chapter Ten ALBA REBORN||89|
|Chapter Eleven SONS OF DEATH||98|
|Chapter Twelve FURY OF THE NORTHMEN||107|
|PART TWO—WORLDS TO THE WEST||117|
|Chapter Thirteen TILLI||119|
|Chapter Fourteen SANCTUARY||128|
|Chapter Fifteen ARCTIC ELDORADO||137|
|Chapter Sixteen TUNIT||149|
|Chapter Seventeen THE WESTERN GROUNDS||157|
|Chapter Eighteen WESTVIKING||166|
|Chapter Nineteen LANDTAKING||176|
|Chapter Twenty CRONA||186|
|Chapter Twenty-one UNGAVA||195|
|Chapter Twenty-two OKAK||209|
|Chapter Twenty-three THE GREAT ISLAND||219|
|Chapter Twenty-four A NEW JERUSALEM||229|
|Chapter Twenty-five ERIK RAUDA||233|
|Chapter Twenty-six ARI GOES TO ALBANIA||243|
|Chapter Twenty-seven ALBA-IN-THE-WEST||254|
|Chapter Twenty-eight SEARCHING FOR ALBA||258|
|Chapter Twenty-nine KARLSEFNI AND COMPANY||268|
|Chapter Thirty THE BEST OF TIMES||280|
|Chapter Thirty-one DROGIO AND ESTOTILAND||288|
|Chapter Thirty-two GREENLANDERS||300|
|Chapter Thirty-three JAKATAR||311|
|Chapter Thirty-four THE COUNTRY PATH||321|
Posted October 22, 2000
Farley Mowat, that wonderful writer of such classics as 'Never Cry Wolf' and 'Westvikings' brings us yet again another provocative book. Here he looks into the possibility of pre Norse Europeans in northern Canada by tracing through historical records, similarities in building styles, and other sources. A must read...it puts the standard ideas of Lief Erikson in some interesting perspective.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2009
No text was provided for this review.