Collection Highlight E2072: Drilling Apparatus

These three tools fit together to make a drill! The thin object with the metal nib (like a drill bit we might use today) is placed point-down on the object to be drilled, the fiber of the bow implement is wrapped around the drill bit, and the larger wooden piece is placed on the end of the drill bit to apply pressure and keep the bit steady. The bow is then pulled backwards and forwards rapidly so that the drill bit spins and generates friction—creating a hole! This drilling apparatus was collected by Roderick R. MacFarlane in the Northwest Territories of Canada and accessioned into the museum in 1866.

Explore more objects and images on our online database!

Fulbright Arctic Week: Our Open House

By: Schuyler Litten and Chelsi Slotten

Last Tuesday, October 25th, we had the pleasure of hosting the Arctic Fulbright open house in the Ocean Hall of the National Museum of Natural History.  We welcomed 17 Fulbright Arctic Initiative Scholars from Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Russia, Norway, Sweden and the US.  Their research was complimented by the Arctic Youth Ambassadors who joined us to discuss their experience of life in the Arctic. Representatives from Alaska Geographic, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dartmouth College, University of Alaska Fairbank, the U.S. Department of State, the National Geographic Society and the Institute of International Education were also present.

Arctic Youth Ambassadors in the Ocean Hall. NHB2016-02527, Photograph by James Di Loreto, Smithsonian.

The program engaged visitors of all ages with current research on the impact of climate change on Arctic ecosystems and communities.  Over the course of 3 hours the public interacted directly with experts at 24 stations around the Sant Ocean Hall. Dr. Noor Johnson highlighted the need for more community-led research and involvement with offshore development in Canada, while Dr. Maria Tysiachniouk discussed how to balance the interests of oil companies and indigenous populations in the Arctic. Dr. Øystein Varpe talked about his research observing the relationship between Arctic sea ice and its effect on ecological systems. A few examples are the changes in growth rates among different species and shifts in hunting abilities or patterns due to increased light from receding ice. Itty Neuhaus, the only Fulbright artist, explained the development of her installation. It reflects on the nature of icebergs and their real representation of climate change along their symbolic representation of changes within ourselves. Her 3D printed models of icebergs were created to match their density and behavior in water. Dr. Tamara Harms discussed her research on Arctic freshwater ecosystems and the effects climate change has on areas with significant permafrost melt. Bill Fitzhugh the Director of Arctic Studies and Stephen Loring an Arctic archaeologist had artifacts from our own collections available for the public to interact with. They were used as teaching aids and examples of arctic culture and art.


Dr. Stephen Loring explaining traditional dress as seen on a doll. NHB2016-02556, Photograph by James Di Loreto, Smithsonian.

The importance of involving locals and arctic youth in this conversation was showcased by the presentation of several Arctic Youth Ambassadors who talked about a wide array of subjects relating to their lives in the arctic. One of the Youth Ambassadors, Willie Drake, presented on traditional Yup’ik housing. He discussed the traditional building materials along with functional and cultural uses in relation to their modern counterparts. Jannelle Trowbridge discussed her experience mushing (dog sled pulling) in Alaska with her family.


This open house contributed to the public understanding of the Arctic and stressed the need for continued research in the Arctic. The participation of so many scholars, professionals, and locals highlights the interconnected nature of the Arctic nations, both to one another and the broader world.  Many thanks to all those who participated, both as experts or visitors, and to the Fulbright Arctic Initiative for providing their generous funding of Arctic scholarship.


Climate Days brought together 158 Arctic specialists to share with one another the current knowledge of ice conditions and climate change in the Arctic. The primary venue for the conference was Ilulissat’s Hotel Arctic.



Sponsors who made this conference possible include Denmark’s National Space Institute, the Nordic Council of Ministers, the European Space Agency, the International Arctic Science Committee, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, the Hotel Arctic, and others.



Opening Session


Introductions made at Ilulissat’s sports hall (Ilulissat Hallen) were presented by Mala Høy,

Greenland Minister of Nature, Environment, and Justice. Anne Riiser presented a welcome from the Nordic Council of Ministers (NORDFORSK).


Professor Rene Forsberg led off for the major sponsoring institution, DTU-Space,

which is a Danish research Institute and part of the Technical University of Denmark. Here, he follows with a conversation with Toku Oshima of Qaanaaq, Greenland, on climate change and its effects on traditional hunting and fishing.

Professor Konrad Steffen, Director of the Swiss Federal Research Institute, began with the observation that sea level had been constant for 2,000 to 3,000 years. Now, with global warming producing more melt water and the upper layers of the ocean undergoing thermal expansion, we are seeing sea level begin to rise. The warmest year to date is 2014. Through changes in precipitation, evaporation, runoff, and ice discharge, the Greenland Ice Sheet is experiencing a loss in ice mass. The warming oceans are increasingly a key factor in melting of both glacier and sea ice.

Dr. Jennifer Mercer contractor to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) thanked that body for its support of Arctic and Antarctic research, with its largest funding increases directed to Alaska and Greenland. Other conference leadoff speakers included Jørgen Hammeken-Holm, Acting Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources. He commented that even with all the sea ice reduction in Greenland waters, commercial quantities of gas and oil have not been found.

Dr. Mark Drinkwater from the Netherlands, with the European Space Agency addressed the use of satellite programs through which ESA monitors and studies the cryosphere. He offers that the ocean is becoming warmer and there is more evaporation – more moisture in air, and more precipitation, which falls as snow at higher elevation in central Greenland, which rises to above 10,000 ft.

Karen Anne Arleth, Head of Greenland’s Climate Office addressed Greenland climate change and adaptation policy.

From a cultural change perspective, artists Bjarki Bragason and Anna Lindal of Iceland talked of how politics influences both economy and nature. A loop has been created in which cultural change is causing climate change, which leads to further cultural change – a continuous downward lock step spiral of climate and culture, as we know them. Bragason and Lindal raise the question: Can our economic model be sustained?

Glacier Dynamics:

Selected Modeling Endeavors

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Image caption: Subsequent conference sessions over the period June 3 through 5 were held in the Hotel Arctic, which operates under the Directorship of Erik Bjerregaard. Aerial image is of hotel with town to right (south) and airport to left (north).


Maximum thickness of sea ice around Greenland occurred in the 1980s. In 2012, on the ice sheet, Greenland experienced its record year for glacial melt. 2013 had much less melt, possibly due to a coldwater incursion into coastal fjords that reduced the amount of ice lost through calving. This temporarily reduced the ice discharge of outlet glaciers.

The European Space Agency (ESA) through its Climate Change Initiative (CCI) space program measures ice mass through three variables: elevation, gravity, and ice flow velocity. The data show that there is more ice melt in Greenland than in Ellesmere and Baffin combined, particularly in 2010 and 2012.

One of the leaders of these modeling endeavors is Konrad Steffen who has personally installed 25 automatic weather stations in Greenland.

  1-Greenland Conference

Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) does very impressive modeling of ice sheet climatology and surface mass balance. The key is understanding the relationship between elevation and precipitation and the amount of surface melting. These variables are all represented in “Greenland Mass Loss Fits”. Several different models use the same data in different ways, though all realize the same trend of decreasing Greenland ice mass.

In its climate change studies in Greenland, Stability and Variations of Arctic Land Ice (SVALI), a Nordic research initiative, found like GEUS that while there is loss of ice through melt in lower reaches of Greenland, the volume of ice at higher, central elevations continues to increase. As the atmosphere and oceans warm, there is more evaporation and precipitation, with the latter falling as snow at higher elevations in Greenland.

Changes in ice sheet mass can be measured in Greenland by using “space-borne grravimetry”. A pair of orbiting satellites repeatedly measures the gravitational attraction of ice sheet as they pass overhead. The amount of ice lost as the ice sheet melts and as icebergs break off the edge of the ice sheet is not compensated for by new snow and ice. The satellites measure the resulting mass imbalance.

Glacial velocity is a function of season and proximity to sea. There are interesting patterns of advance and retreat, which correlate with ocean temperature. The ice dynamics are a function of velocity (which is a function of the steepness of the outlet glacier), calving rate (which is related to ocean temperature) and subglacial hydrology. (Ian Joughin and Ben Smith). The force of gravity, the weight of the ice, drives ice flow. Changes in climate can modify the frictional forces that resist ice flow. For example, lubrication by melt water can reduce friction if it makes its way to the base of the ice sheet, allowing faster flow.

There is an increase in snowfall in central Greenland, which doesn’t compensate for the mass lost at the edges.

2-Greenland Conference

In 2013, the rate at which ice loss was occurring slowed. With apparent overturning of the North Atlantic’s massive waters, there was likely a cold-water incursion into the fjords around Greenland, with less heat energy being delivered to the outlet glaciers. This unusual event caused several outlet glaciers to temporarily thicken and advance as of time of conference May 2015 (Mike Bevis). The temperature has averaged three degrees less than the average temperature for this time of year calculated over the last 30 years, barometric pressure has decreased, and precipitation has increased.

A significant realization of glacial modeling is that climate feedback mechanisms, like weather, are not linear.

Through its Climate Change Initiative (CCI), the European Space Agency has investigated ‘essential climate variables’, which are related to changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet. CCI data products include ice velocity, surface elevation change, calving front location, and grounding line location.

Doug Benn concluded that calving, sub-aqueous melting, and buoyancy of, causes the front of floating ice to bend upwards, as ice beneath the water line melts more rapidly than ice above the water line. This has led to collapsing ice fronts at glaciers in Svalbard. Water from beneath glaciers can drive circulation in fjords, bringing in warmer ocean water that enhances the rate of ice melt and calving, sometimes accelerating glacial speed. Benn suggested that glacier surges may sometimes be driven by ice changes at the front of the glacier rather than up in the accumulation area of the glacier.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program identified black carbon as a short-lived pollutant that drifts in from the south with 2015 proving to be a record-breaking high as massive, largely uncontrolled forest fires burn throughout western North America from California through British Columbia to Alaska with carbon particulate matter streaming to the Arctic. Local sources of black carbon further amplify build up. Every Arctic village has its own diesel-fired generator or electrical plant that emits black carbon.

The Greenland Climate Research Centre studies the fundamental relationships between community, ice, and living resources in northwest Greenland. They ask what does weather and climate change mean to the people who are dependent upon the sea for a livelihood. The essence of culture is to serve as a repository of hard won knowledge gained over time, which lends predictability to life. Actor Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves speaks of the loss of this predictability among the Southwest American Indians in the nineteenth century: “Through changes in circumstances, a people who become unable to predict the future become confused”.

Ilulissat Climate Days effectively demonstrated the complexity of climate science through the truly, fascinating modeling of environmental change in Greenland and with worldwide implications of those changes.

The Greenland Ice Mapping Project has tracked Jakobshavn (now Ilulissat) for 20 years, through 2014. The greatest rate of ice loss was in 2012. In recent years, the glacial terminus where calving occurs in Jakobshavn is moving inland approximately 600 meters each year.

Tracking Jakobshavn Glacier Flow

In 2013 I had the good fortune to meet Jens Ploug Larsen, a pilot who flies with Air Greenland as well as with his own local airline, Airzafari. In 2015, with one of Jens’s pilots, Martin, we tracked the Jakobshavn Glacier from Ilulissat inland towards the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photographs track glacial progression from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Note that images portray calving, or “ablation”, that begins well away from the sea.

To present this one glacier in a quantitative, global context, Jakobshavn – one of Greenland’s most prolific – each year produces enough water to satisfy all of the annual water requirements of the United States.

The Greenland Ice Sheet, which rises to more than 2 miles in height, is like a frozen desert that drifts largely through the forces of elevation (gravity) and ice mass. While still miles form the sea, a stream from the Greenland ice sheet enters the Jakobshavn channel. With compression and steeper incline, the ablation zone, region of calving, begins while still miles from the sea.


A major ablation zone of Jakobshavn is fed with a number of ice streams, which congregate like the headwaters and tributaries of a river watershed. In front of the glacier is the top of a sheared wall, still prominently displayed as one large ridge with a zone of ice detritus in between.

03-4249.(rev)Ablation wall 04-4268.JKBG_Collapsed wall copy












Iceberg wall, shaped like preceding image of a sheared wall, now floats in the waters of Ilulissat’s Icefjord. All will become icebergs - and water.

05-4325.JKBG_Iceberg wall copy

In the setting sun of an Arctic evening, a paddler in his kayak navigates through the icebergs of the Jakobshavn Glacier, calved into the waters of Ilulissat.


NSF flight with Air National Guard 109th from Stratton Air Force Base Scotia, New York to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

07-C-130_Kangerlussuaq 08-C130 June 2010_wer













The US National Science Foundation (NSF) arranged for air transport for the American delegation on an U.S. Air Force C-130 from Stratton Base in upstate New York to Greenland’s primary airport, Kangerlussuaq.


Wilfred E. Richard, PhD Research Associate

Arctic Studies Center, U.S. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History,

Washington, D.C.

Research Fellow, Uummannaq Polar Institute, Uummannaq, Greenland



Michael John Willis, PhD, Research Associate

Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University

Adjunct Assistant Research Professor

Geological Sciences

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill



Hal Salzman, PhD

Professor and Senior Faculty Fellow

Rutgers, The State University of New York



Renee D. Crain - National Science Foundation Logistical Support

Jens Ploug Larsen - Airzafari

Ronald W. Levere - publication design

Free Public Lecture on Life and Death in the Arctic on January 15, 2016

Ernest “Tiger” Burch Memorial Lecture Series, 2016

Caribou, Cod, Climate, and Man: A Story of Life and Death in the Arctic

By: Morten Meldgaard, Natural History Museum of Denmark and University of Greenland

January 15th, 2016, 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in the Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.



Far from being a remote planetary ‘deep-freeze’, the Arctic region today is recognized as a dynamic environment that has played a major role in the evolution and spread of animals and plants as well as the migrations and development of peoples and cultures. This presentation begins by investigating why Late Quaternary megafauna like the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros went extinct while others like caribou and bison prevailed. What caused these differential outcomes? And what was the role of humans and climate in the dramatic changes that took place subsequently?

In order to explore these questions we will consider the history of caribou and caribou hunting in Greenland, where excavations at the important site Aasivissuit (“the Great Summer Camp”) reveal a close human association for several thousand years. Archaeological evidence reveals that dramatic caribou population crashes have occurred time and again, forcing major changes in the human economies. The key to human survival has been the development of broad-based, resilient resource strategies.

To understand what this strategy looked like and how people coped with fluctuating resources we examine the 4000 year old Saqqaq site “Qeqertasussuq” on a small West Greenland island in Disko Bay that has produced a wealth of biocultural information from the frozen remains of seals, fish, caribou and whales. Ironically, in spite of apparent abundance, Saqqaq suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. What happened? Did the marine resource base disintegrate? Did winter sea-ice disappear? Were other agents in play?

Given recent history, one cannot but wonder if humans had a decisive role in cycles of key resource populations over time?  Archaeology and history shows that humans have decimated many Arctic animal populations and that the scale of human impact has changed dramatically with industrialized exploitation. Instances of local prehistoric population decreases and extinctions have been replaced by massive over-exploitation that is resulting in possible irreversible changes in the populations of keystone species and even in the structure of entire ecosystems, in the Arctic and beyond.

Dr. Morten Meldgaard (Ph.D. in Biology, 1990, University of Copenhagen) is Professor of Arctic environmental history at the University of Greenland. He served as the directors of Danish Natural History Museum (2007-2014), The North Atlantic House (a cultural center for culture and art, 2000-2005), and the Danish Polar Center (1995-200). He conducted zooarchaeological research in Greenland and Labrador and published widely on historical ecology, animal fluctuation cycles, Inuit use of animal resources, and application of mtDNA and other genomic data in studying ancient human migrations in the Arctic.

Arctic Spring Festival Success!

By: Bill Fitzhugh. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No 22. 62-63.

Official poster for the Arctic Spring Festival.

More than 50,000 people were in the museum during the Arctic Spring Festival and over 5,000 people interacted directly with experts at stations in the Sant Ocean Hall and the Evans Gallery, while an additional 1,900 visited the Q?rius Education Center to play games, learn crafts, explore objects, jam on video games, and watch films related to Arctic science and culture. Just as one example, Martin Nweeia’s narwhal station in the Sant Ocean Hall logged 1,262 visitors in four hours!

Martin Nweeia attracts a crowd with his replica narwhal tusk! Photo: James DiLoreto, Smithsonian Institution.

The festival also featured performances in the Rotunda and Q?rius Loft by a youth group from the Uummannaq Children's Home in Uummannaq, Greenland, and a contemporary music and dance performance by Jody Sperling’s NYC-based dance team on the theme of melting Arctic ice.

Jody Sperling's group performs Ice Cycle.
Choreographer Jody Sperling, her company Time Lapse Dance, and composer Matthew Burtner present Ice Cycle for the evening dance performance on Saturday, May 9. Photo: Trish Mace.

Visitors and experts, young and old, local DC residents, and travelers from afar all had great conversations with Arctic experts and unique educational experiences throughout the Museum.

Igah Hainnu instructs Noor Johnson on traditional caribou carving. Ms. Hainnu is an artist from Clyde River, Canada, who was sponsored by the Embassy of Canada to come down for the Festival and share her knowledge and art with our visitors. Photo: James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution.


Bill Fitzhugh, Director of the Arctic Studies Center, addresses a question at the panel. Left to right: Mead Treadwell, Craig Fleener, Stephanie Pfirman, Bill Fitzhugh. Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian Institution.

The program began with a Friday afternoon panel discussion with eight Arctic experts from the Smithsonian (Krupnik and Fitzhugh), Arctic Research Commission (John Farrell), DOS (Nikoosh Carlo), Canadian Museum of Nature (Margaret Beckel), Stephanie Pfirman (Barnard college), Craig Fleener (Alaska Governor’s office), and Mead Treadwell (former ARC chief and Lt. Gov. of Alaska). The panel was opened with Sounds of the Arctic by Charles Morrow and CAFF award winning photos and other Arctic photos from government agencies, set to sound by Meghan Mulkerin. Arctic films were shown on Friday at the panel and all day on Sunday, by the Greenland Eyes International Film Festival. In addition, the Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble delighted the audience with a short performance at the panel. A reception was hosted Friday night by the Danish/ Greenland Embassy. Friday afternoon and Saturday were devoted to the public education events noted above, presented by NMNH, NOAA, NPS, DOS, DOI, USFWS, BLM, CAFF, BOEM, NSSI, NAS, NSF, NASA, ONR, National Ice Center, Tromso Museum, the Arctic Council, the Canadian Embassy, the Royal Norwegian Embassy, and the Danish Embassy with Visit Greenland.

Pablo Clemente-Colón, Chief Scientist from the U.S. National Ice Center interacts with a visitor in the Sant Ocean Hall.

More than 150 people from over 20 partner organizations and agencies participated and provided materials and specimens, literature, website programs, Arctic ice maps, temperature curves, and nature photography for the festival – among the more unique items were a musk ox (with head) and polar bear pelts; a demonstration on how to make boots from king salmon skins; a narwhal tusk; Greenland ethnographic objects; and an ingenious melting ‘glacier goo’ game led by the PoLAR Partnership. The Uummannaq Greenland Youth Ensemble performed numerous times in different places of the Natural History Museum.

The Uummannaq Children's Home Youth Ensemble performs in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History during the Arctic Spring Festival, May 9, 2015. Photo: James Di Loreto.

The festival made a major contribution to public understanding of the Arctic and was a fitting way to introduce the new US Arctic Council Chairmanship period and its theme of public outreach and education. The Arctic Spring Festival would not have been possible without the generous sponsorship our our donors and the herculean contributions of Meghan Mulkerin, our new Program Coordinator in the Arctic Studies Center, and our colleagues in the Office of Education and Outreach, Barbara Stauffer, Margery Gordon, Jen Collins, Trish Mace, Colleen Popson, Naimah Muhammad, Courtney Gerstenmaier and Megan Chen. Igor Krupnik, Stephen Loring, and Bill Fitzhugh were also instrumental to the process of gathering partners and entertainers together for this wonderful program.

Joel Issak, Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer at the fish skin sewing activity.
Joel Issak shows Meghan Mulkerin, Rebecca Clemens, and Barbara Stauffer the finer points of fish skin sewing. Photo: Robert Radu.

The Arctic Spring Festival was generously funded by: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Arctic Studies Center, Living in the Anthropocene Initiative, and Recovering Voices, with additional support from The U.S. Arctic Research Commission, The PoLAR Partnership (supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation: DUE–1239783), Oak Foundation, The Ed Nef Foundation, Embassy of Canada, Royal Norwegian Embassy, and Embassy of Denmark.

A Social Media Internship with the Arctic Studies Center

By: Ismelda R. Correa. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 77-78.

Isme with Henry the elephant in the rotunda of NMNH

I was in residence with the Arctic Studies Center as a social media intern as part of the University of Houston partnership with the Smithsonian for three-weeks. The idea of working on social media in an anthropology office was a new experience for me. While I am confident in my technical knowledge—my major is chemical engineering—I knew I was going to work on two subjects I had limited experience with: social media and the Arctic. Don’t misunderstand me. While I am active on social media as much as every other 20-year-old, I did lack a Twitter and Instagram account. Additionally, I did not know how a research center in the most visited natural history museum in the world used Facebook. Could they post memes?

With her cheerful and approachable personality, my mentor, Meghan Mulkerin, soothed my worries soon after meeting her. My assignment was to provide the Arctic Studies Center (ASC) feedback on their social media outreach, which ranged from their own website and blog, Magnetic North, to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and to create some content of my own working with Meghan and Bill Fitzhugh. A few days after starting my internship, Meghan arranged for me to meet two other social media experts within the Smithsonian community; Maria Anderson, the Press Secretary for Latino Media and Adriel Luis, the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Asian Pacific American Center. In our separate meetings, they discussed successful social media strategies and answered all of my questions. By the end of the meetings, I was better prepared to complete my assignment and amazed at the support the Smithsonian Institution offers to its interns. 

As I was learning about the do’s and don’ts of the various social media platforms, I worked on honing my tweeting skills. In an attempt to use the information I had learned on successfully engaging with our followers on Arctic subjects, I came up with my first tweet. As the day progressed, I constantly monitored the amount of retweets and favorites. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of it. As a note, the Unangax/Aleut people live in the Aleutian Islands located in western Alaska.

Isme's first tweet!

One of the benefits of interning at the Smithsonian’s NMNH is the behind the scenes access interns and fellows have to the collections. While my internship was short-term, I got to see three different collections, the Burgess Shale, paleobiology (fossil marine mammals) and the birds collection. The tours were led by researchers within the departments that encouraged our questions.

As the end of my internship approaches, I appreciate social media is more than a form of entertainment. It is a powerful tool museums are using, and constantly improving, to engage with the American public; a public that has changed and is constantly changing the way they obtain information. Most of all, I have to praise the willingness of the Smithsonian Institution and the smaller research-divisions it is made up of (like the Arctic Studies Center) to embrace the  use of social media to reach out to the American public in order to uphold their mission of increasing and spreading knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about internships at the Smithsonian, please visit the Office of Fellowships and Internships. Watch the video below for more on what Isme and her fellow interns from the University of Houston had to say about their experiences at the Smithsonian!



Arctic Crashes: Harp Seals and Eskimos in Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence

By: William Fitzhugh. Originally Published in ASC Newsletter No. 22, pg 29-33.

Harp seals have been intertwined with human history ever since people began living along the Arctic and Subarctic shores of the North Atlantic. Harps were quite likely a resource for Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe and for hundreds of years and more recently have been a mainstay for Saami, Finns, and Russians living around the White Sea. In the Northwest Atlantic, harps have been important for Maritime Archaic Indian cultures between 8000-4000 years ago from Maine to northern Labrador and have sustained Paleoeskimo, Inuit and Innu peoples who occupied the regions in the Canadian Eastern Arctic and Greenland south to Newfoundland and the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The latter regions have been investigated by the Smithsonian for more than thirty years. The presence or absence of Harp seals may have been a major factor, along with climate change, for cultural migrations and boundary changes between these culturally-distinct populations.

Field Program 2014   

Testing this hypothesis became the focus of a sub-project of the ASC’s “Arctic Crashes” project in 2014-2015 as part of the author’s on-going research into Eskimo and Inuit culture development in Labrador, Newfoundland, and the Quebec Lower North shore. Arctic Crashes is exploring the causes and effects of fluctuations in northern animal populations and its impact on human societies. The recent discovery of Inuit winter occupations on the LNS west of Blanc Sablon has provided a new data-set with which to test the climate/pack-ice/southern Eskimo migration model in which three culturally and chronologically distinct Eskimo/Inuit groups occupied—and then abandoned—the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and Island of Newfoundland: Groswater Paleoeskimo 2500-2200 BP; Newfoundland Dorset 1800-1400 BP; and Labrador Inuit AD 1500-1750.

Hart Chalet site under excavation by Alaina Harmon and Mariel Kennedy in August 2014. View north through entry passage into house interior.

With support from the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenge Program, we conducted field surveys and excavations in July and August 2014, from Hamilton Inlet (Labrador) to Brador and St. Paul Bay on Quebec’s LNS. Fieldwork was facilitated by the ASC’s research vessel Pitsiulak was staffed by a field team including Alaina Harmon and Notre Dame student Marielle Kennedy. Ted Timreck and Sandra Kingsbury produced video documentation for the ASC and NMNH’s Q?rius Education Center. Our activities concentrated on excavations at the Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site near Brador (Quebec) where we spent ten days conducting excavations in Houses 1 and 2 and recovered a large sample of bone and shell midden material dated to ca. 1700. This sample is now being analyzed by Claire St. Germaine of University of Montreal. After species identifications have been made we will be submitting samples for isotopic analysis to determine water temperature and other characters suitable for environmental reconstruction. (See here for related Crashes studies of the paleo-marine environment conducted by Walter Adey and colleagues.)     

Project Background    

Thirty years ago when we identified major north-south movements in Labrador’s Eskimo-Indian boundaries, correlations between these changes and climate cycles identified in the pollen records and Greenland ice cores suggested climate as the primary causal factor. The correlation was particularly strong with the distribution of Eskimo groups, who were heavily dependent on sea ice and its associated fauna. The mechanism suggested was shifts in the duration and southward extent of seasonal pack ice. Cooler weather brought more pack ice south and produced longer winters in coastal regions. Eskimo resources that came with the pack ice were ring, harp, bearded, and bladdernose seals, and walrus and bowhead whales. We also knew that the historic period Labrador Inuit had expanded their whale-hunting culture into areas of central and southern Labrador formerly occupied by the Innu. But earlier Paleoeskimo groups like the Dorset and Pre-Dorset were walrus and seal hunters, not whalers. Dorset Paleoeskimos expanded far south of the Thule/Labrador Inuit boundary, occupying the entire Island of Newfoundland and nearby northeastern shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. What was it about the pack ice that enabled this Dorset expansion about 2000 years ago, as well as an earlier Groswater expansion, also including all of Newfoundland around 600 B.C.? Walrus remains are not common in Groswater and Dorset sites in Newfoundland, but harp seals are present in great numbers. The more that we researched the question of early Eskimo expansions and retreats from their maximal southern limits, the more it became evident that the answer must be found in changes in the distribution of pack ice and harp seals.

Harp Seal Biology and Ecology

Harp seals are the most abundant marine mammal in the northwestern Atlantic—some 6-9 million animals. Their biology, ecology, and migratory behavior (Sargeant 1991) have been investigated in detail due to the species’ economic importance to traditional and commercial hunters from Greenland to Newfoundland, and because of the controversy over the commercial hunt of its new-born ‘whitecoats’ around Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Harp seals migrate annually from Baffin Bay and Davis Strait in large companies of 20 to 100 or more individuals. The migration strikes the northern Labrador coast in late October or November and proceeds south in waves, with animals hugging the shore and entering the exact same bays and island passages year-after-year just as ice begins to form. Labrador Thule and 16-18th C. Labrador Inuit sites contain large numbers of harp seal bones. During the 19-20th C. thousands of harps were caught annually by Inuit and Europeans with rifles and nets along the Labrador coast and the Quebec Lower North Shore. A Newfoundland hunt (both traditional and commercial) for adult harps and white-coats has been conducted off-shore on the floating pack-ice by ship-borne hunters since the mid-19th century.

The main mass of the harp migration takes several weeks to pass any given location. Reaching southern Labrador, part of the herd remains on the newly-formed pack ice east of southern Labrador and northern Newfoundland in a region called “The Front.” The other segment passes with the drifting ice through the Strait of Belle Isle into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Part of this group hugs the Quebec coast west to Natashquan and Mingan where they remain a few weeks feeding before turning south to their birthing area on the ice floes north of the Magdalen Islands. The rest of the Gulf herd passes south along the west coast of Newfoundland before re-grouping north of the Magdalens. They remain here and in other areas of stable ice throughout the winter. In February and March, the females give birth on the ice to pups known as white-coats. The mothers tend and feed their pups for several weeks as they cannot feed themselves or even dive because the thick furry white coats that keep them from freezing on the open ice are too buoyant. When their blubber has thickened and the white-coats have been replaced by shorter hair, they begin to swim and feed on their own.

In April, the adult harps gather again, this time to bask in the sun and to moult, and when the pack ice melts in April and May, they head north in small companies. Adults leave first, then the young, following a hydrographic feature known as the “Eskimo Channel” that parallels the west coast of Newfoundland. It is this northward migration that was the primary target of Port au Choix Dorset hunters, as their route passes close to shore at Pointe Riche. After leaving Newfoundland the migration is generally too far off-shore in the outer pack off Labrador to be accessible to shore-based hunters and reaches the summering grounds around Greenland and Baffin Bay in June and July.

Like the arrival and departure of geese and of salmon, the harp migration was a relatively dependable phenomenon during the historical period. Catch statistics varied considerably though, as a result of variable hunting access due to storms, dangerous ice, or inaccessible locations far from shore. Throughout the historical era the harp catch was a crucial early winter and spring resource to the Inuit, European settlers, and some Indian groups throughout Labrador, along the Quebec LNS, and northern and western Newfoundland. When unavailable due to population decline, abandonment of the Gulf, or inaccessibility, the loss of harp seals caused hardship for European settlers, and for traditional cultures, it could spell disaster.

Whale bone and caribou antler implements from Hart Chalet Inuit winter village site (House 1).

It has long been known that the economy of the Phillip’s Garden Dorset site at Port au Choix, one of the largest Paleoeskimo sites in the Eastern Arctic and Subarctic, was based predominantly on harp seals.  This dependence, particularly at the key site of Port au Choix, has led to speculation that a change in migration route or a precipitous population crash may have caused the site’s abandonment, and subsequently, in a domino-like effect, the disappearance of Dorset culture throughout the rest of Newfoundland (Bell and Renouf 2008, 2011; Renouf and Bell 2009). In earlier years, the discussion was all about the ice—how close and how thick it was; where was it moving; and how to get to it—because this was where harp seals congregated. Every year conditions varied from region-to-region, but western Newfoundland in early spring was where seals could be expected most dependably (Hodgetts (2003, 2005; Hodgetts et al. 2003), especially at Port au Choix where the cape bordered the Harp seal migration north following the Eskimo Channel (LeBlanc 1996, 2000). For many years local hunters have reported that shifting spring winds and currents in the Gulf ice sometimes caused harp migrations to shift from western Newfoundland across to the Quebec Lower North Shore, taking the animals out of reach of Newfoundland hunters (D. Sargeant pers. comm. 1972). Similarly, LNS hunters frequently speak about winters when harps become unavailable during their early winter migration because of lack of ice or from ice having been blown too far off-shore to reach with small boats (pers. comm. with Harrington Harbor hunters, 2001-10; Murray 2011).

Archaeozoological studies have made cultural and environmental reconstructions more specific. Hodgetts et al. (2003), citing a decreasing percentage of harp seal bones and diversification of diet to include more fish and birds in the later Dorset components at Port au Choix, suggest a broadening of the diet and less dependence on harp seals than in earlier years. Changes like this could be a response to reduced harp seal availability. Citing chronomid midge frequency changes in sediments from nearby Bass Pond, (Rosenberg et al. 2005) suggested that terrestrial warming at Port au Choix peaked at 1100 BP, coincident with the end of the Dorset occupation. Marine pollen transfer function studies off southwestern Newfoundland (Levac 2003) indicated a warming of Gulf waters at this time. Based on these studies, Renouf and Bell (Renouf and Bell 2009; Bell and Renouf 2011:37) speculated that climate warming may have undermined sea ice conditions and destabilized the harp seal population and its migration routes, ending Dorset tenure at Port au Choix, and through cascade effects, severing Dorset contacts with Labrador and bringing an end to Dorset culture throughout Newfoundland.

Seal mandible from Hart site H1 midden which produced shells and large amounts of caribou bones.

Based on observations of the past few years, a variation of this hypothesis may be suggested that more explicitly links advances and retreats of Groswater, Dorset, and southern Inuit occupations south of Cartwright to cycles of harp seal availability. Johnston et al. (2005, 2012) report that, since 1996, the formation of pack ice in the Gulf has declined dramatically, such that in many areas there is no ice at all, and where it is present it is weak and breaks up in storms. This situation has become even more dramatic since 2007 and has been widely reported in the press. If ice thins or disappears before the white-coats have molted, they usually drown. The winters of 2010-2012 in the northern Gulf were so mild that many areas had no ice, and female seals had to give birth in the water or on shore. When this happens pups drown or are abandoned and die on shore or are lost to gulls and other predators. Poor ice conditions are thought to have resulted in a large losses of pups in 1981, and in 1998-2005.

Hart Chalet House 1 west midden, where shells, mammal and fish bones were recovered.

In July 2010, during fieldwork on the Quebec LNS, we found harp pup carcasses on-shore, and local hunters told of “thousands” dying in the vicinity of their villages. Without the winter ice platform, wildlife officials cannot conduct aerial population counts, so the effect of these recent low-ice winters on the population is not easily quantified. Johnston et al. (2005) documented a significant reduction in sea ice cover on the east coast of Canada since 1995. These data show cyclicity in ice presence and absence that seems to be keyed to the North Atlantic Oscillation. A more recent study (Johnston et al. 2012) using satellite photography has shown that “warming in the North Atlantic over the last 32 years has significantly reduced winter sea ice cover in harp seal breeding grounds, resulting in sharply higher death rates among seal pups in recent years.” This study found that seasonal sea ice cover in all four harp seal breeding regions around the North Atlantic has declined by up to 6 percent each decade since 1979, when satellite records of ice conditions began, and that in low ice years virtually all the young of the year die. Whether the current pattern will persist long enough to have a significant impact on harp seal population remains to be seen, because these losses can take a decade to have an effect, after the current cohorts reach sexual maturity. If the ice does not return, the Gulf portion of the herd will decline or disappear, and the remaining animals will have to shift to the Labrador Front or to other locations where pack ice remains. If this happens, it will result in the loss of the most dependable marine mammal resource in the eastern Gulf and the one that has been the sustaining resource for southern Dorset and Inuit population extensions. Its negative impact on Labrador Eskimo populations would diminish northwards, since harps would still be migrating south, though in smaller numbers, to whelp on the Labrador Front. Its importance to Maritime Archaic and later Indian populations is difficult to determine, because their economies were more diversified, judging from their settlement systems and rare instances when faunal remains or organic tools have survived.

Ice cover is the sine qua non for harp seal availability in the Gulf. Warmer temperatures, both of sea water and air, have been steadily reducing the winter and spring build-up and persistence of pack ice in the Labrador Current. Owing to the narrow and shallow Strait of Belle Isle most of this winter ice does not enter the Gulf but rather follows the south-moving Labrador Current along the northeast coast of Newfoundland. For this reason the amount of Gulf pack ice that forms is mostly dependent on local conditions, especially wind and temperature, which can vary depending on whether air masses are Arctic or Atlantic in origin. For the past several years conditions have produced little or no ice, and a strong correlation has been found between Gulf ice and the North Atlantic Oscillation (Johnston et al. 2005, 2012). According to this research we may expect the trend toward low ice years in the Gulf to continue for some time. Since rising temperatures are generally thought not to have reached the peaks known from the Hypsithermal or Medieval Warm levels, the loss of ice in the Gulf in recent years suggests that these waters may have been free of winter ice even in periods of moderate warmth. If so, the Gulf harp herd may be seen as a marginal or episodic population that comes and goes in step with climatic cycles. While the loss of the Gulf harp population may not have serious consequences for Labrador and possibly eastern Newfoundland, which are ‘upstream’ in the harp southern migration, it would cripple intensive adaptations to this resource in the northern and eastern Gulf. As a result, it seems likely that climatic conditions controlling the appearance and disappearance of winter ice in the Gulf have also governed whether cultures with a high degree of dependence on this one marine resource, most particularly Groswater and Dorset Paleoeskimo and Historic 17-19th C. Inuit cultures, could survive here over the long-term. There is therefore a good chance that these climate/ice/seal cycles explain the southern Groswater expansion and at least the disappearance of Newfoundland Dorset. Absence of large, dependable harp populations in the Gulf and around Newfoundland may also offer a possible explanation for the dominance or resurgence of Indian cultures on the Central Labrador coast during warm climatic periods.

New Findings

New research techniques and more local studies are beginning to allow us to investigate these issues. The development of more paleoenvironmental records from Newfoundland noted above have contributed to understanding human-environmental interactions in the island’s prehistory (Bell and Renouf 2008; Renouf and Bell 2009). New studies from the Gulf that document changes in the annual monthly duration of sea ice cover in the Gulf, on the Labrador coast, and around Newfoundland will provide the key data for substantiating the hypothesis presented here. Recent studies of corraline algae, a slow-growing coral-like species that formed encrustations on underwater rocks, has provided information on marine climate along the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts (Halfar et al. 2014) that begins to corroborate other proxies with data specifically keyed to seasonal sea ice duration and overall reductions in southern extent of pack ice. If physical conditions can be correlated with modern population numbers we may have a solid foundation for understanding southern Eskimo territorial expansions and retreats. Another line of inquiry presently being followed is reconstruction of local paleo-marine temperatures from isotopic studies of harp and other marine mammal bones from dated archaeological deposits. These tests are currently being conducted under the ASC’s ‘Arctic Crashes’ project using fauna from our Labrador and Lower North Shore (Quebec) collections.     

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.


Bell, Trevor, and M.A.P. Renouf
2008    The Domino Effect: Culture Change and Environmental Change in Newfoundland, 1500-1100 cal. BP. The Northern Review 28:72-94.
2011    By Land and Sea: Landscape and Marine Environment Perspectives on Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, pp. 21-41. Springer.

Halfar, Jochen, Adey, Walter H., Kronz, Andreas, Hetzinger, Steffen, Edinger, Evan, and Fitzhugh, William W.
2014    Arctic sea-ice decline archived by multicentury annual-resolution record from crustose coralline algal proxy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(49): 19737-19741. doi:10.1073/pnas.1313775110.

Hodgetts, Lisa M.
2005    Using Bone Measurements to Determine the Season of Harp Seal Hunting at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo Site of Phillip’s Garden. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20(1):91-106.
2007    The Changing Pre-Dorset Landscape of Southwestern Hudson Bay, Canada. Journal of Field Archaeology 42 (4) 353-367.

Hodgetts, L.M., M.A.P. Renouf, M.S. Murray, D. McCuaig-Balwil, and L. Howse
2003    Changing Subsistence Practices at the Dorset Palaeoeskimo site of Phillip’s Garden, Newfoundland. Arctic Anthropology 40(1):106-120.

Johnston, David W., Ari S. Friedlaender, L.G. Torres, and David M. Lavigne
2005    Variation in Sea Ice Cover on the East Coast of Canada from 1969 to 2002. Climate Variability and Implications for Harp and Hooded Seals. Climate Research 29:209-222.

Johnston David W., Matthew T. Bowers, Ari S. Friedlaender,and David M. Lavigne
2012    The Effects of Climate Change on Harp Seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus). PLoS ONE, 7(1): e29158 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029158)

LeBlanc, Sylvie
1996    A Place with a View: Groswater Subsistence-Settlement Systems in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. MA Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s.
2000    Groswater Technological Organization: A Decision-Making Approach. Arctic Anthropology 37(2):23-37.

Levac, Elisabeth
2003    Palynological Records from Bay of Islands, Newfoundland: Direct Correlation of Holocene Paleoceanographic and Climatic Change. Palynology 27:135-154.

Murray, Maribeth S.
2011    Whitecoats, Beaters, and Turners: Dorset Paleoeskimo Harp Seal Hunting from Phillip’s Garden, Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, 209-226. Springer.

Renouf, M.A.P., and Trevor Bell
2009    Contraction and Expansion in Newfoundland Prehistory, AD 900-1500. In The Northern World AD 900-1400, edited by Herbert Maschner, Owen Mason, and Robert McGhee, pp. 263-278. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 

Renouf, M.A.P., Trevor Bell, and M.A. Teal
2000    Making Contact: Recent Indians and Paleoeskimos on the Island of Newfoundland. In Identities and Cultural Contacts in the Arctic, edited by Martin Appelt, Joel Berglund, and H.-C. Gulløv, pp. 106-119. Danish National Museum and Danish Polar Center. Copenhagen.

Renouf, M.A.P., Michael A. Teal, and Trevor Bell
2011    In the Woods: the Cow Head Complex Occupation of the Gould Site, Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gathers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M.A.P. Renouf, pp. 251-269. Springer.

Rosenberg, S.M., I.R. Walker, and J.B. MacPherson
2005    Environmental Changes at Port Au Choix as Reconstructed by Faunal Midges. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20(1):57-73.

Sargeant, David E.
1991    Harp Seals, Man, and Ice. Canada Special Publication of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 114. Canada: Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Ottawa.


2014 Baffin/Labrador cruise of the M/V Cape Race

By: Walter Adey, Geologist & Curator in the National Museum of Natural History's Department of Botany. Originally published in the ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 33-35.

Passage MV Cape Racedivecollections sites
Passage of M/V Cape Race and dive/collections sites.

Natural population crashes of Arctic organisms, some related to native peoples, others likely directly or indirectly climate-related, have been documented for many groups of animals. With the on-going concerns for the effects of human industrial activity in the Arctic, as well as the looming, potentially crushing burden of rapid Arctic warming, it is essential that scientists understand climate change as it related to past documented population changes, including human populations.

Typical coralline bottom Baffin
Typical coralline bottom in northern Baffin Island

Also, there is little question that industrial pollution in temperate latitudes has affected the Arctic in the past, and is likely to greatly increase with in-situ activity. To fully understand these past patterns and be equipped to deal with newly arising concerns, a climate/pollution time tape is necessary for Arctic waters. Rhodochronology can potentially provide that time tape, in great detail. However, it is necessary that we extend the age and quality of our collections, and the analysis of those collections, back in time. This is required so that we better understand the ecology of coralline communities in the Arctic, and that we have a fuller understanding of the highly complex skeleton and metabolism of the Arctic coralline algae that will provide time tape.  

Mg yearly cycling in skeleton of C. compactum from Baffin Is. x-axis in mm.

Coralline archives have allowed us to produce for the first time a detailed marine climate history for the Labrador-Newfoundland shelf that can be related to the history of its prehistoric cultures and modern residents (Halfar et al. 2013). These archives are especially significant in interpreting the periodic southern expansion of Dorset Paleoeskimo and Labrador Inuit cultures whose economy was based primarily on Arctic and Subarctic marine mammals (esp. harp seal and walrus). Coralline proxies indicating southward expansion and longer seasonal persistence of pack ice coverage correspond closely with the appearance in southern Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence of Labrador Inuit culture ca. AD 1400-1600. Extending the marine archive, currently at 1200 years BP, to ca. 2500 years BP would provide a proxy for inferring range shifts and population crashes of harp seal and the large Dorset populations that that 'mysteriously' disappeared from southern waters.


Preparing for a coralline sampling dive from the R/V Alca i. in Labrador.

The rocky, photic benthos of Arctic and Subarctic Biogeographic Regions has a  characteristic seaweed flora that includes an extensive high-magnesium calcium carbonate basal layer of crustose coralline red algae. Species of the genus Clathromorphum are important elements of this crust, and beginning in 1965 it was demonstrated by Walter Adey and colleagues that the Mg component of the high magnesium carbonate skeleton varied seasonally, and could be used as a reliable proxy for yearly thickness and growth rates, in effect a marine, Arctic rhodochronology. By 2005, specimens collected from the Gulf of Maine to Newfoundland had produced maximum ages up to about 200 years BP. Using the R/V Alca i, a 20m floating laboratory, Adey, Halfar and students have been able to rapidly expand more detailed field work to higher latitudes in the Labrador Sea, and by 2012 had greatly expanded climate analysis using SEM, electron microprobe and laser scanning techniques to develop a high resolution climate archive to 1200 years BP.

Cruise and Collection Summary, Baffin – Labrador, 2014

The 2014 cruise extended our collections and data northwards and contributed to the pool of knowledge that will lead to detailed environmental/ climate archives.

Walter Adey and team holding coralline samples.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.

Arctic Crashes Project Offers Window to NMNH Mammal Collections from the North

By: Alaina Harmon. Originally published in ASC Newsletter, No. 22, pg. 35-37.

As of May 2014, the Arctic Studies Center began a survey of National Museum of Natural History osteological specimens representing five key Arctic species: bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus; harbor seal, Phoca vitulina; harp seal, Pagophilus groenlandicus; walrus,  Odobenus rosmarus, and caribou, Rangifer tarandus. This survey was conducted under the umbrella of the ASC ‘Arctic Crashes’ project, which seeks to explore relationships between human populations, wildlife species, and environmental change in the Arctic.

Phoca vitulina (harbor seal) cranial storage.

The final NMNH collection database, complete with the five identified key species and two northern right whale species, will contain approximately 1,100 specimens. Roughly 100 of these specimens represent Paleobiology collections, almost entirely walrus and caribou, while the remainder represents Mammal collections. The final product will include locality data, collection data, nomenclature, accession data, weight, length, sex, stage, geological age (Paleobiological specimens only), associated culture, stock designation, georeferencing data, collector biographical data, and associated documents for each specimen.

In addition, attached copies of select papers and reports provide immediate access to literature utilized in making stock assignations. Cultural assignment includes images of ledger pages, artifacts, data cards, field book pages, and more pulled from the SI Collections Search Center which represent a match between the assigned culture and any of the database species. Examples include a carved whale, a fiddle with bowhead whale baleen utilized in the bow, a page of Aleut names for whales taken from one of William Dall’s field books, and more. These images are meant to suggest the rich potential for institution-wide cultural, scientific, historical, and art historical Arctic species studies. The database promises to provide information rich for interdisciplinary research.

Phoca vitulina (harbor seal). This is a good example of the different types of data stored with the specimen itself--labeling on the bone itself and multiple types of paper labels. This one was collected by H. W. Elliott at St. Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

Beginning in May 2014, I also collaborated with Dr. Aron Crowell concerning harbor seal skulls in NMNH collections from Yakutat Bay, Alaska..  It was instigated by a conversation concerning the potential for sampling genetic material from Alaskan harbor seals during Aron’s ongoing fieldwork in the Yakutat Bay area (see ASC Newsletter No. 22). 

This conversation, as well as initial P. vitulina survey findings, inspired Aron to seek out the opportunity to work within an existing marine mammal collection permit in partnership with the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington, to collect fresh P. vitulina heads from the Yakutat Bay area for genetic sampling. Initial osteological surveys also revealed the presence of three Yakutat Bay P. vitulina specimens from the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899, a time which had previously been unrepresented by P. vitulina remains at Crowell’s field site. When asked by Crowell to examine these skulls for presence of bullet damage, I sought the expertise of NMNH forensic anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide for her knowledge of key projectile osteological damage indicators, including radiating fractures and beveling surrounding entry and exit wounds. No bullet wounds were found on the 1899 Yakutat Bay specimens, although X-radiography can conclusively confirm or deny bullet damage.

Since that time, I also provided Crowell with photographs of the Harriman Alaska Expedition specimens, and conversed with zooarchaeologist Dr. Mike Etnier, working in partnership with Crowell, and NMNH collections manager Charley Potter. They provided information on previous examples and results of harbor seal genetic sampling in the NMNH collections and direction on destructive sampling application protocol.

Another area of potential interest is noted Smithsonian archaeologist, Henry Bascom Collins (1899–1987), who contributed significantly to USNM Mammal collections. A simple search of specimen data, reveals 473 specimens collected by Collins. Of these, 12 bowhead specimens, 12 walrus, and one harbor seal were collected at St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, variously listed as being from Miyowagh, and Kialegak sites at the northwestern and southeastern tips of the island, respectively.

Accessing Collins’ field books and papers in the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives may provide insight into the context of these specimens. How many of these specimens were found in archaeological context? If it is possible to correlate a specimen to an archaeological record, what can be learned from its context? By virtue of their site location and stratigraphy, can these specimens be related to the ‘layered’ ethnographic landscapes that Igor Krupnik describes in his chapter on Gambell in the Northern Ethnographic Landscapes volume (2004)? If so, these specimens become indicators not only of morphology and species distribution, but of cultural practices ranging from hunting and prey disposal to architectural design.

Case studies such as this, if successful, make an argument for exploring early biological specimen collections for archaeological materials. These particular specimens would occupy their own liminal institutional status, being both embodiments of potential biological knowledge and records of human cultural activity, granting them a unique status as data and object of narrative. Theoretically, all museum specimens hold this status, as a record of their institutional histories and structures, of preparation and material histories, and as a record of their use and meaning to researchers, the public, collection managers, and others who interact with them and with the information surrounding them. Data collection itself is in a sense a narrative act. However, archaeological context makes this narrative component more explicit, and provides an optimal intellectual gateway to the reminder that biological specimens are indeed cultural artifacts. Similarly, many cultural artifacts are, in part, biological specimens.

Departmental divisions provide ease of access and care, as individuals such as curators and collection managers develop specialties within these named fields of expertise. However, data integration provides the opportunity to view specimens which may be physically and curatorially divided across an institutional whole. Tools such as NMNH’s eMU database provide an optimal search environment to permit the interested public, researchers, and museum specialists the ability to develop new comparative studies. However, they frequently act instead as “gated communities,” with each division having its own data organizational structure.

Collins’ specimens invite us to ask questions not only of their context in Alaskan ecological and cultural histories, but also in our own cultural histories and present and the stories and studies we favor and obstruct through disciplinary divisions and data management.

The cranium of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) from "Point Barrow, 5 miles off Iglurak Island." Collected by J. A. Ford in 1931, assistant to Henry B. Collins in Alaska, 1931-1932. (Note: Iglurak is apparently Cooper Island, according to a 1919 USGS publication The Canning River Region Northern Alaska by Ernest de K. Leffingwell.)

One way to begin to approach the nexus of cultural and biological data in a faunal object is through individual object history. Collection and preparation leave their traces on osteological specimens. Tantalizing hints of these actions appear in the departmental ledgers, written at the time that specimens are assigned catalog numbers. For example, one skull is listed as having been “destroyed by action of pickle” while other skeletal components are listed as “pick up,” which appears to indicate found remains. What chemical process was applied to and destroyed the skull in question? What taphonomic indicators are visible on the “pick up” specimens? Is there indication of scavenging or decomposition of bone which may suggest the specimen’s environment following time of death?

In the past, collectors have employed a variety of methods of removing flesh from a specimen’s skeleton in the field. These include burial of the specimen and trailing behind a ship to permit waterlife to clean the remains. Each of these activities will leave a record in bone. This offers great potential for comparing collection and preparation histories to skulls in the NMNH collections. Taphonomic indicators may provide a view into which specimens were likely to have been collected or prepared by individuals of particular professions or groups, as well as into factors such as soil or water chemistry in the area of death, potentially leading to further confirmation of or doubt regarding specimen locality. The NMNH Arctic mammalian skulls provide a wide range of natural (taphonomic) and additive (preparation) factors which may be considered in a non-destructive survey relating taphonomic studies to museum collection, preparation, and environmental history, highlighting the human history and construction of natural history objects.

A multitude of opportunities exist to intellectually expand upon this project. Examples include increased digitization of collections data such as a bone by bone inventory and specimen tag photography, as well as correlation with Arctic mammal artifacts, depictions in fine and decorative arts, and related craft and industry artifacts, such as whaling implements, found throughout Smithsonian Institution collections and archives.

For more on our Arctic Crashes project, please visit our website, and check out the other posts on this blog.