Max Friesen is racing against time to preserve the cultural history of Canada’s western arctic people
When Max Friesen, a professor of anthropology, arrived at an excavation dig alongside the Mackenzie River this past June, he was stepping into a rich history that was literally eroding before him. An arctic archaeologist, Prof. Friesen had travelled hundreds of kilometres north of the Arctic Circle to explore Kuukpak, a centuries-abandoned settlement whose frozen secrets could alter our understanding of Canada’s polar peoples – if erosion due to global warming doesn’t swallow those secrets first. The summer’s excavation yielded an impressive find: Friesen’s 10-member research team discovered a perfectly preserved, five-by-seven-metre cruciform pit house that’s about 400 years old.
Cruciform is a “southern” (by which Friesen means below the Arctic Circle) descriptor for a semi-subterranean arctic residence that the western Inuit’s (the Inuvialuit’s) ancestors built from the abundant driftwood logs on the Mackenzie River, using animal skins and sod for roof insulation. The term “cruciform” does not describe the shape of a religious symbol – rather it describes the overall layout of the house, which, when seen from above, is in the shape of a cross. A tunnel from the entrance leads to a square central floor, with side and forward branches into three alcoves. Typically symmetrical, each alcove would house one family, or more; tight-knit, to be sure.
The Kuukpak cruciform is not unique for being well preserved. (Permafrost prevents the kind of decay common to archaeology sites elsewhere in the world.) However, it is one of the biggest ever discovered, as well as the first to feature a larger, asymmetrical rear alcove, which Friesen speculates may have been used by a more influential family – “maybe the lead hunter.” It’s also the first house to be completely excavated using modern methods. Until now, nobody knew exactly what the originals looked like, or how they were built, says Friesen. “Nobody since the 19th century has seen these houses.”
Friesen’s team is currently examining material discovered inside the cruciform house – traded goods and indicators of wealth and status such as ivory, soapstone and native copper – to see if the larger alcove at the back held more. If it did, it could change our understanding of hierarchy within arctic communities.
Friesen, whose Kuukpak excavation is coorganized by the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre in Inuvik, will return to the dig next year. Time is of the essence. As the Beaufort Sea rises, erosion along the Mackenzie River is an unstoppable, ever-swelling threat. In fact, due to warming, the entire pan-arctic region’s cultural history stands at risk, says Friesen. This project and Friesen’s overall mission, then, is to preserve aspects of history that will otherwise be destroyed. His research has become a matter of prioritizing: making difficult decisions as to which sites merit saving, or even just documenting, while time permits. The payoff, he says, is significant: unique insight into “a major, beautifully preserved cultural history that we really don’t know enough about.”