Although it was found about fifty years ago, archaeologists have just determined that a small stone container discovered on Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic region was actually part of metallurgical equipment used by the Vikings around the year 1000 A.D.
The findings were revealed in an article published in the journal Geoarchaeology, by archaeologist Patricia Sutherland. She and her co-authors report that scanning electron microscopy was employed to determine if metal traces were present in a small stone container (about 48 mm tall) from an archaeological site on Cape Tanfield, part of the southern coast of Baffin Island.
They found that the interior of the vessel contained fragments of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, as well as small spherules of glass which are formed when rock is heated to high temperatures. The object is a crucible for melting bronze, likely in order to cast it into small tools or ornaments. The crucible appears to have been broken while in use, suggesting that it was likely used at the locality where it was found.
The artifact was originally excavated during the 1960s and identified as the fragment of a small soapstone pot made by the local indigenous people, the Palaeo-Eskimo who occupied the area in the centuries around 1000 A.D. However among the Palaeo-Eskimo artifacts Sutherland has identified a wide range of specimens that resemble those used by Europeans of the Viking and medieval periods. These include lengths of yarn spun from the fur of local animals, whetstones bearing metal traces from tools that had been sharpened, and tally sticks of the type used for recording transactions.
The authors write:
Copper–tin alloy occurs in crevices between mineral grains, on angular corners of relatively hard albite, within as well as on top of patches of organic-rich matrix, and on both the interior surface and broken edge of the vessel. This variety of settings, together with the “shredded” aspect of individual particles and the presence of glass spherules that are similar to those associated with high-temperature processes, are consistent with the use and breakage of the vessel in an environment where metalworking occurred. One or more small amounts of tin and copper or copper–tin alloy appear to have been melted, probably for the casting of small bronze objects. The broken condition of the crucible would suggest that it was used at the site. The specimen was recovered from an area that also yielded pieces of spun cordage, bar-shaped whetstones bearing traces of smelted metals on the working surfaces, and other specimens related to early European technologies that are consistent with a Norse presence. SEM-EDS analysis of soil matrix from the Nanook site also produced evidence of smelted metal particles.
The Vikings and their medieval Norse descendants established colonies in southwestern Greenland about 1000 AD, and occupied the region for over 400 years. After more than a decade of research on material from the Eastern Arctic, the evidence indicates a significant early European presence in Arctic Canada.The Norse would likely have travelled to the area in order to obtain furs and walrus ivory, either by hunting or by trading with the indigenous people.
Dr. Sutherland comments, “the crucible adds an intriguing new element to this emerging chapter in the early history of northern Canada.”
The Inuit and earlier peoples of Arctic Canada cold-hammered meteoric iron and native copper in order to make tools, but neither they nor other indigenous peoples of northern North America practised high-temperature metalworking. This crucible may be the earliest evidence of high-temperature non-ferrous metalworking in North America to the north of what is now Mexico.
To learn more about Dr. Sutherland’s work, see Arctic encounters between Norse and Natives