Saqqaq culture chronology

The Saqqaq culture is the archaeological designation of the earliest Palaeo-Eskimo culture of West and Southeast Greenland. The time frame is roughly 2.500 BC - 800 BC. The upper time limit is currently being questioned in connection with the discussion on the transition from Saqqaq to Greenlandic Dorset in West Greenland. Several researchers have attempted to divide the Saqqaq culture into chronological phases, based on typology (harpoon heads and stone tools) and raw material preferences. At present, however, the changes in Saqqaq material culture seem to be long-term, continuous and regionally different. A Late Saqqaq phase from about 1200/1000 BC until the transition to Greenlandic Dorset has recently been suggested based on the appearance of, among other things, ground end-blades and stone lamps.

Geographical areas of the Saqqaq culture

The main area of the Saqqaq culture is West Greenland from the Thule district in the north to the Nanortalik district in the south, East Greenland from the southernmost area to Scoresby Sund in the north. The discussion of the northern limits of the Saqqaq culture is connected to typological differences seen between the Saqqaq culture and the Independence I culture. Sites containing a typical "West Greenland Saqqaq" inventory have been reported from Ellesmere Island and from Clavering Island in North East Greenland. Sites from the Saqqaq culture are by far the most numerous of the prehistoric cultures in Greenland.

Especially large numbers of Saqqaq sites are found in the southern part of Disko Bay, in the Sisimiut district and in the fiords of the Nuuk area. The generally large numbers of sites are likely to be a reflection of a substantial number of people occupying the resource rich coastal stretches of West Greenland, but an equally important explanation may be the period of almost 1600 years that these sites represent. The abundance of sites in the three mentioned areas is probably also a reflection of the archaeological effort put into these areas: in Disko Bay intensive surveys have been done since the early 1950s; in the Sisimiut district intensive surveying and large-scale excavations have taken place since the middle of the 1980s. Archaeological surveys and excavations in the Nuuk area, focusing on the Palaeo-Eskimo cultures, began in the 1950s and have continued on a more or less regular basis until the mid 1980s.

Social organisation of the Saqqaq culture

No graves are known from this culture and consequently ideas on Saqqaq culture social organisation must be based mainly on analyses of dwellings, site structures and site distribution. The archaeological traces of dwellings show great variation - from quite elaborate mid-passage dwellings over simple tent-rings to small paved areas connected to a simple hearths. The largest mid-passage dwellings are about 6 m long and a 3-4 m wide living floor suggests that the cold season dwelling was either for two families or for one extended family. No long-houses or other dwellings reflecting large gatherings have been found.

At localities rich in resources – e.g. where small whales or harp seals pass during migration or at the 'entrance' to the caribou hunting districts – Saqqaq sites containing dozens of dwellings are found. The structure of these sites suggests that many of the dwellings were used contemporaneously and consequently it was part of the Saqqaq social pattern to meet at large gatherings during the peak of the hunting season.

A gender-specific division of labour and division of floor areas inside the mid-passage dwellings has recently been suggested based on detailed analyses of the distribution pattern of raw materials, lithic debitage and tools. The change in subsistence pattern as demonstrated in the stratigraphy of the Qeqertasussuk site has been interpreted as reflecting a development from a pioneer phase in the earliest centuries of the Saqqaq culture towards the formation of regional groupings operating within territories.

Natural resources of the Saqqaq culture

Raw materials: The overall preferred material for stone tools of the Saqqaq culture is a grey metamorphosed slate, called "killiaq". The primary killiaq sources are available only in the Disko Bay and Nuussuaq area of West Greenland, where huge extraction sites have been found. Depending on time and regional variations of 'flint-like' minerals, called "ammaq" – chalcedony, agate, quartz crystal etc. – have been used for tools. In particular end scrapers and microliths have been crafted from these "exotic" materials. In some districts quartzite played an important role, comparable to killiaq.

Finds of organic materials – wood, bone, antler, ivory, skin – from permanently frozen midden layers demonstrate the excellent Saqqaq craftsmanship as well. The access to drift wood seems to have been unlimited as trunks had accumulated through several thousands of years on raised beaches. The abundance is reflected in the fact that drift wood was extensively used as firewood. The Saqqaq "carpenter"'s work working technique was unsurpassed by any of the later cultures.

Saqqaq subsistence

Subsistence: Excavations of Saqqaq sites with well preserved bone materials have provided a detailed picture of the subsistence economy of the earliest hunters of West Greenland. All ecological niches have been exploited. This is clearly demonstrated by the bone material from the Qaajaa and Qeqertasussuk sites in Disko Bay, as well as on the Nipisat site (Sisimiut district). In the permanently frozen midden layers on Qeqertasussuk, bones from no less than 45 vertebrate species were represented as well as molluscs. Also traces of vegetable resources like berries were found. By means of a specialised and complex hunting tool kit all accessible species were hunted: sea mammals ranging from large whales to ringed seals, terrestrial mammals like caribou, birds in large numbers and fish including large cod and Arctic char. Some sites as the Qeqertasussuk site show this extremely broad-based all season resource pattern whereas other sites have served as a base for specialised fishing of Arctic char or hunting of caribou. It is possible in some districts – e.g. Disko Bay and Sisimiut – to model a complicated seasonal cycle based on analyses of bone materials from different sites and on the structure and topographical position of the sites.

Exchange and trade of the Saqqaq culture

Communication through family relations and/or trade are clearly apparent in the finds. The distribution of mineral raw materials – e.g. "killiaq" and agate – from the extraction sites in northern West Greenland to all over the Saqqaq area demonstrates networking over large distances. In the later part of the Saqqaq period soapstone may have been part of the exchange, as the soapstone lamps are found at most sites on the West Greenland coast, while soapstone formations (of an sufficiently good quality) are found only in the Thule district and the eastern parts of the Nuuk fiord system. Local networks of exchange are suggested by spread of specific variants of killiaq, i.e. the "yellow" killiaq from Hunde Island (in the southern part of Disko Bay). Driftwood and raw materials like antler and ivory were probably also part of the exchange between the regions of the Saqqaq culture, which show marked differences in natural resource patterns.

History of research

The "Saqqaq culture" came into being, in the literature, in 1954 with Jørgen Meldgaard's excavations on the elevated beach terraces at Igloolik in the northern part of Foxe Basin, Canada (Meldgaard 1955). Here the excavation of several hundred ruins fully proved the existence of a culture similar to the "West Greenlandic Palaeo-Eskimo culture", which Meldgaard already in 1952 claimed existed, based on material excavated by horticultural adviser Hans Mosegaard at the hamlet of Saqqaq in 1948.

After his excavation in 1953 at Sermermiut, Meldgaard's views were so well founded that he no longer talked about a Saqqaq "phase", but of a Saqqaq "culture" with a number of diagnostic artefact types (Larsen & Meldgaard 1958). Over the following years Meldgaard supplemented his material through excavations of other sites among which the most important are Itinnera (Meldgaard 1961; Møhl 1972) and Nunnguaq (Appelt 1995; Appelt & Pind 1996), both in the eastern part of the Nuuk fiords. Meldgaard summarised his work in an article from 1977. In this Meldgaard established that the Saqqaq culture originated from the Denbigh culture, yet there were some differences between them. He emphasised triangular harpoon heads, knives with a transverse edge, long and narrow stone awls, and lamps, as particular Saqqaq types.

In the 1980s the group of Greenland scholars working on the Palaeo-Eskimo cultures of West Greenland and East Greenland expanded. The new research is mainly a continuation of Meldgaard's work, yet it differs in various aspects. Particularly important is a shift of emphasis from broad culture-historic theories, encompassing large geographical areas, to examinations of individual sites or a limited region. At the same time, ethno-historic sources come to play an important role in the development of models for the exploitation of Palaeo-Eskimo resources (Jensen et al. 1995; Gulløv 1983; Gulløv & Kapel 1988; Kramer 1996a, 1996b; Møbjerg 1981, 1986). This development within the discipline of archaeology also meant a refinement of excavation methods, particularly with regards to documentation (a good example of this is the excavations of Qeqertasussuk (Grønnow 1988, 1990; Grønnow & Meldgaard 1991; Meldgaard 2004). In the 1980'ies, the geographical space expanded within which the Saqqaq culture could be documented. Møbjerg found several sites in Ammassalik (1988), comprising Saqqaq objects. So did the Sandells in the Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund) region (Sandell & Sandell 1991), and Schledermann for the first time established the presence of Saqqaq culture in Canada, on Ellesmere Island (Schledermann 1990).

Since the beginning of 1990s the main focus has been twofold: firstly, typology and chronology and, secondly, lithic raw material procurement. Both focuses are aimed at the same general target, i.e. highlighting the interaction between the different Saqqaq groups living along the West Greenland coast, and the possible changes through time (Jensen 2006). The typological / chronological studies are the prerequisite in demonstrating archaeological contemporaneity between sites (Gotfredsen & Møbjerg 2004; Grønnow 1994, 1996, 1997; Jensen et. al. 1995; Kramer 1996a, 1996b; Møbjerg 1996, 1997).

References

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Gotfredsen, Anne Birgitte & Møbjerg, Tinna (2004) Saqqaq-folket på Nipisat. Naturens Verden 11/12, p. 2 – 23.

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Grønnow, Bjarne (1996a) Driftwood and Saqqaq Culture Woodworking in West Greenland. In: Jacobsen, B. (ed.): "Cultural and social research in Greenland 95/96. Essays in Honour of Robert Petersen". Nuuk. Ilisimatusarfik/Atuakkiorfik.

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Larsen, Helge & Meldgaard, Jørgen (1958) Paleo-Eskimo Cultures in Disko Bugt, West Greenland.Meddelelser om Grønland, 161(2). Copenhagen.

Jensen, Jens Fog (2006) Stone Age of Qeqertarsuup Tunua (Disko Bugt) a regional analysis of the Saqqaq and Dorset cultures of Central West Greenland. Meddelelser om Grønland/Monographs on Greenland, Man & Society, Vol. 32, 272 pp. Danish Polar Centre (peer reviewed).

Jensen, Jens Fog; Olsen, Bjørnar; Bjerck, H. B. & Evaldsen, Elisa (1995) Rapport over rekognosceringer udført i Saqqarleq, Amitsuarsuk og Appannguit, Vestgrønland, Sommeren 1995. Unpublished report on file at Qasigiannguit Katersugaasiviat.

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