Landscape of Culture

Research Team

Jamie Brake
William Fitzhugh



This project, initiated at the invitation of the Rigolet community, focuses on the largely undocumented archeological and ethnographic sites in the southern portion of Nunatsiavut and the area surrounding Rigolet. Four field seasons were spent surveying the Groswater Bay and Eastern Lake Melville area and recording the archaeological and ethnographic sites in this region. Work so far has already added to our understanding of the history in the area and has provided Nunatsiavut with critical information to help manage its heritage. The research team was led by Jamie Brake and William Fitzhugh and included students from Dartmouth and Williams Colleges, and Notre Dame, Yale, American universities, Memorial University, and local students from Rigolet. Talking with Rigolet Elders and community leaders provided important information on site locations, food resources, and local history. Rigolet is now one of the best-known archaeological regions in Labrador and its cultures—both First Nations and Inuit—have ancient histories.

In 2018, our research was focused on identifying and recording archaeological and ethnographic sites in unexplored areas of the southern shore of Groswater Bay, the eastern side of the Narrows, southern shore of the Backway, and eastern Lake Melville. This fieldwork took place during the last two weeks of July in the finest weather coastal Labrador has to offer. The following provides information on the various discoveries made during that season.

Groswater Bay

Unlike the northern shore of Groswater Bay (where research in the 1960-70s identified many precontact sites), sites on its southern shore mostly date to the last 2-300 years. At Collingham’s Cove, Mullen’s Cove, and Grassy (John’s) Point, we found sites with deep refuse pit deposits (middens) similar to those we found earlier at Broomfield Island (a potential heritage site worthy of tourism development), containing 18th to 20th C. ceramics, iron tools, beads, and clay pipe fragments, along with seal bones. The extensive deposits probably signify cold weather occupations.

We revisited the West Indian Island site, which had been initially visited in 2014 when we excavated a small boulder pit structure that produced a c14 date of 6800 years B.P. At that time, we identified a series of boulder-lined enclosures, and this year we returned to explore them further. Unfortunately, the large continuous enclosures did not have any artifacts or datable (organic) materials, but we assume they are part of the extensive series of boulder structures present on the high uplifted beaches where early First Nations sites are usually found.

Black Island on the north side of Groswater Bay is known from Inuit oral history as an important place for spring and summer camps. This may have been the place where the Inuit woman, Caubvik, brought an epidemic to her people upon her return from England. We found little evidence of the ‘large camp’ that is supposed to be found here among the boulder beaches on the southwest corner of the Island. Surveys on the island’s southeast shore revealed numerous tent rings and caches. Most surprising was the remains of a copper mine that operated for a short period in the early 20th century. Its deep circular pit is filled with water, and its tailings were built into a square structure with three doorways. The mine never produced copper and, according to local reports, closed after the manager’s son died in a mining accident. Trenches and other mine tests are found in the surrounding area, littered with quartz.

East Side of the Narrows

Surveys on the east side of the Narrows produced evidence of seal caches and an historic era cemetery, as well as a concentration of summer tent-ring sites at Summer Cove, which is the largest concentration of Inuit tent sites in the Narrows. These sites appear to date to the 19th and 20th centuries. Taking a closer look along the northern shore of Henrietta Island revealed several sites on exposed gravel. Using small white quartz rocks, visitors to this area have written the dates “1987”, “1992”, and “1994” on the surface.

The Backway

The Backway is the least-known archaeological area of Hamilton Inlet. Previous surveys identified sites as far east as Hanniuk. We briefly surveyed the southern shore and found small historic sites at Indian Point, South Long Point, and on the western end of Bear Island.

Lake Melville

We also surveyed the northern shore of Lake Melville from Valley Bight to Charlie Point. According to local residents, this coast was used for temporary camps by people traveling between Rigolet or Groswater Bay and North West River and other settlement areas in western Lake Melville, probably because there are few harbors or islands suitable for permanent settlement. This was confirmed on our trip; on exposed points and boulder beaches we found small fire pits and, at Charlie Point, a series of stone inuksuit, but no evidence of more extensive use until today’s era of speedboat travel.

In 2017, we found a large Inuit winter dwelling on the northern end of St. John Island, known to be an excellent place for netting seals throughout the winter at a polynya adjacent to the site. Test pits in 2018 revealed a large house with a paved interior, a raised sleeping platform in the back, and an entryway that opens onto a paved external ‘patio’. This dwelling dates to the 18th century and is the western-most Inuit winter site in Hamilton Inlet. The site was full of seal bones and may have been a staging point for spring caribou hunting in the nearby Mealy Mountains.

Looking Forward

The project has contributed to our knowledge of Maritime Archaic, Late Precontact First Nations, and Pre-Inuit occupations of central Labrador and has produced a large amount of data on Inuit use of the area during the historic period. Hamilton Inlet continues to offer important archaeological and heritage resources valuable for both scholarly and economic purposes. The most obvious opportunities are development of the Mealy Mountains Park and providing material culture and settlement basis for Inuit-Innu contact in the 18th to 20th centuries. Unlike historic accounts of Inuit-Innu hostilities, oral history today reveals regular contacts and collaboration. These stories should be explored by more detailed archaeological work focusing on the recent historical era in accordance with the wishes of local community members.