Woman of Labrador

landscape pic
The north coast of Newfoundland from the air. A landscape not unlike that occupied by the trappers’ and their families.

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book and I thought I’d write about it. I don’t often feel that I want to push a single publication, but this has really got me thinking.

The book is Woman of Labrador by Elizabeth Goudie. It was first published in 1973.

Elizabeth Goudie lived among the trapping communities of Labrador in the early twentieth century. Despite only having some four years schooling, she set out to describe her life there, because of the changes that she saw taking place around her as the decades progressed. It is a straightforward account. Compassionate, unrelenting, and yet never complaining. Elizabeth was just as much part of the twentieth-century as my own grandparents in central London, and yet she provides an intimate glimpse into a life that was so different. Despite talking about the past, her memories are so vivid that she often talks in the present tense, adding a sense of immediacy to the world she describes. I don’t think she meant to, but she has given us a beautiful evocation of the life of a hunter-gatherer.

The book is full of quotes that highlight the ethos of the community where she lived:

‘Then there would be no more hunting because the birds would lay their eggs and people would not hunt birds anymore until September. That was the custom of the country. Everybody kept it’ (p48).

Of course, you cannot extrapolate one person’s thoughts to another, never mind the customs of one community to another, much less the present to the past. But reading her book provided me with a strong sense of how it was to live from the land in a way that most of us will never experience.

There is a strong idea of community. Despite the fact that individual families occupied isolated houses in separate bays, they clearly felt together. Help was not refused, food was shared in times of hardship, and beds were always available for those who might turn up.

The care taken to conserve resources is clear. There is a time and place for everything and the families lived to a strict annual round. February was a month of rest, March for catching rabbits and partridges, in April trout were to be caught, and in May people caught smelts to use as fertilizer on potato patches, there were seals to be caught in June, while in July and August the winter wood pile was replenished and work started to repair canoes and equipment for the winter, September was busy with berry picking, October with drying and preserving, November was the time to make and repair clothing, it took a whole month just to prepare the kit for the men to leave for their trap lines which they did in December, returning home in January. As she said: ‘Our months were not wasted and we had little time for reading or any kind of pleasure’ (p119).

It is a highly mobile life, from salmon camps to winter houses and so on. Journeys were mostly undertaken by canoe or dog sled, though long journeys on foot also took place, making use of snowshoes. She describes long treks with the family, often over several weeks, and sometimes in sub-zero temperatures, spending the nights with the families who lived en route. ‘A team of dogs can be great company when you are alone’ (p89).

It was a hard life, something Elizabeth only acknowledges in the later passages, where she describes the easier life they had from the 1940s onwards. More or less everything, from clothes, to furniture, fuel and food, had to be made or prepared at home. In several locations fresh water required an arduous walk, and sometimes had to be brought home as blocks of ice. Very little was bought: mainly flour and fat. There is an interesting description of the problems caused when the flour supply fails on one occasion.

Much of the daily work is undertaken by the women, men were away at the traplines for long periods of time. For this reason, women were obviously as skilled with a rifle as they were with needle, frying pan, or axe. Although there were medical services, these were not always easy to access and home remedies as well as first aid knowledge were much in demand. I now know how to make an effective poultice from juniper stems. It is also interesting to hear her talk of the problems of mosquitos and flies. One of the enduring questions relating to the earliest settlement of Scotland regards the presence (or not) of the Scottish Midge and its likely impact on life and general morale – not good, if her feelings are anything to go by.

It is a resilient society. Struggles and hardship are depicted in detail, and yet with a mundane tone that belies the emotions that must have come to the fore. Life was not easy, or comfortable. Food shortages, temperatures of thirty or forty below zero that would leave us gasping, debts to the company store, illness and injury. There is a moving account of the problems of digging a grave for a toddler in frozen ground. People had to develop a way around it all, often moving on when times got too hard.

Of course, everyone knew and understood the land in considerable depth. This is clearly demonstrated, though there is little overt discussion of the landscape within which lives played out. In some ways it appears a passive backdrop. True appreciation of the world in which people lived is seen on the few occasions when there was time for leisure and the writing becomes positively lyrical to express deep feelings for the surrounding beauty of the mountains and coasts.

Elizabeth’s community were not the only people to live in the region. There were also ‘Indian’ families, most of whom did not speak English. Though there was mutual respect, there seems to have been little contact between the two groups except when help was needed. It was a different world.

All things change and by the 1940s the construction of a military air base in Goose Bay precipitated the arrival of the end for the mobile lifestyle. Paid work was soon followed by chocolate, movies, roads and electricity. This book is just one of a suite of publications that describe bygone ways of life around the world, but it is one of the most vivid. I’m so glad she wrote it.

‘I would rather live back fifty years ago, because today you turn on your radio or television and you hear all sorts of news about going to the moon or war or whatever and you feel afraid that something fearful is going to happen’ (p 192).

At One with the World

Scapa Beach
Awareness of the world around us is more important than we might think.

We are slowly moving out of Summer and into Autumn. This time of year is often one of warmer, more settled weather up here in the north, and this year it is very welcome. In general, it has been a bad summer. Temperatures have been low and there has been a lot of rain. Continue reading At One with the World

The Nature of the Beast

The evidence for Palaeolithic activity in Scotland is slowly coming to the fore when we find related artifacts at sites like this one: Nethermills on Deeside.

Successful archaeology depends on the collection and study of evidence. It has developed over the years into a multi-faceted profession in which few grasp the full details of more than a handful of the possible specialisations into which we Continue reading The Nature of the Beast

Our place in the world

Visiting a remote port
Remote locations such as this, in Greenland, have become part of a more accessible holiday destination for some. But we can still not guarantee that favourable weather conditions will prevail.

Stuck out in the North Atlantic on a cruise ship that was dodging the weather last autumn, I found myself thinking about just how much we take our world for granted. This year, an exceptionally active hurricane season has affected both sea and land. The impact on the land is well documented in news broadcasts. That over the sea might be considered to be less but, it can be significant nonetheless.

We still rely on marine transport systems for many goods to travel from one continent to another. Tourism, and in particular the cruise industry, has become a major economic force. Itineraries are drawn up under the assumption that the journey from one exotic destination to another will be ‘plain sailing’. The ironic significance of the phrase is no longer lost on me, though one has, perhaps, to experience severe travel disruption before its impact in the days of sail can be fully realised.

When a cruise vessel has to change plans, the knock on effect is twofold. Firstly, there is the ship: those on board find that their holiday plans remain unfulfilled, while the company may see its profits dwindle as alternative plans, and routes, are put into place. Secondly, there are the communities that were set to play host. Many of these are surprisingly small, often with fragile economies. Tours are cancelled, guides have an unexpected day off, there is likely to be a glut of cake and scones as cafes face up to a lack of expected customers.

Somehow, it comes as a shock to everyone.

And yet, the weather remains one aspect of the modern globe that we cannot control. Surely we should not be surprised. The last few decades have been, on balance, pretty stable. Perhaps we have been lulled into a false sense of security. Or superiority. Travel, and transport, are part of the foundations of twenty-first century society and we have come to take it for granted that they will work as planned. I doubt that the Norse seafarers who crossed this section of the ocean with monotonous regularity felt quite the same. Neither, I suspect, did the crews of the clippers and other sailing vessels who worked their way across the seas. Much less the prehistoric groups who made their way along the coasts of northwest Europe at the end of the Ice Age.

I feel that one, unlooked for, aspect by which one might define society today and contrast it with earlier communities, is that we have become arrogant. Somehow I don’t think that they had quite such unshakeable belief that their technologies could master whatever the world might throw at them. Yes, they built endless stone circles, ceremonial centres and sacred places through which we assume they sought to propitiate their gods and ensure the future of the human race. But somehow one gets the impression that they were working with the world rather than against it. They encompassed a degree of flexibility in their lives. We, in contrast, seem to have set ourselves up against the forces of nature. And we are less flexible.

I’d prefer to return to a broader view of the world and our place in it. It might be a slower path, the outcome might be more uncertain, but it is, I think, the only way that our future can be assured.

Relaxation

Michael Sharpe’s wonderful photograph of the gaming board may be seen on many websites.

Recent reports of the finding of a gaming board during excavation as part of a project to investigate the location of the Monastery of Deer in north-east Scotland, home to the religious community who inscribed the Book of Deer in the tenth century, are exciting. The Book of Deer is a significant artefact, a relic from Continue reading Relaxation

The appeal of a good story

Some ideas regarding the past linger in the popular imagination even once they become superseded. It can be very difficult to change a well-loved narrative.

Archaeology is a popular subject today and that is a good thing. Interesting narratives relating to the past are increasingly common and it is not unusual to find people incorporating material into general conversation. It is very different to my childhood and a big step forward. Continue reading The appeal of a good story

Is fiction really fiction?

Fiction
There is nothing like a good book: some of the novels that have been published about Skara Brae

I’ve been working on a paper about the benefits to the archaeologist of exploring fiction. It is a hotly debated topic just now. Afficionados of the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ might have come across Hugo Vickers fascinating breakdown of the accuracy of the series. Readers of The Guardian, may have read Simon Jenkins’ Continue reading Is fiction really fiction?

Political Archaeologies

Stonehenge in low winter light, December 2004
Archaeology is far more than the straightforward study of the remains of the past.

It has been interesting to watch two television programmes recently which both discussed an explicit link between archaeology and contemporary global social politics. The ‘Cheddar Man’ programme on Channel Four earlier in February was keen to flag up the way in which confirmation that the indigenous hunter- Continue reading Political Archaeologies

The challenging of preconceptions

CorporatePortal

Reconstruction of the face of Cheddar Man: Channel 4.

One of the reasons I love archaeology is the way in which it challenges us to recognise and rethink our preconceptions. It is very easy to live in the cosy world of today and focus on reassuring feelings of stability. Practices of mindfulness, among others, encourage us to ‘live for the moment’ and, amidst the insecurites of the present, this is not something with which I would wish to disagree. Continue reading The challenging of preconceptions

The Legacy of a Powerful Woman

Viking Burial
Burial Bj 581, Birka.
Taken from the American Journal of Physical Anthropology 8 SEP 2017

New research on old data can lead to surprising results. Sometimes it is the mere fact that we find particular things surprising that should surprise us.

This is an old argument. I’m surprised that we are still debating it. Continue reading The Legacy of a Powerful Woman