Monday, January 28, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Chelsee Arbour Researching Quartz use at Kamestastin, Labrador

Chelsee Arbour writing notes at Tshetshuk,
 one of the sites we excavated in the
2012 spring season.
Photo by Dr. Stephen Loring.
Chelsee Arbour's archaeological research has led her to Kamestastin, in the interior of northern Labrador. As a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, she is examining quartz use during the archaic period at Kamestastin.  I asked Chelsee if I could interview her because I'm interested in the area and her work and she was recommended by Amelia Fay, (the subject of the first Plans and Profiles interview) as one of the people that she would like to see profiled.  Chelsee sent back some very thoughtful answers that trace her ongoing research journey.

Plans and Profiles #4. Chelsee Arbour, Quartz use at Kamestastin, Labrador

1) Tell me a little about your project

My research is part of a larger collaborative project with the Tshikapisk Foundation, an Innu non-profit cultural heritage organization, and the Arctic Studies Center of the Smithsonian Institution. For a number of years, these two organizations have jointly undertaken a long-term archaeological and cultural-heritage research initiative at Kamestastin. Kamestastin is a meteor impact crater lake located in the heartlands of the Mushuau Innu and the interior barrenlands of the Innu homeland, Nitassinan (Labrador/Northern Québec). Over the last decade, 260 sites and find-spots have been located in the Kamestastin region, suggesting continuous – albeit episodic – occupation in the area from the Tshiash Innu[1]/early Maritime Archaic to contemporary times. Personal experiences, oral histories and oral traditions that have been passed on over uncounted generations, a deep abiding relationship with the caribou and an ingrained familiarity with Nitassinan have all contributed to relationship between the Mushuau Innu and the land. In this way, the sites and find-spots found on the land are tangible traces of the Mushuau Innu ancestors and part of the larger narrative of Nitassinan.

My role in this project will be to investigate the numerous and predominantly quartz assemblages of some of the earliest occupations at Kamestastin. Quartz use is very common during this period, however, a dedicated analysis of this material – how it is used and what it can tell us about movement, acquisition, human-land relations and social life-ways in general – has yet to receive the same attention in Northeast Atlantic archaeology as other types of raw material. In addition to the detailed analysis of these quartz assemblages, my research will seek to determine how, and to what extent, the multiple narratives associated with the use of quartz and people’s relationship to Kamestastin (including oral histories, personal experiences and archaeology) overlap, change and evolve through time. Thus, the underlining foundation of my PhD research will be focused on developing and maintaining a multi-vocal research design that implicates the Mushuau Innu in the process of writing the past.

Caribou crossing the Kamestastin narrows during the fall migration south. Photo taken by Valerie Courtois

2) How did you become interested in this particular problem? 

Before starting my PhD, my research had been focused on hunter-gatherer-fisher peoples at the cusp of or shortly after shifting to an agricultural way of life in a variety of European contexts. I was especially interested in how this agricultural influence affected the interaction between people, landscape and material goods. In my M.A. research, I investigated site location choice and visibility as components of monument placement during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in West Penwith, Cornwall, England. I attempted to find common ground between quantitative analyses conducted in GIS and qualitative observations using phenomenological frameworks of field survey in an effort to merge two different ways of accessing the past, albeit both within an archaeological framework. While I found that each contributed in different ways to the discussion of visibility and site location during these periods, I also recognized that how I was using these two frameworks failed to resolve the tension that underlines their irreconcilability. This lead me to seriously question how the past in understood and constructed, and what information is left unsaid when a single narrative is focused on at the expense of others. In a way, this questioning had always been part of my research interests, but following my M.A. it solidified on unpacking different ways in which in the past is reconstructed, reimagined and remembered at both an archaeological and an individual level. In my mind, any geographic context is composed of multiple narratives, in which archaeology is just one way of engaging with the past. As I was thinking about all of these different things – landscape, social life-ways, multiple narratives, quantitative vs. qualitative – I began to wonder about the Northeast Atlantic. This musing brought me here to Newfoundland and to Labrador.

View of the Tshumushumapeu valley, located on the south side of the Kamestastin narrows. Picture was taken by Dr. Stephen Loring facing west.

3) Has your project changed since you originally began working on it? How?

When I first got to MUN, my ideas about what I wanted to do were consciously very open ended, and extremely broad. I knew I was interested in the earliest people of Labrador/Québec, my ideal was to work in the interior because I was fascinated by what had been found, and convinced there was more in the interior than what little had been recovered. I was also very keen to work on a community based project where multi-narratives would be an ongoing part of the research. Originally, I suggested a project focused on the interrelationship between site location, artifacts and the underlying social life-ways of the Maritime/Labrador Archaic in Labrador, with a specific focus on establishing the context (topographic, economic, ecological, symbolic, etc.) of Archaic site location choice. I was interested in how the social life-ways are created through the interaction between people, places and things, but I was also interested in how narratives are created in the present by the people who are constantly walking in the land and interacting with these sites. About a year and a bit after I came to MUN, I started working with the collaborative project at Kamestastin, which fit perfectly with what I hoped to do and has since expanded beyond all of my expectations.

Anthony Jenkinson, Chelsee Arbour and Vise Grips on the way to the Shak Selma site, spring 2012. Photo taken by Dr. Stephen Loring.

4) If you could ask the people/person who lived at your site one question what would it be? 

Crystal and smokey quartz flakes. The bottom three are 
crystal quartz and top six are smokey quartz.
I’ve thought about this a lot, especially when I was snowshoeing around Kamestastin last spring. Honestly, I think I changed my mind about what I would ask every week. At the moment I think I would have to ask “Where did you get your crystal and smokey quartz and what were you making out of it?”. I know that’s actually two questions, but…they’re related! We have this amazing and perfectly translucent quartz which looks like natural glass and seems to be popular during the earliest occupation phases, but for the most part we only have the flakes. We recently found a few unifacially worked flakes that resemble microblades but so far no complete tools have been recovered. I am quite interested to know what they are doing with this material and where they are getting it. There are potential sources in the area surrounding Kamestastin that I hope to take samples from this coming season, but I have a feeling that the crystal quartz is not coming from the same place as the other high quality veined quartz found in these early assemblages…I could be wrong, but it’s my gut feeling.

5) Have you ever found anything in the field or in the lab that you wish you hadn’t?

No, although I have found some unexpected specimens. We just recently did a flotation on the hearth contents from one of the early sites at Kamestastin and were pleasantly surprised (to put it mildly) to find sea urchin shell, a mouth piece and spines amongst the calcined bone. The specimens have been burned, which suggests that the sea urchin was exploited and deliberately discarded at the time the hearth was in use. Kamestastin is approximately 130km from the coast today, and even with considering the landscape change that has occurred over the past 5000 years, people would still have had to travel a great distance to bring sea urchin into the Kamestastin area. This opens up a whole area of inquiry about coastal and interior human-land-animal relationships that is unexpected but fascinating.

6) Why did you choose Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN)? 

A black bear coming to visit on 
a snowy day at Kamestastin.
By the time I started writing applications for my PhD, I was set on Labrador. I did apply to other schools, but I was already seriously considering MUN after a long discussion with my M.A. supervisor, Dr. James Conolly from Trent University. I wanted to work with my current supervisor, Dr. Peter Whitridge, because our areas of interest overlap quite a bit. I am glad I have been given that opportunity because he has been supportive, critical and free with advice. There were also many professors in the department whose work I was interested in; Dr. Mario Blaser, Dr. Lisa Rankin and Dr. Priscilla Renouf in particular, all three of whom have taken the time on multiple occasions to talk with me about my project and future directions. The entire archaeology faculty is fantastically knowledgeable and dedicated to Northeast Atlantic archaeology, many with a long-term connection to research in Labrador. There’s also a phenomenal library with great resource material, and the school is quite close to the PAO (the Provincial Archaeology Office) and the ROOMS museum – all of which are fantastic resources for research in the province. For someone interested in Newfoundland and Labrador archaeology, MUN is really the best choice.

7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

That is a good question. I volunteer with the St. John’s Soccer Association, which has been very helpful in taking my mind off my work.  I find it very fulfilling, even though I am only with the team half the season because of field work. Outside of soccer, I am currently trying to change some of my habits, so I don’t have a set unwinding technique anymore. I used to watch ‘popcorn’ TV, light fluffy comedies that didn’t have anything to with what I was working on. Now I’m trying a few new things, although I do fall back on some of my favorite light shows. I tried knitting, but it’s not the best option for me. I like it, but my wrists really do not. It’s a little embarrassing walking around with a wrist brace from a knitting session – I do blame the PhD and the typing that accompanies it. I am also trying to get back into reading for fun – no articles or text books allowed! So far, I am so relaxed from 15 minutes of fun reading that I have no trouble getting to bed at a decent time…I’ll let you know when I find something that I stick with for a bit.

8) There’s a lot of travelling and writing in archaeology. Any tips in either category?

Two things: you can never have enough underwear and bring warm clothes/sleeping equipment. Lots of underwear means less laundry days. I have a bit of a reputation about laundry – I absolutely hate it. I do not know why, but I simply cannot stand doing it. There is a point where it absolutely has to be done, and I never push it until I resemble pig pen from the peanuts, but in my mind as long as you have clean underwear, you are good to go. And the second piece of advice would be never choose entertainment over warmth. If you don’t have enough to read, at least you can do other things; talk with people, explore, catalogue, sing to yourself, sleep. If you’re anything like me, sleep is next to impossible if you’re cold, which also means it is going to be a long season. As for the travel, archaeologists have this fantastic opportunity to see and explore places that are simply inaccessible in a tourist capacity. Even bad conditions make amazing adventure stories in retrospect.

Anthony Jenkinson and Dr. Stephen Loring pushing a canoe filled with digging gear towards the end of the 2012 spring season after the ice started to open up and the skidoo was retired.

9) What publications or websites would you recommend if people want to learn more about your area of interest in general? Or your project in particular?

I’ve touched on a lot of different topics in this interview: quartz, Kamestastin, the Tshiash Innu/Maritime Archaic, Mushuau Innu, identity and narrative construction, landscape archaeology, phenomenology, GIS. There is an extensive literature on each one of these areas, except perhaps quartz  tools. The most recent literature that I have come across on quartz tools is Understanding Quartz Technology in Early Prehistoric Ireland (2010) by Killian Driscoll. For an overview on landscape archaeology, which touches on Phenomenology and GIS, I would suggest The Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (2008). I often refer to it for overviews on different landscape related topics as well as for the extensive bibliography. I would recommend going to the Innu Nation website which has a fantastic reference page with numerous papers and books relating to Innu heritage for anyone wanting to learn more Another great resource is . There are a number of significant publications on identity and narratives, but one of the books that had a profound effect on me is Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (2004) by Deborah Bird Rose. At the time that I read it, I was struggling to articulate my discomfort solely engaging with single narratives and it continues to help me work through some of the issues that arise when interacting with multiple narratives. There are so many articles, books and theses available on the Maritime Archaic and the development of Amerindian culture in Labrador that it is really difficult to pick just one to suggest. To suggest something would depend on what the person is interested in: earliest sites, regionalization, mortuary contexts, etc.

The term Tshiash Innu was first used by the Tshikapisk Foundation/Arctic Studies Center collaborative as both a way in which to mitigate against unnecessary confusion and disassociation during cultural-heritage programs at Kamestastin and as a reference to the possibility of cultural connections between the earliest Amerindian peoples of Labrador/Québec and the present day Innu. As for the work at Kamestastin, the two people I work with the most on this collaboration are Anthony Jenkinson (of the Tshikapisk Foundation) and Dr. Stephen Loring (of the Arctic Studies Center). They have both published numerous papers on the ongoing archaeological and cultural-heritage research over the years, which are referred to in the reference section of this interview.

For more information on the Tshikapisk Foundation, you can go to

For more information on some of the previous collaborative work at Kamestastin, you can visit

As for my own work, I have not written much that has been published just yet, but there is a co-authored PAO newsletter article coming out soon which describes our 2012 spring field season that I (shamelessly) recommend to anyone who wants to know more about this project. I also am happy to talk further should anyone be interested and can be contacted at


David, B. and J. Thomas (eds).
2008 The Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (eds) Bruno David and Julian Thomas. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

Driscoll, K.
2010 Understanding Quartz Technology in Early Prehistoric Ireland. Unpublished dissertation. University College Dublin, Dublin.

Jenkinson, A.
2011 Summary of Tshikapisk Excavations at Kamestastan 2008 To 2010. In Provincial Archaeology Office Review Volume 9 for 2010 Field Season.

Loring, S.
1992 Princes and Princesses of Ragged Fame: Innu Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Labrador. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts/Amherst.

1997 On the trail to the Caribou House: some reflections on Innu Caribou hunters in northern Nitassinan (Labrador). In, Caribou and Reindeer Hunters of the Northern Hemisphere (eds) Lawrence Jackson and Paul Thacker. Pp. 185-220. Avebury: Aldershot (Great Britan).

2001 Archaeology with the Innu at Kamestastan. Arctic Studies Centre Newsletter 9:10-11. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

2005 Smithsonian fieldwork in Labrador, Summary of 2004 fieldwork. Provincial Archaeology Office Newsletter 3: 20-21.

2006 Smithsonian research in Labrador, Summer 2005. Provincial Archaeology Office Newsletter 4: 55-60.

2008 At home in the wilderness: the Mushuau Innu and caribou. In The Return of the Caribou to Ungava, A.T. Bergerud, Stuart Luttich and Lodewijk Camps. Pp. 123-134. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal.

2009 From tent to trading post and back again: Smithsonian anthropology in Nunavut, Nunavik, Nitassinan, and Nunatsiavut – the changing IPY agenda, 1882-2007. In Smithsonian at the Poles: Contributions to International Polar Science (eds) Igor Krupnik, Michael A. Lang, and Scott E. Miller. Pp. 115-128. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

Loring, S. and A. Jenkinson
2009 The Trail to the Caribou House: A Tshikapisk Archaeological and Cultural Heritage Initiative. Fieldwork in the Vicinity of Border Beacon at the Labrador-Québec Boundary in Nitassinan. Arctic Studies Centre Newsletter 16: 38-9.

2012 Tshikapisk Foundation; Archaeological Research in 2011. In Provincial Archaeology Office Review Volume 10 for 2011 Field Season. 

Loring, S., A. Jenkinson and E. Pastiwet
2009 Caribou Country Archaeology: Tshikapisk sponsored Research in Nitassinan, fall 2004. Report on File at the Provincial Archaeology Office, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Loring, Stephen, Moira McCaffrey, Peter Armitage and Daniel Ashini
2003 “The archaeology and ethnohistory of a drowned land: Innu Nation research along the former Michikamats lake shore in Nitassinan (interior Labrador)”. Archaeology of Eastern North America 31:45-72.

Rose, Deborah Bird
2004 Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.

[1] Translates to “old Innu from long, long ago”.


Is there someone that you would like to see profiled here?  Perhaps your'd like to raise awareness of your own research?  Contact

Photo Credits: As listed in the photo captions

1 comment:

  1. This is definitely a project and a researcher to follow over the years. The packing advice to never choose entertainment over warmth are wise words.


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