Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Patty Wells Researching Faunal Remains at Port au Choix

Patty Wells dragging a seal carcass to the salt water 
to deflesh it. Photo was taken on a beach near Phillip’s Garden.
Patty Wells is a recent PhD graduate from Memorial University's Archaeology Department.  She specializes in zooarchaeological analysis with an emphasis on the Palaeoeskimo occupations at Port au Choix, on Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula.  Patty has always been very generous to me with feedback, help maneuvering through the large Port au Choix collection and work over the years.  This week, she indulged me with one more favour - answers to nine questions about her current research plans...

Plans and Profiles #6: Patty Wells, Palaeoeskimo Faunal Collections at Port au Choix

1. Tell me a little bit about your project.

I graduated in this spring with my PhD. It was a detailed study of the bone, antler and ivory tool industry at Phillip’s Garden, one of the largest and most intensely occupied Dorset sites in the world. In fact, all of my research projects have involved examining zooarchaeological remains toward understanding Palaeoeskimo social practices around the use of animal products both for subsistence and for making tools. Presently my research is focusing on subsistence remains. Along with Vaughan Grimes, I am co-applicant under principal investigator Priscilla Renouf on a SSHRC Insight Grant. This five year project involves archaeologists, physical anthropologists, biologists and geographers working on various data to understand environmental and cultural change, particularly as it pertains to the abandonment of Newfoundland by the Dorset Palaeoeskimo (ca. 1200 BP). My role is to examine seal faunal remains from middens to assess changes in butchering and disposal practices over time. 

This is a compilation of some of my organic tools.

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

Years ago for my undergrad honours I compared the location of butchering marks on seal bones from a Groswater site, Phillip’s Garden East to those from the Dorset site, Phillip’s Garden. They had many things in common, but there were some interesting differences too. For instance the Groswater seemed to cut around the flipper bones much more often, while cuts on the Dorset flipper bones were very rare. I speculated on whether the Dorset may have been less concerned with maximizing the recovery of meat and skin compared to the Groswater. I continue to be interested in how cultures approach animal processing since these would reflect practices that would have been reinforced over and over every time an animal was cut up. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, people begin to change their practices. I’ve worked at Phillip’s Garden for years and been involved with the excavation of a number of middle phase houses. This was the period when the site was most intensely occupied. Something we’ve noticed is that middens outside the front of these houses often contain large segments of seal carcasses with many of the bones still articulated. I’m wondering if processing practices changed during the late phase when the proportion of seal in middens dropped, likely indicating a decline in their availability. For instance, will I see cut marks in different places such as around bones that hold less meat, and will I see carcasses that have been more intensely disarticulated during this later period?

3. Did your project change while you were working on it? How?

The project is just getting started, so not much has changed. This summer will involve a kind of pilot excavation of a middle phase midden to record the location and orientation of seal body parts. The following year we will excavate late phase middens. I want to try some photographic techniques to assess the best way to record information. I’ll use Adobe Bridge to stitch photos together and thought about time lapse photography too. I’d love to get suggestions from people on this.

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

If I could ask the Dorset at Phillip’s Garden one question, it would probably be, Do you keep in touch with the crowd in the Arctic very often, and do you feel like they’re your close relatives? 

5. Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

My research has changed me into someone who scans roads, forests and beaches for dead animals that can be reduced to skeletons. I am acutely aware of the thrilling possibilities associated with decomposition. Fieldwork has changed me into thinking that I don’t like summer unless large parts of it have been spent outside, even in the cold.

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

I’m lucky that the Archaeology Department at MUN was so fantastic because with a family here, it would have been hard to move. Usually doing all of your degrees in one place is very limiting, but in a way, new departments came to me with the changes and increases in faculty in the last ten to fifteen years. I was fortunate to have had excellent supervision from Priscilla Renouf throughout my career, but many others have also helped and influenced me. Two of the number I could mention are zooarchaeologist Lisa Hodgetts who offered great feedback on my MA research, and Peter Whitridge who introduced me to a lot of exciting theoretical anthropology and archaeology. The great archaeology community here extends beyond the university to include the expertise and enthusiasm of others including you and John Erwin to name a few.

7. How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?
Phillip’s Garden with some of the crew in 2011.
Marc Storey, Dominique Lavers and Patty Wells.

Exercise is a big part of how I unwind. I ski, bike and hike, but most consistently I practice and teach a martial art form called kenpo, and I have an exercise routine that supports that training. Also, I like a martini, two at the most!

8. If you could have any archaeologist, living or dead, as your crew chief on your next field season, who would you take? Why?

I would love to have another field season with ethnohistorian and archaeologist Ralph Pastore. He did very good work of course, but he was the funniest person I ever met.

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

There are a number of books written or edited by Priscilla Renouf on the Groswater and Dorset in Newfoundland, the most recent being The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Precontact Hunter-Gatherers of Northwestern Newfoundland. My publications can be found on, just search my name. I will upload a copy of my thesis to that site soon.


Would you like to raise awareness of your own research or that of a colleague or student with a profile on this blog?  Please send me an e-mail at

Photo Credits: Port au Choix Archaeology Project

1 comment:

  1. I'm interested to hear more about your experiments with Adobe Bridge. I have the software, but I don't really know how to use it. For photo stitching, I've been really impressed with the automated photomerge option in Adobe Photoshop.


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