Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Todd Kristensen Researching Birds in Beothuk Beliefs

Todd Kristensen
Todd Kristensen is one of two co-authors behind a fresh examination of Beothuk religious beliefs which was published in the current issue of the Cambridge Journal of Archaeology, entitled Birds, Burials and Sacred Cosmology of the Indigenous Beothuk of Newfoundland, Canada.  Todd is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, but he's done plenty of fieldwork in Newfoundland and Labrador (you may recognize his name from several of the photo credits in Scott Neilsen's profile).

Todd's and Don Holly's ideas about the role of birds in Beothuk art and religion is generating a lot of interest at the moment.  I asked Todd about it...

Plans and Profiles #9. Todd Kristensen, Birds in Beothuk Beliefs

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Cape St. Mary's
Ecological Preserve
Don Holly and I looked at Beothuk burial goods from Newfoundland sites and museum collections and found that a lot of them are artistic representations of seabird parts (wings, feathers, and feet). We wondered why, of all the Atlantic animals, would the Beothuk choose birds to associate with their dead? And why represent body parts associated with bird movement (wings and feathers represent flight while webbed feet represent swimming)? With some help from historic records, we uncovered what we feel is a previously undiscovered religion, one in which birds were spiritual messengers that carried souls of the dead to an island afterlife.

Beothuk Pendant bone pendant drawings and the birds and bird parts that they resemble.

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

Archaeologists ponder diet
It was a round-about way. I was learning about Beothuk ecology by looking at animal bones from archaeology sites and I discovered that birds were a popular food choice. This was interesting because we thought the Beothuk lived mostly on caribou, beaver, and seal. From there, Don and I wondered, if birds were important foods, were they important in other dimensions of Beothuk life? After looking at burial goods, we realized that lots of the mysterious shapes of Beothuk pendants actually represent birds so we got interested in Beothuk religion.

Dawn at L'Anse aux Meadows

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

Fossilized Ripples
For sure. I first approached the past from a biological perspective: I looked at ancient humans as organisms interacting with plants, animals, and the landscape in interesting ways. When we looked at funerary practices, I realized that people don’t just respond to the world biologically; past relationships were created in peoples’ minds, in other words, we respond to and shape our world not as it is but as we perceive it to be. When I learned to appreciate that all adaptations are filtered through belief systems, it totally changed the way we looked at the project.

Detail of Beothuk Burial scene
painted by Rae Braden, 2012.
Pendants are being placed next
to an ochre covered skeleton.
4) If you could ask the people who lived at your site(s) one question what would it be?

I’m really interested in the connection between our thoughts about death and the way we live our lives. My question to a Beothuk person would be: what do you have to do while you’re living to make sure you have a happy afterlife?

5)  I can’t imagine doing this research without... wife’s patience!

Cape St. Mary's Ecological Preserve

6) Has your research taught you anything about yourself? What?

I’ve learned that archaeology interests me for two main reasons. I enjoy learning about adaptations and traditions different from my own: it’s rewarding to discover the diversity of religious beliefs that our Beothuk bird research contributed to. Yet there are very intriguing similarities: what do we draw on the backs of Christian angels? Wings! Lots of cultures believe that unknown worlds exist above and below the world we live in. And it makes sense to enlist help to reach those worlds from things we know; in the case of the Beothuk, through birds. Our research taught me that archaeology is fascinating because it reveals the uniqueness of human cultures as well as the amazing things we all have in common.

Todd, Nature. Nature, Todd.
7) How do you unwind when you need to get away from your research?

Being outdoors. Nature can calm me down, perk me up, and stoke my enthusiasm to keep learning about the world around us.

8) What archaeological discovery or project do you wish that you could have been a part of?

I have ‘finger-in-too-many-pies’ syndrome so I wish I was part of every archaeology project, but in particular, the discovery of the fantastic Danish bog bodies.

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?

To learn more about our specific research, here’s a cool piece on a popular British archaeology website: Past Horizons: Lost Beothuk Nation's Religion Takes Flight.

Randy Boswell wrote a nice article for Canadian media: Newfoundland birds were the heart of extinct Beothuk nation's religion, study says.

There are lots of interesting recent books about ancient religion, here’s a good one: An archaeology of the cosmos: rethinking agency and religion in ancient America (by Timothy Pauketat from 2013). The definitive book about the Beothuk is Marshall’s 1996 work: A history and ethnography of the Beothuk. Lastly, Don Holly’s book about Eastern Subarctic archaeology should be out soon; it promises to be perfect for summer beach reading, or to curl up with around the fire in mid-winter… fall or spring would also be good seasons to read it during.

Depiction of a Beothuk Burial Scene (painted by Rae Braden 2012)

Do you have an article coming out or a research project that you'd like to promote? Do you know an archaeology student whose research could use a boost?  Send me an e-mail:

Photo Credits: Todd Kristensen
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White


  1. Its great to see some new ideas about the Beothuk pendants. I think that one of the strengths of this interpretation is that it accounts for the majority of the major styles and categories of pendants in a single, simple theory; they represent bird parts.

    There are some pendants which fall outside of this interpretation, like the 3D and 2D representations of phalanges, or skeletal fingers. They don't look very birdlike - more like human, bear or seal fingers, but they do make a pretty strong case that at least some pendants are abstract representations of anatomical elements. So seeing animal or bird parts in the other, more abstract categories of pendants doesn't seem like that outlandish of an idea. It lends credence to some of Todd and Don's ideas about skeletal motifs being represented in the pendants as well.

  2. Congratulations Todd on a job well done! I am looking forward to more publications in the future. Kevin Brett

  3. The only issue I have with this theory is that there is not way to verify it. No Beothuks to verify it, and no records from captives stating anything about this. my fear is that the researchers are seeing what they want to see. Ie, they are seeing things through a modern day lens, in that they are associating something unknown (Beothuk pendant meaning) to something we know. Scotoma - The mind sees what it chooses to see. But, having said that, the theory does make sense.

    1. The belief side of the theory would be tough to prove, although ideas like this are useful in helping us understand some of the settlement and burial decisions of the Beothuk. They lived on the mainland, but buried their dead on islands. The "Happy Island" explanation is as good a theoretical framework as anything else I've seen to explain that pattern.

      However, archaeology does definitely have the potential to verify the idea that the pendants represent stylized bird parts. I don't think the evidence is there yet, but we know what to look for now.

      For example, the Dorset Palaeoeskimo left behind stylized animal carvings, especially polar bears that would be tough to recognize as bears without some more naturalistic and intermediary forms to show us how to look at them. Fortunately, we've found those naturalistic versions in the same poses with clearly defined noses and eyes and ears to show us how to interpret the more stylized versions.

      The same thing is true of cave art in Europe. There are certain curves or patterns that were painted that represent entire animals. We know those designs represent a mammoth or an aurochs because they appear in more completely rendered versions. But by using this shorthand an artist could mark a wall with an animal using a few quick strokes. Those apparently abstract marks would hold meaning to anyone who knew how to look at them and see what they represented.

      I mentioned the skeletal phalange Beothuk pendants in a previous comment on this post. We need to find those sorts of naturalistic representations of birds to verify this theory. The bird design theory for pendants has the potential to be proven in the future if we find pendants that are more natural in design and less stylized. What we need to find in order to prove a theory like this (or at least aspects of it) are pendants that don't need interpretation, but that have clearly defined eyes, or beaks, or claws, or feathers to show us that is what the carver was thinking as s/he made the pendant.

      That might not tell us WHY they carved birds, but it would at least confirm that was WHAT they were carving.


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