Monday, April 29, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Frédéric Dussault Researching the Archaeoentomology of Dorset Palaeoeskimo Sites in Newfoundland

Frédéric Dussault in a still standing sod house in
Qaqaitsut, Greenland. Photo: Erika Sakrison.
Frédéric Dussault is a PhD student in the Archaeology Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland who is studying northern cultures in a rather novel way; he is examining the insect remains found in archaeological sites to reconstruct past environments and people's lifestyles.  Many types of insects occupy very specific environmental niches and so by finding and identifying those insects in an archaeological context researchers like Frédéric can tease our clues to the past plants, animals and humans that once lived in an area.  

Plans and Profiles #15. Frédéric Dussault, Archaeoentomology on Dorset Palaeoeskimo sites in Newfoundland

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

I am still in my first year of the PhD program at MUN and I will be undertaking my first field season for my research this summer, but I will try to summarize it as much as I can.

Animal ectoparasites can be used as witness to
the presence of the animal. The picture is a
dog louse that i recovered from samples from
Dogs Island in Labrador (HeCg-08).
Over the course of the next years, I intend to study the sites of Port au Choix and Stock Cove using different environmental proxies that I will recover from soil samples taken on both sites. More specifically I will be working with insect remains, as well as macro and micro botanical remains, such as seeds and pollens. I will be examining these previously neglected data in order to develop a comprehensive, holistic model of the settlement selection pattern of the Dorset in Newfoundland. The environmental proxies that I chose for the analysis will allow me to better our understanding of the Dorset impact on the environment of Port au Choix, but also examine alternate economic sources of the Dorset. Finally, over the course of my research I will attempt to assess the role of women, children and elders in the Dorset culture (genders, non-biological, cultural construct).

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

Picture of the Cape Grinnell site in
Greenland, where I worked on Inuighuit
structures for my MA.
I can't remember precisely how it came up, as it is the result of a reflection taking place over years while I was in the field and while finishing my master's degree at Université Laval. Since the BA I was interested in environmental archaeology and more particularly archaeoentomology. However, I came to realize that very little work had been done on the different arctic cultures, except maybe the Norse in Greenland. Archaeoentomology was not the only subject that was barely applied on arctic and subarctic site, the same applied to archaeobotanical analyses. At some point, I finally read an article by Cynthia Zutter, where she reviewed the use of plants on Thule sites in Labrador. This article made me wonder why would the Dorset in Newfoundland, a usually high arctic culture, not take advantage of this really different environment. Zutter's paper made me realize that there is more to Dorset population than architecture, bones and artefacts.

3) What would be the best case scenario for your upcoming season(s) of fieldwork?

Human louse found in samples from the Cape Grinnell site.
The field season will start at Port au Choix and I hope to be able to go to Stock Cove too. Going to both sites this summer would be great. It would allow me to sample the natural environment around the sites, as well as any structures or middens that will be excavated. I would then be able to start the treatment of the soil samples and  the identification of remains as soon as possible. I hope to build a reference collection of beetles found near the sites during the field season. It will inform about the local insect species and help in the identification of insect remains. So, first, I hope I’ll be able to sample both sites and, second, I hope for nice weather and a buggy summer ! The crew is probably going to hate for the buggy part....

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

That is a good one. I think I would ask them how they perceive their environment, what do they think of the forest, the landscape and even how do they feel about the insects around them. During my MA, I read about the oral tradition of the Greenland Inuits and I became fascinated with it. It is so rich and full of information about the perception of insects and the relation past humans had with them. I would like to know if the Dorset simply hated insect or if they had a use for them? Are there stories, myths or legends relating to the different insects, what was their role in the myths and stories ? I probably would end up asking them about their food, I love to know what people eat and know how they prepare it.

Whale bone comb that was found during the field work in Qaqaitsut, Greenland, the second site I was studying for my MA.

5) Why did you choose Memorial University of Newfoundland?

Although we were at Cape Grinnell to excavate Inughuit
houses, we had the chance to dig older houses,
such as this Indepedence I structure.
The first reason that comes to my mind when I think of why I chose MUN is for my advisor, Dr. Renouf. Many of my past collegues hold her in really high esteem and recommended working with her. During my MA, I knew about the Dorset culture, but they never were the focus of my research in Greenland. Following email exchange with her and conversation with professors in Université Laval, I became more and more intrigued with the Newfoundland Dorset population. The site of Phillip's Garden has been studied for so many years now that some might think that there isn't much left to learn about the site, but I thought quite the opposite. The site is unique and the quantity of information available from previous research is astonishing, but very little environmental archaeology has been done on the site. I thought it would be an ideal place to begin environmental archaeology in Newfoundland ! Lets add another layer of information to this very well known site !

The second reason why I chose MUN is the community. Over the last couple of years, different students from Laval and other people I know who have been coming over here for their research only gave positive feedback. Right from the start, when I met people from here and when I arrived last fall, I already felt at home. People are kind and really helpful.

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

It depends. There is a lot of different ways I spend my downtime. One of the first things is videogames, either on the computer or on the PS3. They really allow me to disconnect completely from my research and everything related to it.

I also spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I used to be a chef and, even if I stopped cooking professionally and started school all over again, cooking remains a passion for me. Making good meals, spending time around the table with a good bottle of wine (or beer !), good food and friends are things I really enjoy. When I start cooking, I never know what will happen since I rarely use a recipe. I always end up with food for an army and having way too many leftovers.

Some people are obsessed with shopping for clothes or shoes. I my case, it is food. I always get excited when I discover new spices, new products and ways to prepare food. Finding a good bakery that makes the perfect loaf of bread or croissant is a moment of pure pleasure for me.

7) Do you have any lucky objects, functional or otherwise that you always take into the field with you?

Inughuit house that we excavated at Qaqaitsut in Greenland.
I don't have any lucky objects that I bring on the field. However, I bring books from the Wheel of time series every field seasons. It started in Greenland because a friend of mine lent me two of the books for the summer. Since then, I always bring two of them with me. I also bring insect identification field guides since you just never know what you might stumble upon!

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

I would have to say the mummies of Qilakitsoq. Since the end of my BA and all through my MA, the book The Greenland Mummies has always been on my desk. At first, I was interested by the entomological studies that they did on the bodies, but after reading the book, I was just amazed by how well they were preserved and how exceptional these find were.

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?

I think that the site of Port au Choix is well known and there is a lot of literature about this exceptional site, such as The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix Precontact Hunter-Gatherers of Northwestern Newfoundland. The introductory chapter, by Renouf (2011) gives a very good idea of the archaeological site, as well as the history of archaeological research.

Coleoptera (beetles) form the main body
of the insects we find in the samples.
Elytron of a Latridius minutus group
 found in a sample from the House B on
the Great Caribou Island, Labrador
However, I know from experience that, when I am discussing my project and what exactly I do, most people are more intrigued by the archaeoentomology. It is normal as it is not a very well known science. If people are interested in learning about archaeoentomology, I would recommend Scott Elias Advances in Quaternary Entomology (2010). This book is a must-read if you are interested in archaeoentomology, the history of the discipline, the methodology and many other things. You should read it ! Otherwise, there are many different papers that have been written on the subject of insects and archaeological sites. For those who would be interested in pushing the subject farther, there is the website of Phil Buckland ( which not only offers a nice program to help in archaeoentomology, but also a very up to date bibliography about archaeoentomological science (link to bibliography

Elias, S. A.
2010. Advances in Quaternary Entomology. Development in Quaternary Sciences 12. Elsevier, Amsterdam.

Renouf, M. A. P.
2011. Introduction: Archaeology at Port au Choix. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix Precontact Hunter-Gatherers of Northwestern Newfoundland, edited by M. A. P. Renouf, pp. 1-21. Springer, New York.


Can I interview you about your research? Perhaps you have a student or colleague whose work you feel should be profiled.  Please get in touch

Photo Credits:
Frédéric Dussault unless otherwise noted in the captions
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

1 comment:

  1. I'm very interested to see what similarities and differences Fred is able to spot between the Dorset occupations at Stock Cove and Port au Choix. They seem to be such different sorts of sites. It'll be interesting to see how that difference is reflected in the plants and insects that made their way into the archaeological deposits.


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