Friday, May 24, 2013

Plans and Profiles: Latonia Hartery Researching Plant Remains at Palaeoeskimo Sites

Latonia Hartery, in a snowstorm,
 80 degrees north at Fort Conger,
 Ellesmere Island.
Latonia Hartery is an archaeologist from Newfoundland, who completed an MA and PhD at the University of Calgary, before returning to Memorial University of Newfoundland to work on a Post-Doc.  I've known Latonia and had the opportunity to work with her off and on for the past fifteen years.  She keeps an exhausting schedule and when she's not researching microscopic plant residues on Palaeoeskimo artifacts, she's leading tours of archaeological sites in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, travelling, writing, and producing documentaries.  Her research into plant stones and starches was just beginning as our time working together on Newfoundland's northern peninsula drew to a close, so I asked her about where that line of inquiry has taken her...

Plans and Profiles #17: Latonia Hartery, Microscopic Plant Remains from Palaeoeskimo Sites and Artifacts 

1) Tell me a little bit about your project.

Well, let’s see. Generally speaking, and since 1998, I have been working in Bird Cove-Plum Point, on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. There are 36 archaeological sites in the area that date from about 5000 years ago to the historic period. I have worked with a number of wonderful scholars namely David Reader, Stephen Hull, Miki Lee and of course, you. It’s one of the biggest joys of my life, working with that community. It’s also the place where I collected my PhD data, at a Dorset Paleoeskimo site called Peat Garden North. Recently, I have taken a break from research there to edit/work on a book which summarizes the results from the main sites excavated so far. I’m nearing the end now. Thank heavens!

More specifically, I am SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at Memorial University, searching for microscopic phytoliths and starch on Paleoeskimo stone tools and in soil samples. Mike Deal is my supervisor. Both phytoliths and starch have unique shapes and features, particular to species, that help us identify which plant they belong to.
Town of Bird Cove looking west. (Photo: Dennis Minty)

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

Corn starch grain (photo: Brian Kooyman)
I first began investigating phytoliths and starch at Peat Garden North (PGN). It’s a special site, in the sense that it has multiple lines of evidence indicating it was occupied in the late spring and summer. It has two lightly constructed houses, a shellfish midden (scallops and mussels), and more migratory bird remains than seal (about 63% birds). We don’t have a lot of data here in Newfoundland for this time of year. After testing PGN soil for macrobotanical plant remains, the results were nil, except for a couple of raspberry seeds, and spruce needles. It didn’t make sense, however, that there were no plant remains, given the warm season of occupation. I was doing my PhD at the University of Calgary, where people were working on phytoliths and starch research for sites associated with agricultural/complex societies. I thought it might be a long shot to use this mode of inquiry for Arctic hunter-gatherers, but it worked out in the end. By testing soils, and residues on the edges of stone tools, I was able to determine that the people who lived there used at least 26 species of plants. That’s a big jump from two.

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

Potato Starch Grain (Photo: Brian Kooyman)
It’s changed quite a bit - it is no longer site specific. I am now testing other Paleoeskimo sites in Bird Cove. I’m also attempting to make cross-cultural and geographic comparisons/observations about plant use. For example, I recently went to Copenhagen to work with Bjarne Grønnow and Jens Fog Jensen on two Greenland collections. I’m also working with Priscilla Renouf and her team to test artifacts and soils from Phillip’s Garden, and will experiment with Paleoeskimo sites from the Arctic Archipelago. I am currently working with Mike and Vaughan Grimes to extract calculus from teeth of a British Naval Cemetery population dated to 1725-1825. Because hygiene was different in the past, phytoliths and starch were often trapped in calculus deposits. We have found lots of starch, much of which seems to be potato, and I am sure this surprises no one. But, the important thing is we know our method works because in a month, we will sample calculus from Dorset Paleoeskimo teeth as well. We’re also working together to test the interior of Woodland Period ceramic pots from Nova Scotia. So as you can see, phytolith and starch studies have a wide application. My favourite studies have been about a) phytoliths from dinosaur coprolites in India, which help determine their habitat and diet, b) starch grains from the calculus on Neanderthal teeth to show they were consuming wheat, barley, legumes, and date palm fruit, and c) phytoliths from 4000 year old noodles in Laijia, China which showed they were made from millet. Unbelievable!

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

The chert bear from Peat Garden North
(Photo: Latonia Hartery)
I’d probably ask so much at once, it would come out as a garbled mess. I think that while there is much to learn, we’ve made some pretty good in-roads on things like settlement, subsistence and site locations. So, I’d likely ask something related to ideology and art. At Peat Garden North, we once found a polar bear in an outstretched-flying shape, flintknapped in chert. I’d love to ask the maker why it was made, and what does it mean, or perhaps a question about why art is created in general. These are simple questions, but the answers I am sure, much more complicated.

5) Was there something that you believed or expected to be true at the start of this research that you’ve since disproven?

I guess it’s that plants were more important to Paleoeskimo people, and Arctic people in general, than we realize. While they may not make up as much of the diet as sea mammals, they were still consumed, provided much-needed nutrients, and had many uses such as for baskets, floor coverings (they used grass at Peat Garden North for this purpose), clothing, fuel, tools - the list goes on. In many early ethnographies, and 5th Thule monographs for example, observations on plant use were rarely reported. So, I suppose we haven’t been as inclined to study it archaeologically. But when you dig deeper, develop ways to research it, and pose the questions, a new world of information opens up.

6) If you had to pick one artifact or feature that encapsulates your research what would it be? Can you describe it?

Great question. It’s a little soapstone pot you and I found at Peat Garden North. Not more than the size of the palm of your hand, it was located in the middle of a house, on an axial passage. It was stained on the inside, from what we assumed must simply be oil, since the vessel was likely a lamp or pot. However, once I tested the interior of the pot for starch and phytoliths, a number of different, extremely large starch grains belonging to the roots of several plant species, were recovered. It’s not moss, certainly, because moss doesn’t contain starch. It was eye-opening in terms of understanding its function, and I have recently sampled residues from a pot at Phillip’s Garden to see if it contains multiple plant species also. So at the end of the day, the vessel and its contents are metaphorical for the research I’m doing in general, because I first thought something that was a standard way of thinking, which was eventually disproven.

Soapstone pot from Peat Garden North, and an example of some of the starch grains found inside. Top Right is starch grain, Left is cross polarized image of the starch showing birefringence. (Photo: Latonia Hartery)

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

When I’m not doing research, I’m usually making documentaries or fictional films. In the past few years, I’ve made a few short films, as well as written and directed a couple of documentaries for the CBC called The Last Sardine Outpost and Rum Running. I’ve also production managed 8 documentaries for that broadcaster. It’s not exactly resting, but it’s pretty incredible what a change in activities can do. I like watching movies as well, especially foreign films, The Lives of Others – A German film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t watch lots of TV but I did watch Vikings on HBO. It wasn’t bad! The opening credit sequence and music is quite good, that’s reason enough to watch it.

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

Latonia and Aaju Peter (Inuit Lawyer, Designer, Singer, 
Sealing Activist) singing “Return of the Sun” song on 
top of a fjord (Photo: Dennis Minty)
I’ll take the travelling one. In the past two years alone, for Arctic research and for filmmaking, I travelled almost 450 000km. Don’t rely on these to save your life, but just to up the joy factor of your trip. 1) Only take what you need. Nothing worse than lugging around a bunch of things you never end up using. Sometimes I pack, then force myself to get rid of 30-40% of it. 2) Where ever you go, take a few minutes to learn words in that language such as hello, thank you, I am XYZ, you’re country is nice, the beer here is tasty - anything really. Once people realize you have made this effort, a bond is automatically formed. 3) Lots of places I go are cold, so I try to find out how local people keep warm, and then I do the same. While, I have some ‘high tech’ gear, I have hand-made parkas, seal-skin boots and mitts, and even made myself an amauti. It’s a bit of work to get/make but I don’t remember the last time I was cold in the north. But do remember having to share my clothes with people dressed in gortex, etc 4) Bring small gifts for people. Bring them for people you know, and for people you haven’t even met yet. Chances are, someone, somewhere, will do something nice for you along the way 5) Here’s my fave, learn a song from your home, something with a fast tune. Music is universal and makes everyone’s life better. It’s side-splitting to be in a place where you can’t speak the same language, but can sing a song with gusto while people laugh/listen and try to join in. I taught a few Greenlanders in Sisimiut how to sing I’se the B’y once -then promptly found myself in their house eating halibut and drinking tea.

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? 

Yes, well Elfshot and Steve Hull’s are among the best, but I suspect your readers know those already. Here’s the site for my non-profit org (, and the Bird Cove area ( Superstar phytolith and starch researcher Delores Piperno has a home page and a link to all her stellar publications here:

For books, try Ancient Starch Research, edited by Torrence and Barton, and Phytoliths: A Comprehensive Guide for Archaeologists and Paleoecologists by Piperno. Some of my early results are in the Bar Series 2006 with Rankin and Ramsden as editors, and there is my PhD, but a shortened form of those results will appear in our book soon.


Would you like to see your work profiled here? Or perhaps that of a student or colleague?  Send me a note, I'd love to hear from you:

Photo Credits: 
As indicated in the photo captions.
Plans and Profiles Banner, Tim Rast based on a linocut by Lori White

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