Dorset Phase

800 B.C. - A.D. 800

Although the Dorset Phase of Arctic Small Tool tradition is found across the high Arctic and Labrador regions, Manitoba contains only a few sites on the Churchill West Peninsula near Churchill. Two archaeological sites which represent short-term occupation were surveyed by Meyer and Linnamae in the 1970s. One of them, Dorset Cove (IeKn-7), was excavated by R. Nash in 1968. Both sites were located on the west side of the peninsula 25 metres above sea level (masl). Two thousand years ago these sites were on the shore of the ancient Tyrrell Sea, which has since receded to form the Hudson's Bay.

The Setting

The Dorset people were a maritime group, living for the most part, off the resources of the sea. Included in their tool kit were closed-socket harpoon heads, ground and polished burins, ground slate points, and a variety of beautifully carved bone and wood objects which may have been part of a shamanistic tool kit. Stone lamps, both oval and rectangular have also been recovered. The remains of house structures at Churchill contain central passageways constructed of flat stones. This feature is also present in an earlier phase of Dorset culture which is referred to as Independence II (ca 1000-500 B.C.).

The climate of the region is severe. Temperatures are greatly affected by maritime forces and the prevailing northwest winds. Winters are extremely long and frigid. Temperatures in January average -25° C, and in July they average +18° C. Precipitation amounts are not as heavy as further inland, but the effects of high winds during the winter months bring many severe and dangerous blizzards with high snow drifts.

A variety of large marine and land mammals are found in the Churchill area: beluga whale, a variety of seal, polar bear, caribou, moose, black bear. Walrus remains have been identified at archaeological sites, but no walrus frequent the area today. Birds and waterfowl are numerous in the spring and fall. The coastline is a staging area for thousands of snow and Canada geese, some nesting further north, others nesting along the shores at Churchill.

The vegetation near the coast is alpine in nature. However, stands of poplar occupy the sheltered valleys. The dominant vegetation consists of stunted black spruce, which exhibit krumholtzing, and sphaghnum moss in poorly drained areas. During the short summer season, a profusion of flowering plants colour the tundra.


The technological advances that are represented in the Dorset settlements in the eastern Arctic created a well-constructed and varied tool kit, which focused on the harvesting of marine resources. The use of bone for needles and awls, as well as harpoons hint at the many types of activities that took place within the settlement. Probably the most spectacular tools are those which have been fashioned out of walrus or narwhal tusks. In addition, ivory was used for snow knives, goggles, and tiny replicas of animals and birds. According to R. McGhee (1978), bow-hunting decreased after 800 B.C., during Dorset times, and little is known about inland hunting technologies. Sled runners have been found at some sites on Baffin Island, but none in Manitoba. Archaeologists believe that these sleds were pulled by hand because no firm evidence of dog remains has been found. A series of kayak rests, which were located at the same elevation, indicate the use of water craft in the area 2,000 years ago.

Local cherts appear to have been used to fashion the numerous microblades and endblades which were recovered by Nash (1972). Most of the tools were bifacially flaked. Some of the burins as well as biface blades appear to have been ground around the base.

Subsistence and Settlement

Dorset sites are larger and more numerous than Pre-Dorset examples. The Churchill West Peninsula was still a series of small rocky islands during the Dorset occupation, and may have been occupied only occasionally as a short term seasonal camp in the southernmost area of the cultures distribution. Nash (1972) noted that faunal remains such as seal predominated. Polar bear, musk-ox, and caribou were also exploited. The settlement at Dorset Cove consists of three rectangular dwelling remains clustered at the edge of a rocky ridge which was protected from the prevailing northwest wind by huge rock outcrops. Two other house structures were square in shape and had very distinct midpassages constructed of limestone slabs. These two houses are considerable distance from each other and are further back away from the former shore where the clustering of rectangular houses occurs. They both appear to be similar to Independence II house structures found further north, and may be older than the three rectangular features. The site may therefore represent three separate seasonal occupations.

Summer houses may have consisted of seal-skin covered framed tipi or wigwam. While there is no evidence for snowhouses, or iglus, wooden snow knives, similar to those used by the historic Inuit to cut snow into building blocks, have been found. Other forms of winter housing, such as subterranean structures, have not been identified at Churchill. This site may have been inhabited only during the spring when seal and birds were plentiful.

Exchange System

Little information was found at Dorset sites on the Churchill West Peninsula to reconstruct exchange patterns. The stone used for manufacturing artifacts was local. Nash noted similarities between the house remains at Churchill and those in west and northwest Greenland. Tools were most closely related to central and eastern Arctic, although there was some variation which may reflect personal preferences and abilities in tool-making.

Belief System

No objects which could indicate a belief system of Dorset people have been found to date in northern Manitoba. However, bone and ivory carvings which have been recovered from sites in the central and eastern Arctic suggest that shamanism was practiced. In Newfoundland, a Dorset burial pattern of placing the deceased in small caves or crevices has been recorded.

© 1998 Manitoba Archaeological Society
Web Development: Brian Schwimmer, University of Manitoba
Text and Graphics: Brian Schwimmer, Virginia Petch, Linda Larcombe
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