Aolib.comFragment of Photochrom print of the front of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany (ca. 1897)

Bowdoin Boys in Labrador ... »


By Jonathan Prince Cilley

About two miles south of us a vast, unexplored bay ran for a long distance inland, while to the north, looking from Flagstaff Peak, we could see Cape Harrigan and the shoals about it, the numberless inlets, coves and bays which fill in the sixty miles to Nain. We were very much disappointed at our inability to go north to that place, but before our start from the United States Hopedale had been named as the point with which we would be content if ice and winds allowed us to reach it, and that point proved the northern limit of our voyage.

About half a mile across the point of land on which the missionary settlement lies, is the site of the pre—historic village of “Avatoke,” which means “may—we—have—seals.” It consisted of three approximately circular houses, in line parallel with the shore, at the head of a slight cove, backed to the west by a high hill, and with a fine beach in front, now raised considerably from the sea level. Along the front of the row of houses were immense shell heaps, from which we dug ivory, that is, walrus teeth; carvings, stone lamps, spear heads, portions of kyaks, whips, komatiks, as the sleds are called, etc., etc., and bones innumerable of all the varieties of birds, fish and game on which the early Eskimo dined; as well as remnants of all the implements which Eskimos used in the household generations ago, and which can nearly all now be recognized by the almost identically shaped and made implements in the houses of Eskimos there in Hopedale, so little do they change in the course of centuries. The village has been completely deserted for over one hundred years, and was in its prime centuries before that, so the tales of its greatness are only dim Eskimo traditions.

The houses were found to average about thirty—five feet across on the inside; are separated by a space of about fifteen feet, and each had a long, narrow doorway or entrance, being almost exactly in line. The walls are about fifteen feet thick and now about five feet high, of earth, with the gravel beach for a foundation. The inside of the wall was apparently lined with something resembling a wooden bench. When, in one of the houses, the remains of the dirt and stone roof that had long since crushed down the rotten poles and seal skins that made the framework and first covering, had been carefully removed, the floor was found to be laid with flagstones, many three or four feet across, closely fitted at the edges and well laid in the gravel so as to make a smooth, even floor. This extended to the remains of the bench at the sides, and made a dwelling which for Eskimo land must have been palatial. The evidences of fire showed the hearth to have been near the center of the floor, a little towards the entrance, in order to get the most from its heat. The Hopedale Eskimo were themselves surprised at the stone floor, but one old man remembered that he had been told that such floors were used long ago, in the palmier days of Eskimo history, if such an expression is fitting for an arctic people.

A village arranged on a similar plan, except that the houses were joined together, was found to constitute the supposed remains of a settlement on Eskimo Island in Lake Melville.

In both cases the front of the row is towards the east, and the houses are dug down to sand on the inside, making their floors somewhat below the level of the ground.

[Eskimos] A more thorough investigation than we were able to make of the remains at Eskimo Island would undoubtedly yield much of interest and value, for they were if anything even older than those at Hopedale, probably having been abandoned after the battle between Eskimo and Indians, fought on the same island, which has now become a tradition among the people.

Five days were spent in this most interesting ethnological work, and hard days they were, too, as well as interesting, for the mosquitoes, black flies and midges were always with us; but on the other hand, the Eskimo interpreter was continually describing some national custom which some find would suggest to him, and very ingenious he proved to be in naming finds which we were entirely ignorant of or unable to identify.

The race as a whole is exceedingly ingenious, quick to learn, handy with tools, and also ready at mastering musical instruments. One of the best carpenters on the Labrador is an Eskimo at Aillik, from whom we bought a kyak; and at Hopedale in the winter they have a very fair brass band. The art of fine carving, however, seems to be dying out among them, and now there is but one family, at Nain, who do anything of the sort worthy the name of carving. Prof. Lee obtained several very fine specimens for the Bowdoin cabinets, but as a rule it is very high priced and rare. Most of it is taken to London by the Moravian mission ship, and has found its way into English and Continental museums. The figures of dogs, of Eskimos themselves, as well as of kyaks and komatiks, seals, walrus, arctic birds and the like are most exquisitely done.

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