Herschel — Island in Time

The Einstein-described version of our universe has four dimensions: the three planes of movement possible in three-dimensional space, plus the fourth dimension, time. Herschel Island is not a spectacular example of space. There are 510,072,000 km2 of it on Earth’s surface, some 4,400,000 times as much space as Herschel’s 116 km2.

But Herschel Island doesn’t exist just in space; it also exists in time. This spit of sediment in the Beaufort Sea, five km off the Yukon’s northern shore, is a testament to the massive weight of the ice sheet that carved the Herschel Basin between 110,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Time is notoriously messy, and it has strewn its detritus liberally on the island.

Picked up and cleaned off by archaeologists and paleontologists, these objects tell part of the story of Herschel. That story is chronicled in a new book, edited by Christopher Burn of Carleton University.

It is also shown in an exhibit at the MacBride Museum in Whitehorse, featuring objects from the island—most of them collected by Jeff Hunston, the Yukon government’s manager of heritage resources—that have never been on public display.

The book, which was the impetus for the exhibit, is titled Herschel Island/Qikiqtaryuk – a natural and cultural history of Yukon’s Arctic island.

Time is there again on the cover. The island has only been “Herschel” since Sir John Franklin named it that in 1826. Before that it was Qikiqtaryuk, from the Inuvialuktun dialect Siglitun, itself the closest surviving language to that of the Tuyurmiat people who lived on the island before Europeans arrived.

The idea for a book on Herschel Island came to Burn in 2008, while he was there with fellow contributor Cameron Eckert.

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In Herschel, Burn recognized a place with a unique profile, an island used by all levels of government, whose aboriginal roots were well-known, and that had seen a considerable amount of research.

“In the process of assembling the book I gained a great appreciation of the cost of such a project, and the generosity of many partners who wanted to see it completed,” says Burn.

“I also developed considerable appreciation for the Inuvialuit who helped us see things from a different perspective than we might otherwise have done.”

The book encompasses a range of Herschel information that defies easy summary.

Forty authors lend their work to its pages. They describe Herschel not only as it is (territorial park, sovereignty hotspot and rapidly eroding, amongst other things), but as it was:

A thriving whaling-port, in near past.

A native hunting ground in a time only slightly earlier on the geologic scale.

And finally, as a land whose permafrost crackled under the feet of long-dead giants.

The permafrost is what makes Herschel Island rich grounds for archaeologists and palaeontologists. Wood, leather and bone artifacts that would rot elsewhere lie in natural deep-freeze.

Fossil bones that are 150,000 years old feel like the bones of the newly dead. And since the island is built of frozen sediment without a bedrock core, more and more of these objects come to light with each spring thaw.

“The great thing about Herschel is there’s always new stuff popping up on the beach,” says GrantZazula, a palaeontologist with the Yukon government.

“There’s a huge supply of specimens out there, and it’s just a matter of coming up with interesting questions to ask about them.”

Zazula, along with archaeologist Greg Hare and Leighann Chalykoff at the MacBride Museum, put together an exhibit that skims the history of Herschel from the first ice age to near-modernity.

It is not meant to be an in-depth view, nor does it represent all of the things one might find at Herschel, but all of them are new to public view.

Consider that all of “modern” Western history is a shade over two millenia. The Herschel exhibit (as well as the book) embrace a period 75 times that long. Seeing that span represented in a few dozen objects is remarkable.

“We thought, we’ve got a number of objects here, archaeological and palaeontological, that have never been on display anywhere before,” says Greg Hare.

“We borrowed five or six of the themes that are in the book. We created a number of interpretive panels, and then selected artifacts that would illustrate different aspects of human history and ice-age history on the island.”

Every piece on display has a history. A walrus bone is part of a Herschel discovery that demonstrated that a species living in the area at least 50,000 years ago (Zazula believes 150,000) is ancestral to modern walruses.

There is an ancient piece of caribou bone, etched by an unknown hand with the outline of a bowhead whale, and arrows some resourceful hunter made from spent bullet casings to stun small birds such as buntings.

Most out of place amongst all these objects out of time is a large section of bamboo, brought north by a Polynesian or Hawaiian whaler.

One of Chalykoff’s favourite stories about Herschel Island illustrates the stark reality of the island as an Arctic outpost. Settled by whalers before Europeans had spread widely in the Canada’s Northern territories, it was an isolated place without much natural shelter.

“There’s a story that, in 1897, a group of whalers were playing a baseball game. It was a nice day, but then a storm came in. Within minutes the wind was blowing, they couldn’t see and they all ran for cover. Some of them didn’t make it. When they were finally able to come back out, five men had died, just from exposure.”

Herschel Island’s appeal and its history are not defined by one era, one object or one person.

It is fitting, then, that the book and the exhibit only came together because of the work of many people—more fitting that more than 20 of the authors are Yukoners themselves.

The exhibit will be at the MacBride museum until October—a short visit after what has been, for some of the items in it, a journey tens of thousands of years long.

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