Growing Greenland’s archaeologists

One warm afternoon at an ancient Norse site, now a modern Inuit sheep farm, archaeology graduate student Michael Nielsen lay on his stomach, contentedly sorting through thousands of tiny rocks and bones seeking artifacts. For archaeologists at a dig, the painstaking work known as picking is an everyday routine. What’s unusual, however, is Nielsen’s background: He is a native Greenlander.

“I just love the artifacts,” he says. For Nielsen, born in the nearby town of Narsaq, an infatuation with archaeology started “from the first minute” he began working on a dig 3 years ago. Then an undergraduate at the University of Greenland in Nuuk, he enjoyed the physicality of the work. And the waves of occupation in Greenland—ancient indigenous populations who arrived then disappeared, followed by the Norse, and finally the Inuit—captured his interest.

For now, budding archaeologists like Nielsen face challenges. The University of Greenland doesn’t have an archaeology department. And parents and policymakers have other priorities, Nielsen says. “People want Greenlandic students to become doctors and lawyers.”

All the same, “it’s important for us to make our own research and write our own history,” says Greenlander Mari Kleist, who got her Ph.D. in archaeology in Denmark in 2013 and is now based in Brussels. Both she and Nielsen intend to one day publish on Greenland archaeology in Greenlandic, an Inuit tongue. “Greenlanders don’t know much about archaeology,” Nielsen says. “I’d want to tell people about the prehistory of Greenland, the Norse, and the Inuit.”

 The quote by Konrad Smiarowski in this story has been corrected, replacing the phrase “homegrown archaeologists” with “Greenlandic archaeologists.” 

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