Saturday, 24 November 2012

Ottawa researcher’s firing derails Viking project

This should be the best of times for Pat Sutherland. November’s issue of National Geographic magazine and a documentary airing Thursday night on CBC’s The Nature of Things both highlight research the Ottawa archeologist has been doing in the Canadian Arctic for the past dozen years that could fundamentally alter our understanding of our early history.

If Sutherland is right, Norse seafarers — popularly known as Vikings — built an outpost on Baffin Island, now called Nanook, centuries before Columbus blundered on to North America. Moreover, there’s evidence they traded with the Dorset, the Arctic’s ancient, now-vanished inhabitants, for as many as 400 years.

”That’s incredible,” says Andrew Gregg, who wrote, directed and produced The Norse: An Arctic Mystery, the CBC documentary that recounts Sutherland’s findings. “That rewrites all the history books.”

But Sutherland’s pleasure at the recognition her discoveries are receiving has been sharply tempered by a harsh reality. Last April, even as the documentary about her work was being filmed, the 63-year-old, then curator of Arctic archeology at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, was abruptly dismissed from her job.

At the same time, museum officials also stripped her husband, Robert McGhee — himself a legendary Arctic archeologist described as “one of the most eminent scholars that Canada has produced” — of the emeritus status it had granted him after his retirement from the Gatineau museum in 2008.

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