Arctic Architecture - Paleo-Eskimo and Neo-Eskimo Houses

The Science of Building Ancient Cold-Weather Housing

How people build houses and villages to cope with extreme wintery climate conditions is fascinating to the rest of us, I think, because arctic architecture is a glimpse into human society itself. All human societies survive by a set of rules, social contacts and contracts among related and unrelated people. There's a set of social policing and uniting reasons that underlie "village gossip" and make it an essential part of living in a group. Prehistoric Eskimo communities   required that as much as the rest of us do: Paleo-Eskimo and Neo-Eskimo houses were physical innovations to provide space to do that indoors.

It's not that we always like our community: in many prehistoric communities worldwide, sheer economics required that people spent some of the year in small family bands, but those bands always came together at regular intervals. That's why plazas and patios play such an important role in even the earliest of human communities. But when harsh weather restricts that for much of the year, house construction has to allow for privacy and community at the same time. That's the interesting thing about arctic houses. They require special constructions to maintain social connections when that's difficult.

Intimate and Public

So, winter arctic houses of whatever construction method consisted of a network of intimate locations where private activities took place, and communal and public spaces where community activity took place. The sleeping places were at the back or edges of the network, segregated and regulated by wooden partitions, passages and thresholds. Entrance porches, tunnels and tunnel alcoves, kitchens, and storage bins were shared components, where the stuff of community took place.

In addition, the history of the American arctic regions is a long one, that follows through numerous climatic and technological changes and challenges. Bitter cold and limited access to building materials such as wood and clay brick led to innovation in this area, using driftwood, sea mammal bone, turfs and snow as construction materials.

Of course, as Whitridge (2008) points out, the spaces weren't timeless or monolithic but "restless, diagenic and in a constant state of reinvention". Remember that these articles conflate nearly 5,000 years of construction technology. Nevertheless, the underlying forms used and developed by the first people in the American Arctic persisted, with new developments and innovations as time and climate change warranted.

Sources

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the American Arctic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Also see the separate articles for additional references.

Corbett DG. 2011. Two Chiefs’ Houses from the Western Aleutian Islands. Arctic Anthropology 48(2):3-16.

Darwent J, Mason O, Hoffecker J, and Darwent C. 2013. 1,000 Years of House Change at Cape Espenberg, Alaska: A Case Study in Horizontal Stratigraphy. American Antiquity 78(3):433-455. 10.7183/0002-7316.78.3.433

Dawson PC. 2001. Interpreting Variability in Thule Inuit Architecture: A Case Study from the Canadian High Arctic. American Antiquity 66(3):453-470.

Dawson PC. 2002. Space syntax analysis of Central Inuit snow houses. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 21(4):464-480. doi: 10.1016/S0278-4165(02)00009-0

Frink L. 2006. Social Identity and the Yup'ik Eskimo Village Tunnel System in Precolonial and Colonial Western Coastal Alaska. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 16(1):109-125. doi: 10.1525/ap3a.2006.16.1.109

Funk CL. 2010. The Bow and Arrow War days on the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta of Alaska. Ethnohistory 57(4):523-569. doi: 10.1215/00141801-2010-036

Harritt RK. 2010. Variations of Late Prehistoric Houses in Coastal Northwest Alaska: A View from Wales. Arctic Anthropology 47(1):57-70.

Milne SB, Park RW, and Stenton DR. 2012. Dorset culture land use strategies and the case of inland southern Baffin Island. Canadian Journal of Archaeology 36:267-288.

Nelson EW. 1900. The Eskimo about Bering Strait. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. Free download

Savelle J, and Habu J. 2004. A Processual Investigation of a Thule Whale Bone House, Somerset Island, Arctic Canada. Arctic Anthropology 41(2):204-221. doi: 10.1353/arc.2011.0033

Whitridge P. 2004. Landscapes, Houses, Bodies, Things: “Place” and the Archaeology of Inuit Imaginaries. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 11(2):213-250. doi: 10.1023/B:JARM.0000038067.06670.34

Whitridge P. 2008. Reimagining the Iglu: Modernity and the Challenge of the Eighteenth Century Labrador Inuit Winter House. Archaeologies 4(2):288-309. doi: 10.1007/s11759-008-9066-8

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Architecture: Form and Function

Twerpukjua Snow Village near Nunivak Island, Bering Sea
Drawing of a mid-19th century snow village on Twerpukjua Snow Village near Nunivak Island, Bering Sea by Charles Francis Hall. From Arctic Researches, and Life Among the Esquimaux, Charles Francis Hall 1865
The three types of arctic architecture that persist and change through time include tent houses or tipi-like constructions; semi-subterranean houses or earth-lodges built partly or wholly under the earth; and snow houses built of, well snow, on land or sea ice. These types of houses were used seasonally: but they also were used for functional reasons, both community and private purposes. The investigation has been a fascinating ride for me: Take a look and see if you don't agree.

 

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Summer Eskimo Tent House and Campfire, 1899, Plover Bay, Siberia
Summer Eskimo Tent House and Campfire, 1899, Plover Bay, Siberia. Edward S. Curtis 1899. University of Washington Digital Image Collections

The oldest form of house used in the arctic is a type of tent, similar to the Plains tipi. This type of structure was built of driftwood into a conical or dome shape, for use in the summer times as fishing or hunting lodges. It was temporary, and easily constructed and moved when necessary.

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Man Building a Snow House, ca. 1929
Man Building a Snow House, ca. 1929. Canadian Geological Survey, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-103522 (b&w film copy neg.)
Another form of temporary housing, this one restricted to polar climes, is the snow house, a type of residence for which there is sadly very little archaeological evidence. Hooray for oral history and ethnography

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Inuit Semi-Subterranean Dwelling with Bowhead Whale Bone in Radstock Bay, Nunavut, Canada
Inuit Semi-Subterranean Dwelling with Bowhead Whale Bone in Radstock Bay, Nunavut, Canada. Andrew Peacock / Getty Images
A whale bone house was a special purpose house, whether constructed as public architecture to be shared by Thule culture whaling communities, or as elite housing for their best captains.

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Inuit Community, ca 1897
This photo of the "Indian Point" Inuit community was taken by F.D. Fujiwara in 1897 at an unidentified location. F.D. Fujiwara, LC-USZ62-68743 (b&w film copy neg.)
But when the weather got rough--when the winter is at its deepest and most treacherous, the only thing to do is hunker down in the most insulated houses on the planet.

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Qarmat or Transitional House

Qarmat are transitional seasonal but more or less permanent dwellings that are constructed with roofs of skin and hide rather than sod, and were probably used in transitional season times when it was too warm to live in semi-subterranean houses but too cool to move into skin tents

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Ceremonial Houses / Dance Houses

Old Inuit Kashim (Dance) House, circa 1900-1930
Old Inuit Kashim (Dance) House, circa 1900-1930. Frank and Frances Carpenter collection LOT 11453-5, no. 15 [P&P]

Also built were special function spaces used as festival or dance houses, used for communal activiites such as singing, dancing, drumming and competitive games. They were built using the same construction as semi-subterranean houses, but on a larger scale, large enough to include everybody, and in large villages, multiple dance houses were required. Ceremonial houses contain little domestic artifacts--no kitchens or sleeping areas--but they do often contain benches placed along the internal walls.  

Communal houses were built as separate strctures, if there was access to adequate sea mammal oil to heat a separate structure. Other groups would build a communal space over the entrances to connect several subterranean houses (typically three, but 4 are not unknown).

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Chief's Houses

There's no doubt that some of the arctic houses were set aside for elite members of the societies: the political or religious leaders, the best hunters or the most successful captains. These houses are identified archaeologically by their size, typically larger than standard residences, and their artifact assemblage: many of the chief's houses contain whale or other sea mammal skulls

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Men's Houses (Kasigi)

Inuit House on St. Lawrence Island, Canada, 1897
This photograph of a group of Inuit people on St. Lawrence Island in front of their house was taken by F. D. Fujiwara in 1897. Walrus meat is drying on the rack over the doorway. F.D. Fujiwara, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-46891 (b&w film copy neg.)

In Arctic Alaska during the Bow and Arrow Wars, one important structure was the men's house, a 3,000-year old tradition segregating men and women, according to Frink. Men slept, socialized relaxed, politicked and worked in these structures, from ages 5-10 and up. Sod and wood structures, holding 40-200 men. Larger villages had multiple men's houses.

The houses were ordered such that the best hunters, elders and guests slept on driftwood benches in the warmer and better lit rear of the building, and the less fortunate men and orphaned boys slept on the floors near the entrances.

Women were excluded except for part of the feasting, when they brought food in.

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Family Village Dwellings

Ground Plan of Two Eskimo Snow-Houses and Connecting Kitchen and Spurs
Ground Plan of Two Eskimo Snow-Houses and Connecting Kitchen and Spurs. Sport and Travel in the Northland of Canada, David T. Hanbury, 1904
Again during the Bow and Arrow Wars, the other houses in the village were the domain of the women, where the men were allowed to visit in the evening but had to return to the men's house before morning. Frink, who describes the ethnographic situation of these two types of houses, is hesitant to place a label on the power balance that this represents--are same sex schools good or bad for gender education?--but suggests that we shouldn't jump to unwarranted conclusions.

 

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Tunnels

Tunnels were an important part of arctic settlements during the Bow and Arrow wars--they acted as escape routes in addition to semi-underground conduits for social connections. Long and elaborate underground tunnels extended between residences and the men's houses, tunnels which also served as cold traps, storage areas and places where sled dogs slept