Instruments of Change: Late Dorset Palaeoeskimo Drums and Shamanism on Coastal Bylot Island, Nunavut, Canada

Tim Rast 1  and Christopher B. Wolff 2
  • 1 Elfshot, St. John’s, NL, Canada
  • 2 University at Albany, NY, USA


The only known evidence of Dorset Palaeoeskimo drum use ever documented was salvaged decades ago along with thousands of other Late Dorset Palaeoeskimo artifacts from an eroding coastal site (PfFm-1) at Button Point on Bylot Island, Nunavut (Figure 1) (Mary-Rousselière 1976, Taylor 1971-1972). These finds consist of two nearly complete wooden drums and various other drum frame fragments that date to the centuries surrounding A.D. 1000 (Taylor 1971-1972). In the spring of 2014, the authors and Lori White re-examined all of the wood fragments recovered from Button Point, documenting the known drum pieces and discovering nearly a dozen previously unidentified drum fragments. These fragments represent instruments in a range of sizes, but with a consistent and uniquely Late Dorset Palaeoeskimo style that has not been identified prior to our research. In this paper, we discuss a proposed typology of the Dorset drums and drum fragments, and contrast their stylistic attributes with subsequent historic Inuit drum morphology in the region. We will also discuss some of the functional aspects of how the drums were manufactured and the use of foraged coastal resources in their construction. Finally, we offer an interpretation of the driftwood-constructed drums as part of what we believe to be elements of Late Dorset shamanism.

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