A historic photograph showing the crowded but neatly organized living area of Lt. Adolphus Greely. Books, clothing, and scientific instruments hang from walls and bookcases.

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[Dr. Peter Dawson, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary]: There is often an assumption that heritage sites throughout the world that have been around for a thousand years will, by virtue of that fact, be around for many more thousands of years to come. And I think we’re starting to realize now that that’s not necessarily the case. Resource development, the impact of climate change, tourism – all of these things are impacting heritage sites not just in the Arctic, but in areas throughout the world. So, it really is important that we document these sites as thoroughly as we can to ensure that they are going to be around for future generations to come.

So the idea behind this project really is born out of an emerging area within archaeology called “digital archaeology.” And I think much of the general public tends to think of archaeology along the same lines as its subject matter - that it’s basically kind of an antiquarian science in that the technology that we use in archaeology hasn’t really changed much over the last hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred years of the disciplines existence. In other words, we still use trowels and picks and shovels and so on.

The 3D scan that we completed in 2010 provides an extremely accurate and precise digital record of Fort Conger in terms of the positions of artifacts, the distribution and density of vegetation even, and of course we’ve recorded all of the standing structures of the site, Peary’s huts and so on.

[Dr. Richard Levy, Professor of Urban Planning, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Calgary]: There are a lot of challenges in reconstructing any archaeological site, especially one that’s fairly modern as this was. One is just getting the data that you need to reconstruct the structure, but also all of its contents as well.

In the computer reconstruction, we built it just as they would have, ‘stick by stick’ as they say. Once the building was completed, we then had to deal with the interior design of the structure. We do have a sketch done by Greely, which basically lays out the inner floorplan. We also have a couple of photographs, which are really essential to the reconstruction; one of Greely’s corner band one of Lockwood’s, and from those photographs we can, in a sense, reconstruct what was found in their space including the desk, the chairs, books, and other things that you would have found.

In the other spaces it’s more problematic. This is where we have missing information. But what we can do is look at other types of buildings from that period to get a sense of how they might have been built, but also what they would have featured in terms of their interior design. When you visit the virtual reconstruction, what you’ll see there are objects in the space such as the stove and other objects of daily use that were based on laser scans done of artifacts that still remain. The site is only a little over a hundred years old, so we still have many of the objects that are from the period.

[Dr. Peter Dawson]: I think visual images are extremely powerful ways of communicating archaeology to a general audience. And our hope is that by creating this virtual reconstruction of Fort Conger, this will allow people throughout the world to visit this very special and unique heritage site and take away from their visit some kind of an understanding of the significance of the site in terms of its place in Canadian history.

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[Dr. Lyle Dick, Historian]: Fort Conger is a site of North Polar exploration, but it’s much more than that. It’s an evolved cultural landscape whose history of human-environmental interaction goes back at least forty-five hundred years.

[Dr. Peter Dawson, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary]: One of the first European expeditions to visit what would become Fort Conger, was the British Arctic Expedition, led by George Strong Nares, and this expedition had two objectives; the first was science, and the members of this expedition involved themselves in many of the same types of scientific observation based work as the later Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Things, for example, like observations of magnetism, meteorological observations, tidal measurements as well zoological and botanical collections. They also had a second objective, and that objective was to travel further north than any European had ever travelled before.

[Dr. Lyle Dick]: They ran into trouble because their method of Arctic shelter was not very well suited to such an extreme environment. They wintered aboard ship. They had major problems in fluctuations of temperature and condensation. The men developed respiratory problems. Four of them died while they were in northern Ellesmere Island, or on Greenland, and when they were sledging across the channel, and most members of the sledging excursions developed scurvy, obliging Captain Nares to order a premature retreat back to England in 1876.

Only five years later, a U.S. army expedition devoted to scientific research arrived under the command of Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. That was the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition and they established a permanent expedition house on the site that was previously visited by Nares’ party. They named this Polar scientific research station Fort Conger after an American senator who had supported the project in Congress.

The establishment of Fort Conger really was the first example of the application of an integrated program of scientific research to Canada’s high Arctic. The expedition was pretty remarkable for the care and precision with which they collected this data on all matter of scientific subjects including meteorology, magnetism, astronomy, and so on.

The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, after an extended retreat to the south, ended up stranded on Bedford Pim Island in the middle of Smith Sound, and it was the area where they thought they might be likely to encounter a ship. But still it was very remote, very little game or access to food on that Island. They had run out of food. They were subsisting on little shrimps, and it’s clear from the forensic evidence, also they relied on the flesh of their fallen comrades. It was a very difficult and painful chapter in Arctic exploration, obviously characterized by great suffering.

Then the site was visited by the American explorer, Robert Peary, during his first North Pole expedition of 1898 to 1902. Peary’s overriding purpose was not science. It was geographical discovery. It was to be the first person to attain the North Pole, which was an objective which many explorers before him had attempted to achieve and failed. Peary was the first who is generally acknowledged, at least came close to the North Pole, even if there is quite a bit of controversy as to whether he actually got there.

Peary had the benefit of learning from the mistakes of his predecessors. Both the Nares expedition and the Greely expedition had not really learned extensively the ways of adaptation and survival in the high Arctic that the Inuit had practiced for many many generations. But Fort Conger is the living demonstration of both his prowess as an explorer and the prowess, the adaptive ingenuity, of the Inuit on whom he relied in order to be a successful explorer.

[Dr. Peter Dawson]: One of the things that comes out of Fort Conger is, again, this record of the meeting of cultures, and of how, you know, interactions between Euro-North American explorers, Robert Peary, and Inughuit Polar Eskimo from Greenland. These groups came together, not always to mutual advantage, but certainly there was this recognition, I think, on the part of Euro-North American explorers, perhaps it was one of the first times there was this realization, that Inuit traditional knowledge and technology could make a real contribution to realizing the objectives that some of these explorers had.

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[Dr. Lyle Dick, Historian]: Fort Conger is a site that is very closely associated with the race to the North Pole, which was a major event in the early Twentieth Century. It’s a story also of human-environmental interface and adaptation so it’s a site very closely associated with the interface of cultures – Aboriginal and European.

[Dr. Peter Dawson, Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary]: I think the significance of Fort Conger lies, in one particular way I think, in the fact that it really is the birth place of Polar science. When I first arrived at Fort Conger one of the things I noticed was an automated weather station that sits like a silent sentinel, collecting climatological data. It’s fascinating to me that there’s this almost continuous record of scientific observations and I think it’s particularly meaningful that that data that was collected by the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in the earlier British Arctic expedition was still relevant today, or still being used by climate scientists today.

[Dr. Lyle Dick]: The International Polar Heritage Committee has put Fort Conger on a short list of about twenty endangered Polar sites, both in the Antarctic and Arctic regions, and so it’s in a select class of very important sites. It’s also one of the very few, if not the only site, in the northern Polar hemisphere with standing structures.

[Dr. Peter Dawson]: When I walk around the site and I see these structures, and I know the stories of these expeditions, seeing these structures triggers, I think, all sorts of recollections of the stories that I recall from these expeditions about some of their achievements, but also aspects of the sufferings and hardships that they endured.

Canada has a very rich Northern heritage and throughout the Canadian Arctic there are sites of both national and international significance. But the paradox is even though these sites are of significance, many are currently at risk of destruction due to the impacts of climate change and human activity. And Fort Conger certainly is not immune from these things. Fort Conger is threatened by a variety of natural and cultural processes.

One of the things that comes out of Fort Conger is, again, this record of the meeting of cultures, and of how, you know, interactions between Euro-North American explorers, Robert Peary, and Inughuit Polar Eskimo from Greenland. These groups came together, not always to mutual advantage, but certainly there was this recognition, I think, on the part of Euro-North American explorers, perhaps it was one of the first times there was this realization, that Inuit traditional knowledge and technology could make a real contribution to realizing the objectives that some of these explorers had.

These sites are intrinsically linked to our Canadian identity and they tell stories that are both compelling and they are stories of heroism, there are stories of tragedy. I think they also reveal a side of Canadian exploration history that is often not discussed, and that is the integral role played by First Nations and Inuit people in nineteenth century, early twentieth century exploration.