Complete Inuvialuit driftwood house found in Mackenzie Delta

Archaeologists have uncovered the first complete example of a traditional driftwood home built by Inuvialuit hundreds of years ago in the Mackenzie Delta.

Max Friesen hopes to complete excavation before erosion destroys the cruciform pit house

An archeologist from the University of Toronto is celebrating the discovery this summer of the first complete example of a cruciform pit home across from Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., in the Mackenzie Delta.

The structures were built by Inuvialuit from about 500 years ago up until around 1900.

"For me, it was almost the capping of my career," says Max Friesen, who’s been working in the area off and on since 1986.

  • Scroll down to listen to Max Friesen's full interview with Allison Devereaux of CBC North's Trail's End

Friesen says large, cruciform houses are one of the things most spoken about in early histories, recollections of elders and the writings of early explorers in the delta

"But even though others have excavated parts of these houses, there’s never been one that’s fully dug, so you can actually see how it all fits together."

They’re called cruciform houses because they have a central floor area and then three very large alcoves, each of which would’ve had one or two different families in them.

"If you look at it from above, it kind of looks like a cross," Friesen says.

Driftwood logs make up the house’s floor, benches and roof, which would have been covered in skin and sod for insulation.

With a main living area about seven metres wide and almost six metres long, the house is almost twice the size as those built by the Thule people, the ancestors of the Inuvialuit.

"By almost any early standard, that’s huge," Friesen says.

He says the house may have been lived in, on and off, for 20, 30 or 40 years. When it was abandoned, it collapsed into the permafrost and became completely frozen.

That makes it horrible to dig in, Friesen says, but it means the structure is wonderfully preserved.

"When you expose some of the wood, it looks like fresh wood. Like something that just drifted in this morning."

Erosion exposing, threatening dig site

Friesen spent five weeks doing the dig this summer at the Kuukpak archeological site that extends about a kilometre along the Mackenzie River.

"It’s probably the single largest Inuvialuit site that was ever occupied," Friesen says. "I would guess at least maybe 40 houses. That’s enormous."

The settlement was the site of a large, very successful beluga hunt every July.

Now, Friesen says, the area is rapidly eroding.

"We could walk on the beach and see a lot of beluga bones and artifacts currently eroding out of the edges of the site and get an amazing view of the size and complexity of what Inuvialuit society must have looked like."

That erosion is putting a time limit on the work.

Friesen says the pit house is so big that 10 people working for five weeks were unable to get to the bottom of it. He plans to head back to the area next year for an aerial survey. Then try to complete the dig in the summer of 2016.

"I’m really hoping that this will last for at least another three, four, five years and that we will manage to preserve a large amount of information that would otherwise be destroyed."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.