Monday, May 19, 2014

Mound Builders Playtest Update

Your humble narrator recently attempted to play-test Mound Builders, the new solitaire game of Mississippian-era exploration and survival. After two hours of set-up, re-reading (and re-re-reading) the rules, and slow, methodical play, I managed to make it into the early Mississippian era, the game's second epoch. My cultural empire extended deep into Shawnee and Caddo country, generating regular surpluses of hides and mica, before enemy war parties – notably the Cherokees, whose homeland I never managed to incorporate – began battering Cahokia's palisades.

Then I noticed I'd made it through the Hopewell era without remembering to trigger the revolts specified on the game's first set of history cards. I apparently misread a paragraph on page 9, column two of the rulebook (like you do). Well, so much for being methodical! And so much for trying to write a legitimate session report. I'll make another attempt to play the game correctly, but it will have to wait until June, as I'll be traveling and Mound Builders requires more play area than the average hotel table or airline tray-back provides.

(The image at right shows the game board at the start of the first [Hopewell] era, shortly before I began to screw everything up. Not sure where I placed the fifth peace-pipe marker; I suspect it's out-of-frame. The mug on the right edge of the board, used to hold chiefdom counters, was one I picked up at the 2012 meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory.)

Friday, May 09, 2014

Everything's Relaxed and Groovy on Helluland

I've always assumed the relationship between the Norse colonists of medieval Greenland and Newfoundland and the local Native American (Indian and Inuit) was stand-offish at best and violent more often than not. Alfred Crosby (Ecological Imperialism (1986), 48-52) noted routine skirmishing between Norsemen and Beothuks on Newfoundland and repeated Inuit raids on Greenland settlements. Jared Diamond (Collapse (2005)) argued that the Greenlanders' hostility toward the Inuit and their cultural isolationism helped doom their colonies, since it prevented them from copying the Inuit Arctic toolkit (parkas, kayaks, toggle harpoons) and learning their neighbors' survival skills. Something about this story, however, never quite rang true: the medieval Norse were as much traders as warriors, and it seems unlikely that their remote Arctic colonies would have survived for more than four centuries in a state of constant warfare with more numerous neighbors. Within the last decade, archaeologist Patricia Sutherland, formerly of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and now of the University of Aberdeen, has confirmed that the standard account of Norse-Native relations is flawed, and has usefully complicated the narrative of Norse American colonization.

In 1999, studying fibers found in an early 14th-century Dorset-culture (Paleo-Inuit) site on Baffin Island, Sutherland determined that the remains were yarn woven by Greenland Norse. A follow-up study of artifacts from four Dorset-culture sites on Baffin Island (or Helluland, as the Norse called it) and Labrador revealed wooden spindles, whetstones, and tally sticks of the kind used by Norse traders, along with Dorset carvings of what appear to be Europeans. These led her and a Canadian team to a Dorset village site in Baffin Island's Tanfield Valley, where several years ago they located what is almost certainly a Norse trading post: a large structure with a stone-lined drain, a latrine that still stank after centuries (must have been a boys' bathroom), remnants of augur holes and a shovel, and scraps of fur from black rats, which apparently accompanied the Norse voyagers. Sutherland has not yet determined how long the site was occupied, but believes there the Norse and Dorset Inuit conducted a lively commerce, swapping walrus ivory and fox furs for wooden artifacts and metal. However poor the Greenland Norse relationship with other Native Americans may have been, it is now evident that at least one nearby indigenous culture was more than happy to trade peacefully with them. They had, if you will forgive the expression, taken a liking to a Viking.

(The National Geographic story on Sutherland's excavation mentions, incidentally, that medieval Norse mariners made it as far as Ellesmere Island, where evidence of a Norse shipwreck was found in the late 1970s. Ellesmere Island is NORTH of Baffin Island; its northern shore fronts the Arctic Ocean. Either the sailors were brave or drunk.)


(Image above is of Norse tally stick fragments in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History; original can be found here.)