Erle Nelson


Areas of interest

Archaeometric methods, accelerator mass spectrometry (14C dating), stable isotope analysis, physical analysis.


  • BSc (University of Saskatchewan)
  • PhD (McMaster University)


My research these past two years has been mainly centred around the isotopic studies that I have been undertaking together with PhD student Rob Commisso. In these studies, we have been investigating the nitrogen isotopic ratios of the plants (primarily grasses) now growing on Norse farm sites in Greenland. Contrary to expectation, we have shown that the δ15N values of these plants in some way reflects the ancient human activities that took place at the sites. Several farms have been studied in some detail, and we find similar isotopic values for the plants now growing on the same features at each. Houses, barns, pens and fields all seem to have characteristic signatures. These signatures are not unique, but they can be used for identification and they do place constraints on archaeological interpretation. For example, it has been possible to identify and spatially define the ancient infields at the farms, and to argue that these fields must have been routinely fertilized by the Norse. Existing archaeological interpretations of the functions of various structures and features have been both supported and challenged by this new form of analysis.

The basic field work was completed by Mr. Commisso in the summer of 2005, and in the summer of 2006, I had the opportunity to collect grass samples at several more sites to further examine the spatial resolution of the isotopic signature. The two pioneer papers in the field are now published, a third has been submitted and a fourth and fifth are underway. These studies will likely form the basis of a new analytic method in archaeology.