Whitridge, Peter (2008) Reimagining the iglu: modernity and the challenge of the eighteenth century Labrador Inuit winter house, Archaeologies 4(2): 288-309.

Keywords: archaeologyarchitecture and designgenderLabrador

This paper traces the historical and cultural trajectory of the Inuit iglu (house) over its 1,200 year presence in the Eastern Arctic. Using archaeological studies and historical records, the author demonstrates how contact with Europeans was not the sole determining factor in changes to the winter dwellings in Labrador.

Prior to and during European contact, iglus were “complex architectural assemblies of wood, whale bone, hide and sod raised atop a carefully constructed stone and earth foundation” (p. 295). The size, configurations of houses varied across the Arctic, and underwent many adaptations as the Inuit encountered new structural and cultural forces (p. 301). A few features of the traditional dwellings were the gut skin window in the roof, sea mammal oil lamps, urine washing tubs, and dogs in the entrance tunnels (p. 302).

In the 17th century, Inuit in Labrador occupied single or double family iglus during the winter (p. 297). However, by the end of century there is an adaptation to communal housing by some Inuit communities, characterized by “the adjoining sleeping platforms and prominent lamp stands” (p. 302), which Whitridge asserts is associated to contact-era interactions (p. 302). The author notes that “an important dimension of the shift to communal houses is a long-term trend towards re-establishing a central lamp or hearth” (p. 301). Whitridge suggests that as some Inuit men travelled south for work and trade, the women relied on each other to share household tasks and resources (p. 302).

When Moravian missionaries arrived in Labrador in the 1700’s, they introduced the Inuit to prefabricated wooden housing sent from Germany (p. 296). Architectural features were often metaphorically linked to religion, such as a European front door symbolizing the passageway to Christianity (p. 296).

Whitridge then discusses how the 18th and 19th century iglus were reconstructed to address European concerns about the “muddiness, darkness, animal smells, stagnant air, and excessive warmth” (p. 302) of traditional Inuit dwellings. For example, to allow more light into the home the tunnels were refashioned into porches and the ceiling heights were increased (resulting in colder houses) (p. 302). Sea mammal oil lamps were gradually replaced by stoves and kerosene lamps, as well as wooden planks replacing the stone or earthen floors (p. 302).