'R' is for Ramah Chert

Written by Jamie Brake, Provincial Archaeologist, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador


In far northern Labrador, in the heart of the remote Torngat mountains, the epicenter of traditional Labrador Inuit and Innu spirituality, lies the only known source location of a precious stone that was dubbed Ramah chert by British Newfoundland Exploration Ltd. geologists about 50 years ago (Fitzhugh 1972:41). The stone is not precious in terms of jewel, gem or mineral status, but for other more complex reasons having to do with what it can tell us about the past. It was highly valued in antiquity as a raw material for tool making because of its appearance, the size and quantity of usable pieces, and for its workability (Gramley 1978; Rast 2008). Physically attractive and easy to recognize, the stone ranges in color from black to grey to clear, often with a ‘smokey’ appearance, translucency and a sugary texture that has been described as resembling ‘sleet on a windshield’ (Fitzhugh 1972).

Its modern name refers simply to the place it comes from, Ramah Bay, and to the geological name for the material itself, which is characterized by a high silica content producing glass-like qualities. Its ancient names are now forever lost, though Indigenous groups have recently applied monikers in their own languages. Labrador Inuit have referred to it as ‘tunnuyakh’, which means ‘like caribou back fat’ (Fitzhugh 1972:41), and more recently the quarry source locations have been called ‘kitjigattalik’ in Inuktitut, meaning ‘the place to get Ramah chert’ (see figure below). The Innu-aimun word for knappable stone is uinnuapisku, though a specific word for Ramah chert in that language has not yet entered the archaeological literature.Ramah Chert
Like other cherts, it breaks and flakes in predictable ways making it ideal for fashioning chipped-stone tools. Chipped stone tools are shaped and sharpened through the removal of stone flakes and were a key part of adaptations to various environments around the world for millions of years of human history. Stone tools and the flakes that are produced as byproducts of tool making have often been our only clues to what life was like in the distant past under conditions that have not been conducive to the preservation of other more delicate materials.

This is a stone that was used by humans during periods of Labrador history for which no known oral traditions and no known written records exist. Stephen Loring, who has long worked with Labrador Innu, and who has devoted more time and energy towards Ramah chert than any other researcher, has stated that “…I have not encountered any contemporary traditions among the Innu that pertain to the use or knowledge of Ramah chert…” (2002:174). The source location is within Nunatsiavut, the recognized homeland of Labrador Inuit. However, the Inuit did not use Ramah chert as they were not making chipped stone tools by the time they reached Labrador (they were making ground stone tools), and there is no oral history relating to it that survives from this group either. The stone itself has taught us about Labrador’s early human history… taught us at least as much about these early times, and probably more, than any other source of information available to us today.

Historic Significance

Though we should not overlook the possibility that Ramah chert was initially discovered around 10,000 years ago by Palaeo-Indian adventurers (see Loring 2017:176-179), there is no question that the source locations had been identified by about 7000 years ago by descendants of the earliest human inhabitants of Labrador who belonged to a First Nations culture referred to by archaeologists as Maritime Archaic (Loring 2002:167; 2017:180). Members of this culture were the sole occupants of Labrador for more than 4000 years, and as time passed their use and reliance on the chert from Ramah Bay increased. By the end of the Maritime Archaic period in Labrador it became the material of choice, despite the fact that there are other types of chert available in the region. What is particularly interesting about Ramah chert use during the late Maritime Archaic period, and what has long caught the attention of researchers, is the movement of the material over vast distances through human agency. It has been found, for example, in late Archaic contexts in the New England States, more than 1500 kilometers to the south, in the great Lakes region to the southwest, and on the shores of Lake Michigan well over 2000 kilometers from the source (Loring 2017; Erwin & Curtis 2017). It should be noted that outside of Labrador, Newfoundland and Quebec, it has always been found in ceremonial contexts from this period, and particularly in graves as carefully made, finished tools (Loring 2017).

Late Maritime Archaic groups in Labrador relied on Ramah chert to such an extent that it has been suggested that a disruption to, or a loss of access to the quarry sources, following the arrival of Pre-Dorset groups about 4000 years ago, may have been a significant factor in the end of the Maritime Archaic culture in Labrador (Hood 1993:179). The Pre-Dorset were arctic-adapted peoples with a genetic and cultural heritage that was completely distinct from the Maritime Archaic, and were the first in a long line of Arctic-adapted peoples moving into and occupying Labrador. The Pre-Dorset also quickly discovered Ramah chert following their arrival from the north, but the archaeological record shows that they initially chose other high-quality cherts, found elsewhere in Labrador, over Ramah. But by Dorset times (2200-800 BP) Ramah had become the dominant material by far for chipped stone tools for this genetic/cultural line as well. By this time it was once again transported over long distances, again far to the south, but also to at least a few sites to the north in the Eastern Arctic, including Ungava Bay to the northwest, and Baffin Island to the north (Erwin and Curtis 2017:78).

Returning to the First Nations side of Labrador history, after the Maritime Archaic period new First Nations cultures become recognizable in the archaeological record, within a less well-known ‘Intermediate Period’ dating between 3500 and 1800 years before present (BP). These groups use a variety of stones from the interior of Labrador, though Ramah does show up in collections from a large number of sites belonging to this period (Erwin and Curtis 2017:68). But it is during the late Precontact, or Recent period (2000-350 BP) that enthusiasm for Ramah chert use reaches new levels. The First Nations cultures of Labrador at this time, referred to as Daniel Rattle (2000-1000 BP) and Point Revenge (1000-350 BP), and believed by many to be the ancestors of today’s Innu, exhibit an almost complete reliance on this material which makes up “…between 95 and 100 percent of the chipped stone inventories at ancestral Innu sites in Labrador (Loring 1992, 2002; Stopp 2017) and all along the Quebec North Shore (Pintal 1998, 2000)” (Loring 2017:191). Once again, during this period it was being carried and traded over great distances, this time west as far as Quebec and Ontario, and south as far as Maryland and North Carolina (Loring 2017:196). It also seems to have moved far to the northeast during this period on at least one occasion: a Ramah chert point that appears to be a diagnostic Point Revenge artifact was found in a Norse cemetery in western Greenland, raising some interesting possibilities relating to contact between Labrador First Nations and the Norse about a thousand years ago (Madsen and Appelt 2010). An important difference in the distribution of this material between the Maritime Archaic and Recent pre-contact periods is that during the latter Ramah chert shows up at great distances from the source locations not only in ceremonial contexts, but also in day to day contexts as debitage and as raw material that was used to make tools locally (Loring 2017).

Among the noteworthy things about First Nations Ramah chert use during the Late Precontact period is the fact that there is so little evidence of First Nations presence at the quarry locations (there is some, but not a great deal), and clear evidence for a heavy Dorset presence in the quarry areas at this time. This has raised intriguing questions about contact between the two very different groups (Loring 1992; 2002; 2017). In any case, the choice to use only Ramah chert when other suitable materials were more easily available says something about identity for those who were using it (2002). Furthermore, as Loring points out: “…it is inconceivable that the material, and the place from where it was derived, would not have been laden with spiritual significance” (2002:184).

Modern Significance

Over the past hundred years or so Ramah chert has taken on a generally increasing level of importance amongst another group of people: archaeologists. One can follow the history of archaeology in the ‘Far Northeast’ through the lens of Ramah chert, as Loring did, in a way, nearly 20 years ago when he outlined the history of the recognition of Ramah chert by antiquarians and archaeologists, and what had been learned as a result. He points out that researchers were noticing it and were sometimes referring to it in publications by the 1880s. In the late 1920s, William Duncan Strong, the first professional archaeologist to work in northern Labrador, inadvertently proved that the material originated in Labrador through his field activity there and subsequent publication (Strong 1930; Loring 2002:168-169). It was Elmer Harp who was finally able to state, using information and rock samples from geologists working in northern Labrador in the mid-20th century, that the source locations for the material were at Ramah Bay (Fitzhugh 1972:40-41).

William Fitzhugh, who provided the first outline for Labrador’s early history through his work in the late 1960s in Hamilton Inlet, was the first to conduct detailed analyses of Ramah chert, and in doing so made some statements that alluded to a growing intellectual fascination with the material. For example, in reference to the Ramah chert found during his Hamilton Inlet work he wrote that “…It is a remarkable feat if all of this material, which must naturally be considered a miniscule fraction of all the material in undiscovered sites, has been transported in native boats from the nearest Ramah chert bed, in the Ramah Series, 300 miles to the north, down a treacherous and storm-ridden coast” (1972:43).

Fitzhugh and Jordan’s Torngat Archaeology Project involved the first archaeological fieldwork at the quarry sites themselves (Gramley 1978), which set the stage for numerous subsequent studies (see for example Lazenby 1984; Nagle 1984; Loring 1992; 2002; 2017; Hull 2002; Anstey and Renouf 2011; and Curtis and Desrosiers 2017). Since that time the study of Ramah chert has figured very prominently in the education and the career paths of two generations of archaeologists working in the Far Northeast.

Loring ties a description of the entrance to the most intensively used known quarry site at Ramah Bay to spiritual aspects of ancient chert extraction in a famous passage from his well-known and often cited 2002 article on the subject:

The final approach to the quarry bowl passes through a dramatic band of iron-rich rocks that have stained the streambed and surrounding rocks a brilliant red. Here, the narrow stream valley is at its most constricted point with sheer cliffs rising on both sides. The symbolic pairing of the red-ocher-stained- rocks with the source for the material with which the most sacred practice – the killing of animals – was intimately associated must have figured significantly in the telling of the story (2002:184).

Whether or not Loring is correct (he probably is but that is beside the point), the symbolism he evokes has certainly resonated with archaeologists and has become part of the story that is now routinely passed on to those entering the discipline in this part of the world. Ramah chert has acquired an intangible significance for archaeologists today that is perhaps comparable, in some ways, to the symbolic importance it once had for past peoples.


In the paragraphs above I have attempted to provide a brief outline of the importance of Ramah chert. It is a material that was used by nearly all precontact Indigenous cultures in Labrador, and was preferred to the point of near exclusive use for chipped stone tools by several of those groups over the course of thousands of years of human history in the region. It was carried and traded over huge distances in antiquity and provides us with fascinating information and suggestions relating to relationships between different groups of people during different historical periods.

It was also my intention to provide a sense of the importance of Ramah chert for people today. It is one of the first things that archaeology students in Newfoundland and Labrador and other parts of the Far Northeast are exposed to when being introduced to the region’s archaeological heritage. Many archaeologists working in Newfoundland and Labrador today can look back at their own careers through the lens of Ramah chert and see significant milestones associated with it. This is certainly the case in my own experience, which is by no means unique in this regard: in 2009, as the Nunatsiavut Government’s Archaeologist, I had the opportunity to visit known ancient quarrying locations in Ramah Bay with a small team involving a partnership between Parks Canada, the Nunatsiavut Government, the Avataq Cultural Institute and the University of Montreal. The goal of the expedition was to gather basic site information to support a National Historic Site nomination, and our work involved archaeological surveying, site mapping and limited geological sampling at known quarry locations. This expedition supplemented previous research on the significance of Ramah chert (Erwin 2009; Erwin & Curtis 2017) in support of the nomination, which ultimately resulted in official recognition of national significance in 2014 (GOC 2017; Curtis et al. 2017). National Historic Site status has brought information on the importance of Ramah chert to the general public across the country and beyond. The work I was involved in at Ramah Bay was certainly a career/life highlight for me, and I imagine it was for others who were involved in various aspects of that particular effort, and in other studies of this important and fascinating Labrador stone.


Anstey, R.J. & M.A.P. Renouf
2011 Down the Labrador: Ramah chert use at Phillip’s Garden, Port au Choix, Newfoundland. In The Cultural Landscapes of Port au Choix: Prehistoric Coastal Occupation of Northwestern Newfoundland, M.A.P. Renouf, ed. Plenum Press, New York.

Curtis, Jenneth & Pierre Desrosier (editors)
2017 Ramah Chert: A lithic Odyssey. Nunavik Monograph Series No. 4. Parks Canada and Avataq Cultural Institute, Inukjuak.

Curtis, Jenneth, Pierre M. Desrosiers, Jamie E. S. Brake & Adrian L. Burke
2017 The Ramah Chert Quarries. In Ramah Chert A Lithic Odyssey. Jenneth E. Curtis and Pierre M. Desrosiers (editors). Nunavik Archaeology Monograph Series No.4. Parks Canada and Avataq Cultural Institute, pp. 25-42.

Erwin, John C. & Jenneth E. Curtis
2017 A Database of Ramah Chert finds in North America. In Ramah Chert A Lithic Odyssey. Jenneth E. Curtis and Pierre M. Desrosiers (editors). Nunavik Archaeology Monograph Series No.4. Parks Canada and Avataq Cultural Institute, pp. 61-83.

Fitzhugh, William
1972 Environmental Archeology and Cultural Systems in Hamilton Inlet, Labrador A survey of the Central Labrador Coast From 3000 B.C. to the Present. Smithsonian Contributions the Anthropology Number 16. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Government of Canada [GOC]
2017 kitjigattalik - Ramah Chert Quarries National Historic Site of Canada. Electronic document, https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=14192.

Gramley, Richard
1978 Lithic Source Areas in Northern Labrador. Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 15(2): 36-47.

Hood, Bryan
1993 The Maritime Archaic Indians of Labrador: Investigating Prehistoric Social Organization. Newfoundland Studies 9(2):163-184.

Hull, Stephen
2002 Tanite uet tshinauetamin? A Trail to Labrador: Recent Indians and the North Cove Site. MA, MUN.

Lazenby, Colleen
1984 Ramah Chert Use Patterns during the Maritime Archaic Period in Labrador. MA Thesis. MN, Bryn Mawr College.

Loring, Stephen
1992 Princes and Princesses of Ragged Fame: Innu Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Labrador. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Massachusetts.

2002 “And they took away the stones from Ramah”: Lithic Raw Material Sourcing and Eastern Archaeology. In Honouring our Elders: A History in Eastern Arctic Archaeology. William W. Fitzhugh, Stephne Loring and Daniel Odess, Editors. Contributions to Circumpolar Anthropology 2. Arctic Studies Centre, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian.

2017  To the uttermost ends of the earth .... Ramah chert in time and space. In Ramah chert use - a lithic odyssey. J.E. Curtis and P.M. Desrosiers, editors. Inukjuak (QC), Parks Canada and Avataq Cultural Institute, pp. 169-219.
Madsen, Christina Koch and Martin Appelt
2010 Meldgard’s Vinland Vision. National Museum of Denmnark, Copenhagen.

Nagle, Christopher
1984 Lithic Raw Materials Procurement and Exchange in Dorset Culture Along the Labrador Coast. PhD Dissertation, Brandeis University. University Microfilms International: Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Rast, Tim
2008 Ramah Chert: A Qualitative Discussion of its Flaking Properties. North Atlantic Archaeology 1:157-161.

Stopp, Marianne
2017 Ramah Chert Use and the Daniel Rattle Complex in Southern Labrador. In Ramah Chert, a Lithic Odyssey. Jenneth E. Curtis and Pierre M. Desrosiers (editors). Nunavik Archaeology Monograph Series No.4. Parks Canada and Avataq Cultural Institute, pp.117-150.

Back to all Encyclopedia entries