Saturday, September 24, 2011

Alaskan Archaeologists Find Ancient Artefacts

A team from the University of Alaska Museum of the North expected to find more boulders etched with petroglyphs during an expedition to further explore the remains of three prehistoric lake-front dwellings in Northwest Alaska’s Noatak National Preserve this summer.

However, when archaeologist Scott Shirar and members of his team began small-scale excavations at two of the sites, they made a fascinating new discovery: four decorated clay disks that appear to be the first of their kind found in Alaska.

“The first one looks like a little stone that had some scratch marks on it,” said Shirar, a research archaeologist at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “We got really excited when we found the second one with the drilled hole and the more complicated etchings on it. That’s when we realised we had something unique.”

After discussion with colleagues and searching for references in the archaeological record, Shirar came to the conclusion that the disks appear to be a new artefact type for Alaska. He added, “We only opened up a really small amount of ground at the site, so the fact that we found four of these artefacts indicates there are probably more and that something really significant is happening.”

While prehistoric rock art is common in some regions, such as the American Southwest, it is exceptionally rare in Interior and Northern Alaska. Archaeologists working in the 1960s and 70s found the boulders at three different lake-front sites in what is now the Noatak National Preserve.

The rock art remained on location, undocumented for almost 40 years until this summer, when a team from the UA Museum of the North and the National Park Service assembled to create a permanent record at two of the sites.

Mareca Guthrie, fine arts collection manager at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, joined the expedition to make sketches and take tracings of the boulders. At first, she was just excited for an opportunity to get out of the basement of the museum for a week, but she quickly developed an appreciation for the people who had lived there.

It felt so intimate to be looking through someone else’s things, knowing that they sat in the same spot and saw the same view of the mountains. When I started getting tired of the mixed nuts I brought for lunch, I thought, ‘Did the kids complain when they ate caribou day after day or were they thankful to have it?’” she said. “I became so hungry to know more about them, I’m afraid I may have driven the archaeologists a little crazy with my questions.”

The team visited the site to both document the rock art and also excavate subterranean house pits to locate samples that could be used for radiocarbon dating, such as animal bones, charcoal or other organic matter in order to get a better idea of when people lived there.

Archaeologists use the term rock art to describe any human-made marks on natural stone. Petroglyphs are pictures created by picking, carving or abrading the surface of a rock.

Shirar said the precise meaning of these petroglyphs, as well as the designs on the clay disks, is still unknown, but their value is clear.

“These objects and places clearly had special significance to their makers. These finds offer an especially tangible reminder of the rich spiritual and intellectual lives they led.”

Past Horizons. 2011. "Alaskan Archaeologists Find Ancient Artefacts". Past Horizons. Posted: September , 2011. Available online:

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