ARCHEOLOGY OF ALASKA GLACIERS AND SNOW FIELDS
DIXON, E. JAMES . University Museum and INSTAAR.
Manley, William F.. INSTAAR.
Approximately 10% of the earth's land surface is covered by ice. Global warming is rapidly melting ice and exposing rare archeological remains. These sites are important to understanding the role of high latitude and high altitude environments in human adaptation and cultural development. GIS modeling is used to identify areas in Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias National Park exhibiting high potential for the preservation and discovery of frozen archeological remains. Areas holding the highest potential for archeological site discovery are: 1) ice-covered passes used as transportation corridors, and 2) glaciers and areas of persistent snow cover used by animals that attracted human predators.
A preliminary GIS model was field tested by aerial reconnaissance and pedestrian survey. Thirty-two sites at which archaeological and/or paleontological specimens were found. Historic artifacts included horse hoof rinds and associated horseshoe nails on the Nabesna glacier. This unusual discovery indicated that a horse had been shod on the glacier in historic times. A can fragment and a piece of culturally cut wood were recovered on the ice near the terminus of the Chisana glacier. These discoveries were all made below the ELA’s of these large glaciers at an elevation of approximately 3400’ (~1036m). The recovered artifacts demonstrate the presence of exceptionally well-preserved archeological remains that were successfully predicted by the GIS model for glaciers historically documented as trails and passes over mountain ranges. A prehistoic antler projectile point possibly associated with a punctured large mammal scapula was recovered near a snowfield in the vicinity of Tanada Peak at approximately 5800’ (~1767m). In addition to the archaeological specimens, numerous paleontological specimens including well preserved rodents were encountered during the survey. Discoveries include the rremains of Dall sheep, caribou, carnivores, the frozen remains of medium sized mammals, micotines, birds, mammalian hair, fecal material, and even a complete perfectly preserved fish.
Field survey determined that site potential values from the model were higher for the documented sites than for the study area in general, suggesting that the a priori model meaningfully identified areas of archeological potential. This also suggests the model is based on fundamentally sound criteria, but requires refinement. Several important observations indicate where and how it should be refined. For example, six sites fell outside predictions. Subsequent analysis of these six sites demonstrate that all were located on relatively small perennial snow patches observed during aerial reconnaissance, but not predicted by the model because cartographic, photographic, and satellite imagery lacked the resolution to detect these small features. These problems can be corrected by incorporating multispectral remote sensing data and high quality landsat images for northern Wrangell’s in the GIS model.
Global warming presents an unprecedented opportunity to identify ice fields and similar contexts holding the highest potential for the exposure and discovery of frozen archeological remains. Preliminary research demonstrates that these locales can be detected by GIS modeling to identifying glaciers and perennial ice patches most probably used by humans. These features can be documented through the analysis of social/cultural, biological, remote sensing, and geologic data. Glaciers and ice patches are melting at an unprecedented rate and it is anticipated that will increasingly older and significant artifacts, paleontological and other materials will be exposed on thawing surfaces. This research will provide a valuable tool to focus limited resources on areas exhibiting the greatest potential for archeological and paleontological discovery and recovery.
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