First ever cast bronze artifact unearthed in Alaska

November 11, 2011

A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered something out of place for the region – a prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast - the first ever found in Alaska. According to CU-Boulder researcher John Hoffecker, the artifact is a small, buckle-like object that was found in an ancient Eskimo dwelling estimated to be about 1,000-years-old.

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Nov. 11, 2011                                              

A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado Boulder has discovered something out of place for the region – a prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast - the first ever found in Alaska. 

 According to CU-Boulder researcher John Hoffecker, the artifact is a small, buckle-like object that was found in an ancient Eskimo dwelling estimated to be about 1,000 years old.

CUT 1 “Certainly the biggest surprise came when we discovered a cast bronze piece buried in the tunnel of one of the oldest houses associated with Eskimo Inupiat settlements at Cape Espenberg. (:13) It’s a small piece. It’s only a couple of inches in diameter. It sort of looks like a rectangular hook with what looks like some sort of ring attached to it, which has been broken. (:25) This is the first time we have seen a cast bronze piece in these early Inupiat Eskimo settlements.” (:35)

Hoffecker is a fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. The artifact was discovered by a team excavating a driftwood-constructed house that was built into the side of a sand dune by Inupiat (INUP-e-et) Eskimos at Cape Espenberg, located along the eastern side of the Bering Straight on the Seward Peninsula.

CUT 2 “They dug the houses into the dunes, shored up the walls with driftwood, which is abundant in Cape Espenberg - one of the reasons why it is an attractive place to live. (:08) They’re composed of a central sleeping chamber and then there is a tunnel that leads to a kitchen. And the tunnel usually extends for some feet out and away from the main part of the house because it works as a cold trap for cold air in winter.” (:30)

The bronze object resembles a belt buckle and may have been used as part of a harness or horse ornament prior to its arrival in Alaska. How the Inupiat Eskimos used it is unknown, says Hoffecker.

At first he thought the artifact was much younger but a small piece of leather attached to it yielded a radiocarbon date of A.D. 600.

CUT 3 “One of our concerns was that the object might actually be much younger. Fortunately there was a small piece of leather attached to this object. And that we can date directly by radiocarbon and it yielded a date of about 1500 years (:14) which suggests it’s probably a couple of centuries older than the house which we think is no more than a 1,000, 1,100 years old.” (:25)

Although the leather indicates the object is older then he thought, he says the bronze piece needs further testing to find out how old it really is.

What he can speculate at this time is that since pre-historic bronze metallurgy is unknown in Alaska, the artifact likely was produced in East Asia, possibly in the steppe region of southern Siberia, where people began casting bronze several thousand years ago.

 

CUT 4 “Presumably the cast bronzes, as well as some iron pieces, are coming from southern Siberia –from the steppes zone. There were people there who had been casting both iron and bronze for several thousand years prior to the appearance of Eskimo Inupiat folks in northwest Alaska. (:17) And those objects do show up occasionally in Arctic settings over on the other side of the Bering Straight – over in northeast Asia- in Arctic Siberia. (:27) But it is the first time we have seen something like this in Alaska, in northwest Alaska. (:32)

The discovery of the object in Alaska tells Hoffecker that there probably was trading going between settlements in Asia and Alaska or that it was brought over by an early settler.

CUT 5 “It indicates, perhaps, that there was a trade going on across the Bering Strait at this time. (:07) It’s also possible that since these folks were early immigrants to the area, since they had recently come over from northeast Asia, that they actually brought this with them.” (:21)

Another question Hoffecker is trying to answer is whether the inhabitants of Cape Espenberg hunted whales. The hunting of bowhead whales was a way of life for Inupiat Eskimos at Barrow and Hope Point in northwestern Alaska 1,000 years ago, but, he says, the Cape’s location and extremely shallow water offshore casts doubt as to whether the people living here hunted whales. However, there is evidence of fishing and seal and caribou hunting by the group.

CUT 6 (5347) “It’s a place where no one would try doing whaling today. But, since there are these whale bones on the older ridges and since whaling was such a key component, such a central part the native Alaskan economy 1,000 or 500 years ago, we’ve been investigating this issue and trying to figure out if, perhaps, in the past if Cape Espenberg was a whaling community. Our tentative conclusions is, probably, the whalebones were naturally deposited on the beach.” (:35

The Inupiat Eskimos are believed to have occupied Cape Espenberg for about a 1,000 years beginning in A.D. 800. They are a part of the indigenous Eskimo culture that lives in the northern Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia.

The excavations are part of a National Science Foundation-funded project to study human response to climate change at Cape Espenberg from A.D. 800 to A.D. 1400, a critical period of cultural and environmental change in the region that may be related to Earth’s Medieval Warm Period that lasted from about A.D. 950 to A.D. 1250, says Hoffecker.

-CU-

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