Researchers unearth ancient bronze artifact in Alaska

Jan 05, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado Boulder recently discovered the first prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast ever found in Alaska, a small, buckle-like object found in an ancient Eskimo dwelling and which likely originated in East Asia.

The artifact consists of two parts -- a rectangular bar, connected to an apparently broken circular ring, said CU-Boulder Research Associate John Hoffecker, who is leading the excavation project. The object, about 2 inches by 1 inch and less than 1 inch thick, was found in August by a team excavating a roughly 1,000-year-old house that had been dug into the side of a beach ridge by early Inupiat Eskimos at Cape Espenberg on the Seward Peninsula, which lies within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Both sections of the artifact are beveled on one side and concave on the other side, indicating it was manufactured in a mold, said Hoffecker, a fellow at CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. A small piece of leather found wrapped around the rectangular bar by the research team yielded a date of roughly A.D. 600, which does not necessarily indicate the age of the object, he said.

"I was totally astonished," said Hoffecker. "The object appears to be older than the house we were excavating by at least a few hundred years."

Hoffecker and his CU-Boulder colleague Owen Mason said 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. While they speculated the Inupiat Eskimos could have used the artifact as a clasp for human clothing or perhaps as part of a shaman's regalia, its function on both continents still remains a puzzle, they said.

Since bronze metallurgy from Alaska is unknown, the likely was produced in and reflects long-distance trade from production centers in either Korea, China, Manchuria or southern Siberia, according to Mason. It conceivably could have been traded from the steppe region of southern Siberia, said Hoffecker, where people began casting bronze several thousand years ago.

Alternatively, some of the earliest Inupiat Eskimos in northwest Alaska -- the direct ancestors of modern thought to have migrated into Alaska from adjacent Siberia some 1,500 years ago -- might have brought the object with them from the other side of the Bering Strait. "It was possibly valuable enough so that people hung onto it for generations, passing it down through families," said Mason, an INSTAAR affiliate and co-investigator on the Cape Espenberg excavations.

The Seward Peninsula is a prominent, arrowhead-shaped land mass that abuts the Bering Strait separating Alaska from Siberia. The peninsula was part of the Bering Land Bridge linking Asia and North America during the last ice age when sea level had dropped dramatically, and may have been used by early peoples as a corridor to migrate from Asia into the New World some 14,000 years ago.

The CU-led excavations are part of a National Science Foundation-funded project designed to study human response to climate change at Cape Espenberg from A.D. 800 to A.D. 1400, a critical period of cultural change in the western Arctic, said Mason. Of particular interest are temperature and environmental changes that may be related to Earth's Medieval Warm Period that lasted from about A.D. 950 to 1250.

The team is examining the timing and formation of the beach ridges as well as the contents of peat and pond sediment cores to help them reconstruct the sea-level history and the changing environment faced by Cape Espenberg's settlers. Information on past climates also is contained in driftwood tree rings, and the team is working with INSTAAR affiliate Scott Elias, a University of London professor and expert on beetle fossils, who is helping the team reconstruct past temperatures at Cape Espenberg.

Explore further: Jerusalem stone may answer Jewish revolt questions

Related Stories

Are Ice Age relics the next casualty of climate change?

Apr 24, 2008

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) recently launched a four-year study to determine if climate change is affecting populations of a quintessential Arctic denizen: the rare musk ox. Along with collaborators ...

Walrus herds gather on Alaska's northwest shore

Aug 19, 2011

(AP) -- Large herds of Pacific walrus have begun gathering on the northwest coast of Alaska, again forsaking sea ice for sand in what has become a symbol of climate warming in the region.

Recommended for you

Jerusalem stone may answer Jewish revolt questions

2 hours ago

Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they have discovered a large stone with Latin engravings that lends credence to the theory that the reason Jews revolted against Roman rule nearly 2,000 ago was because ...

Kung fu stegosaur

2 hours ago

Stegosaurs might be portrayed as lumbering plant eaters, but they were lethal fighters when necessary, according to paleontologists who have uncovered new evidence of a casualty of stegosaurian combat. The ...

Digging for Britain's real-life war horses

6 hours ago

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol have teamed up with school children, veterans of modern conflict and other volunteers to uncover the history of Britain's real-life war horses.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Isaacsname
4.7 / 5 (3) Jan 05, 2012
Part of a Mongol bit and bridle set ?
Neurons_At_Work
5 / 5 (1) Jan 05, 2012
Another recycled article from Nov. 14th 2011--it appears at the top of the 'Related Stories' column. Either very slow news day, or this site is getting increasing lazy and losing its ability to generate original content...
Telekinetic
not rated yet Jan 05, 2012
I'm appreciating the design of the object, as things utilitarian can also be beautiful. A friend of mine is a collector of prehistoric artifacts. What I've seen in these stone tools, masks, and ornaments is corroboration that man has always had a sophisticated sensibility, as in the cave paintings of Lascaux. Our relationship with the world is reflected in these everyday objects.