Bridging the Bering Strait


By: Paul Trzaski

Archaeologists or Grant Wood painting?

Archaeologists or Grant Wood painting?

cc Max Friesen

A team of researchers, including U of T Anthropology Professor Max Friesen, has recently discovered a 1500 year-old bronze clasp that may shed new light on ancient transcontinental trading patterns.

Led by the University of Colorado, the bronze clasp was discovered over the course of the Cape Espenberg Project, a U.S National Science Foundation initiative looking at the origins of the Thule Inuit, the ancestors of all Inuit living in Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

“It is an exciting find because it demonstrates the presence of large-scale interaction networks connecting Eurasia and Arctic North America,” commented Max Friesen, one of the excavators working on the site. The project’s objective is to analyze the effects of climate and environmental changes on ancient hunting economies, house formations and artifact styles during the Medieval Warm Period. In a press release, researcher Owen Mason (CU-Boulder) said that this period is thought to be analogous to the present process of climate change, and so they are also studying ancient practices of adaptation through subsistence activities.

The uncovered artifact is thought to have been part of a harness, but its origin is still a mystery. “The piece itself would probably have been traded far beyond a region where its original function could be understood, and was likely used as an ornament by these early Thule ancestors in Alaska, perhaps as a status symbol,” said Friesen. This find follows the discovery of an artifact originating in Asia this past summer, where archaeologists found a 17th century Chinese coin northwest of Carmacks, Yukon.

While not responsible for the immediate discovery of the artifact, Friesen was part of the U of T team present in the 2011 field season, along with PhD students Lauren Norman and Michael O’Rourke. Friesen interpreted the Inuit architecture at the site, directing the excavation of a particularly well-preserved driftwood framed house.

The actual discovery of the object can be accredited to Jeremy Foin, PhD student of Archaeology at the University of California, who noticed it while sifting three feet of sediment in the entryway into the house.

Because bronze metallurgy has not been found historically in Alaska, the researchers think that the artifact was made in East Asia, which would reflect long-distance trade from production centres in Korea, China, Manchuria, or southern Siberia.

Currently, the artifact is under study by H. Kory Cooper, prehistoric metallurgical expert and Assistant Professor at Purdue University. In the meantime the archaeologists hope to be back on the site again next summer, building off of their successful session this year.

However the artifact arrived in Alaska, its discovery offers interesting insights into ancient history in northwestern America and the interactions between East and West.

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