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November 14th, 2011

John Hoffecker’s team unearths first prehistoric cast bronze artifact found in Alaska

A team of researchers led by John Hoffecker has discovered the first prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast ever found in Alaska. The small, buckle-like object was found in an ancient Eskimo dwelling and likely originated in East Asia.

“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.”

The artifact consists of a rectangular bar connected to a broken circular ring, said Hoffecker.  It was found in August by a team excavating a 1,000-year-old house dug into the side of a beach ridge by early Inupiat Eskimos on the Seward Peninsula, within the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.

Both sections of the artifact are beveled on one side and concave on the other, indicating it was manufactured in a mold, said Hoffecker.

“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.”

The prehistoric cast bronze artifact, about 2 inches by 1 inch and less than an inch thick, is the first to be found in Alaska. Photo courtesy University of Colorado.

Hoffecker and Owen Mason, an INSTAAR affiliate and co-investigator on the Cape Espenberg excavations, said the bronze object may have been used as part of a harness or horse ornament prior to its arrival in Alaska.  Its function on both continents still remains a puzzle, they said.

Since bronze metallurgy from Alaska is unknown, the artifact likely was produced in East Asia 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 Eskimos 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.

The Seward Peninsula 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 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.

A National Science Foundation-funded excavation led by CU-Boulder to look at human response to climate change on the Seward Peninsula in Alaska some 1,000 years ago has yielded a bronze artifact that was found inside an ancient house dug into the side of a sand-covered beach ridge once occupied by Inupiat Eskimos. The object is the first prehistoric bronze artifact made from a cast ever found in Alaska and appears to have originated in East Asia. Photo courtesy University of Colorado.

The artifact was discovered in August by University of California, Davis, doctoral student Jeremy Foin under 3 feet of sediment near an entryway to a house at Cape Espenberg.  Other project members included Chris Darwent of UC Davis, Claire Alix of the University of Paris, Nancy Bigelow of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Max Friesen of the University of Toronto and Gina Hernandez of the National Park Service.

“The shape of the object immediately caught my eye,” said Foin, who spotted the soil-covered artifact in an archaeological sifting screen.  “After I saw that it clearly had been cast in a mold, my first thought was disbelief, quickly followed by the realization that I had found something of potentially great significance.”

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. “That particular time period is thought by some to be an analog of what is happening to our environment now as Earth’s temperatures are rising,” said Mason. “One of our goals is to find out how these people adapted to a changing climate through their subsistence activities.”

The Cape Espenberg site has yielded a treasure trove of several thousand artifacts. The bronze artifact unearthed in August is currently under study by prehistoric metallurgical expert and Purdue University Assistant Professor H. Kory Cooper.

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