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17 October 2003
Alaskan artefacts at risk from global warming

The summer of 2003 saw the second foray of researchers from the University of Colorado (USA) onto the rapidly melting icefields and glaciers of southeast Alaska in search of sites that may hold prehistoric artefacts. For thousands of years the icefields of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park were hunting grounds of humans, attracted by caribou and other animals seeking to escape the insect swarms of the Alaskan summer. Lost tools and weapons were encased in ice. Now global warming is shrinking the glaciers and releasing these artefacts, according to James Dixon, curator of the Museum and Field Studies programme at the CU Museum of Natural History and Fellow of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research [INSTARR]. “Global warming has exposed artefacts from the ice that has kept them preserved for hundreds and even thousands of years, so there is some urgency to our search because once exposed they decompose or are destroyed quickly.” Especially at risk are items manufactured from organic materials, important in their own right but also because they lend themselves to accurate radiocarbon dating. The age of stone spear points and other tools can only be estimated.
     Over the past three years Dixon and INSTAAR Research Scientist William Manley have been developing and refining a Geographical Information System model to pinpoint regions within the National Park that are most likely to produce finds. The model pulls together topographic, cultural, biological and glacial datasets into layered maps. “We looked at how glaciers melt, which glaciers are close to known rock sources that could have been used to make tools, and we looked for the easiest routes across rough terrain,” Manley said. The aim was to focus on smaller areas that could be tested in the field.
     On the first field trip, in 2001, 32 promising sites were identified and several artefacts were found, including a 750-year-old antler projectile point found by a local sheep hunter. After tweaking the GIS model the researchers returned in 2003 and investigated 141 sites. Five produced prehistoric material and many others yielded more recent artefacts. The most significant finds included a birch bark container and wooden arrow shafts, one with red ochre paint and one with a stone point still lashed in place.
     Although it is illegal for casual visitors to the Park to collect artefacts without a permit, Ted Birkall, an archaeologist with the National Park Service welcomes the work of responsible and innovative outside researchers. “Not only has Dr. Dixon brought our attention to the fact that there are archaeological sites located in the snowfields and icefields of the National Park and Preserve, but he and his co-researchers have also helped with an overall archaeological inventory of the vast Park acreage. “These discoveries help us to see the organic component of these ancient cultures,” said Dixon. “They provide us with insight into human adaptation at high altitudes and latitudes and into human culture that we haven’t seen before. The research to date has been funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programmes.

Source: AScribe Newswire (14 October 2003)

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