MOUNTAINS: Over 14,000 years ago, much of North America was covered
in ice, starting at the Alaska Range, and moving down all the way
to what are now the cities of Chicago and New York. The ice was
very thick miles thick. Then, it abruptly melted over much
of the northern hemisphere. Except in parts of Alaska. Around 10,000
to 12,000 years ago, the ice in Alaska was close to its present
configuration, with high mountain glaciers surrounding the Copper
In Alaska, a still-cold part of the world, there remain many
glaciers. And, many other icy geological features: Including gigantic
ice fields and smaller permanent ice patches.
An ice patch is an isolated patch of ice in the lee of a slope,
made by drifting snow that is at an altitude where it never melts.
Ice patches are often high in the treeless mountains, but not so
high that animals and people cant reach them. (Ice patches
can be seen in the Alaska summer from the road along the lower Richardson
Highway, on the way to the coastal town of Valdez)
Because ice patches remain all summer long, they
are places caribou can escape the hordes of insects that populate
the tundra and where they can cool down. Ancient hunters,
aware of the cyclical patterns of Alaskas wildlife, and the
way that they are funneled along the same basic routes year
after year followed their prey to the ice patches.
At the ice patches, these long-ago hunters killed animals, and
stayed there in the summer, waiting for other game to show up. As
all of us humans tend to do, the hunters left behind their everyday
litter on the ice. This included arrowheads, pieces of wooden arrow
shafts, broken birchbark baskets, carved antlers, and even sinew
that was used to lash an antler projectile to an arrow shaft: The
fabric of their lives.
Generally, the stuff that ancient Athabascans in
Alaska used and discarded has been completely recycled by the earth.
Its not particularly solid material, but is more likely to
be made of biodegradables leather, feathers,
wood pieces, antlers (which are commonly gnawed by voles for the
calcium), and even a thin piece of copper, fashioned into an arrowhead.
At the ice patches, these ancient peoples litter fell down
through the snow, protected by the ice, as if in a giant freezer.
Recently, the ice patches have begun to melt. And the items
that are in them the wood, and birchbark and sinew, even
an arrow feather have dropped down onto the surface of the
Archaeologists have gone searching for these items in the Wrangell
Mountains. And, amazingly, they have found quite a bit of hitherto
unseen evidence of how people lived up to 3,000 years ago.
Some of the items are very old. The pink-and-white piece of
birchbark basket its sewing holes as fresh and clear as if
it were made in the nearby village of Chistochina yesterday
dates back to the days of Columbus. Other items date back to the
Middle Ages, and to almost a thousand years before Christ.
Ice Patch Archaeology is a new and exciting field
of research that reveals a startling look at a very fragile, and
difficult-to-chronicle way of life, high in the Alaska arctic.
The Wrangell-St. Elias project was undertaken by James Dixon,
of the University of New Mexico, who worked with the Wrangell-St.
Elias National Park and the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. Local Ahtna
people accompanied the archeologists, and helped locate artifacts.
Local people who worked with Jim Dixon through the Ahtna Heritage
Liana Charley-John, Albert Craig Jr., Tana Finnesand, Martin Finnesand,
Roy Hancock, Joeneal Hicks, Jason John, Joey Leonard, Lishaw Lincoln,
Katherine McConkey, Markle Pete, Phillip Sabon, Ruth Ann Shinn and
On October 30th, 2014 there was a special Coming Home
celebration, in which people from the University, the National Park,
the Ahtna Heritage Foundation and the Alaska and Copper River communities
showed up to welcome several of the artifacts to a new home at the
Ahtna Cultural Center Cekaedi Hwnax Legacy
House on the grounds of Wrangell-St. Elias Parks
visitor center complex in Copper Center, Alaska.