and metal/ivory composite artifacts from Cape Espenberg: a
bone fishing lure with iron inset eyes, a piece of bone fishing
tackle with a copper hook, an eyed copper needle, a small
fragment of sheet copper, a cylindrical bead and buckle fragment.
Image credit: H. Kory Cooper et al.
West Lafayette, IN Two leaded bronze artifacts found
in northwestern Alaska are the first evidence that metal from Asia
reached prehistoric North America prior to contact with Europeans,
according to new Purdue University research.
"This is not a surprise based on oral history and other archaeological
finds, and it was just a matter of time before we had a good example
of Eurasian metal that had been traded," said H. Kory Cooper, an
associate professor of anthropology, who led the artifacts' metallurgical
analysis. "We believe these smelted alloys were made somewhere in
Eurasia and traded to Siberia and then traded across the Bering
Strait to ancestral Inuits people, also known as Thule culture,
in Alaska. Locally available metal in parts of the Arctic, such
as native metal, copper and meteoritic and telluric iron were used
by ancient Inuit people for tools and to sometimes indicate status.
Two of the Cape Espenberg items that were found a bead and
a buckle are heavily leaded bronze artifacts. Both are from
a house at the site dating to the Late Prehistoric Period, around
1100-1300 AD, which is before sustained European contact in the
late 18th century."
The findings are published in Elsevier's Journal of Archaeological
Science, and the research was funded by the National Science Foundation's
Office of Polar Programs Arctic Social Sciences.
"This article focuses on a small finding with really interesting
implications," said Cooper, who also has a courtesy appointment
in materials engineering and is an expert in metallurgy and archaeology
in the western Arctic and Subarctic. "This will cause other people
to think about the Arctic differently. Some have presented the Arctic
and Subarctic regions as backwater areas with no technological innovation
because there was a very small population at the time. That doesn't
mean interesting things weren't happening, and this shows that locals
were not only using locally available metals but were also obtaining
metals from elsewhere."
The items were found on Alaska's northwest coast at Cape Espenberg
on the Seward Peninsula where the Thule people lived in houses.
The field work was led by Owen K. Mason and John F. Hoffecker, both
of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University
of Colorado, Boulder. From 2009-2011, their team excavated a variety
of artifacts including six items with metal. Cooper coordinated
the metallurgical analysis.
Metal artifacts are rarely found because they were usually used
until they were worn down and, therefore, not well preserved at
"These items are remarkable due to curation and preservation
issues," Cooper said.
The cylindrical bead and a fragment of a small buckle strap-guide
are composed of leaded bronze, which is an alloy of copper, tin
and lead. The fragmented leather strap on the buckle provided radiocarbon
dating, and the item was dated to 500-800 years old, although the
metal could be older.
"The belt buckle also is considered an industrial product and
is an unprecedented find for this time," Cooper said. "It resembles
a buckle used as part of a horse harness that would have been used
in north-central China during the first six centuries before the
Three of the other four items from another house were determined
to be copper a piece of bone fishing tackle with a copper
hook, an eyed copper needle and a small fragment of sheet copper.
The final item was a bone fishing lure with iron inset eyes. All
items were analyzed with X-ray fluorescence technology.
This house is considerably younger, dating to the 17th to 18th
centuries, and is part of a trading network in Alaskan native copper.
Also part of the research team was Robert J. Speakman, of the
Center for Applied Isotope Studiesat the University of Georgia,
and Victor Mair, of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the
University of Pennsylvania.
The two research projects funded by the NSF's Division of Polar
Programs Arctic Social Sciences were the Cape Espenberg project,
which was awarded to Mason and Hoffecker, and the Arctic and Subarctic
grant, which was awarded to Cooper.