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Northwest Alaska archaeological dig turns up mysterious small clay disks

Posted: September 14, 2011 - 12:02am

FAIRBANKS — Scott Shirar headed to Noatak National Preserve in July with petroglyphs and boulders on his mind. But when the University of Alaska Fairbanks archaeologist left the Northwest Alaska preserve two weeks later, four small clay disks had stolen his attention.

The biggest of the disks is only about the size of a silver dollar, but they’re a big discovery, Shirar said. Similar disks have been found on St. Lawrence and Kodiak islands but never before in Arctic Alaska.

The find could potentially tweak modern conceptions about daily life for the ancient inhabitants around the Noatak River.

Shirar said items found at such sites are generally basic tools or animal bones. The discovery of the mysterious clay disks — two of which are etched with basic designs — adds a bit of intrigue to the lives of people who lived in the area as long as 1,000 years ago.

“A lot of times it’s survival things: What were people eating, how were they killing things?” Shirar said. “This gives you a little more of a look at the artistic and emotional side, which is always exciting as an archaeologist.”

There are several theories about what the disks might be, but the answer remains hazy.

In other areas, similar items have been used as gaming pieces, lids for small baskets, decorative jewelry or counterweights used to help spin fabric into yarn. An Inupiaq member of the dig team thought they might be buttons for skin tents.

Shirar said carbon dating of charcoal at the site should provide a good estimate of when the disks were made. Once that puzzle has been solved, he plans to spend the winter researching their function.

“That’s the big question right now,” Shirar said. “What were people using them for?”

Mike Holt, the National Park Service archaeologist for the Arctic National Park lands, said the discovery of the disks adds some excitement to a site that had been located but largely unexplored for nearly 40 years.

“We were quite excited to find them, and even more elated when we found out that nobody knows what they are,” Holt said. “It’s always fun to find something new.”

The archaeological project began as something quite different. Several boulders covered with manmade carvings and depressions had been discovered in the 1960s and 1970s near Feniak Lake. The rock art, called petroglyphs, had remained undocumented until this summer, when a team from the UA Museum of the North and the National Park Service collaborated to describe them formally.

While on site, the team also worked to excavate about 10 ancient dwellings. Small, shallow areas were explored in each home, Shirar said, as well as from a communal dwelling in the area.

In all, Shirar said only about 3 or 4 square meters were unearthed, but the discovery of the disks provided more than enough incentive to continue. He said a return visit to the site is planned for next summer.

The prospect for more discoveries looks good. Holt said a “pedestrian survey” through another site spotted two more clay disks simply sitting on the ground.

“It’s got the ‘wow factor’ for us,” Holt said. “It’s very exciting.”

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