Researchers find artifacts in ancient Alaska village

Findings are the first sign of Ipiutak culture north of Point Hope

Posted: Monday, October 20, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Researchers and an excavation team from Barrow were working on the site of a 1,000-year-old village called Nuvuk when they found Ipiutak artifacts.

The artifacts are the first evidence of Ipiutak activity to be found north of Point Hope, where most evidence of the Ipiutak culture has been found, said Anne Jensen, a senior scientist and general manager of UIC Science LLC.

The Ipiutak were a Native culture that settled along the north coast of Alaska between 2000 B.C. to about 800 A.D. It is an ancestor to the Eskimo culture.

Point Hope and Deering, located in Northwest Alaska, have the most evidence of the Ipiutak culture, and Jensen said it is still unclear why the Ipiutak would travel up the coast when they were thriving at Point Hope.

Jensen said the artifacts are dated from 310-380 A.D. although carbon-dating technology includes some uncertainties.

"It's definitely one of the earlier Ipiutak dates around," Jensen said.

The question now is when would the cultures that inhabited the area be considered Ipiutak, Jensen said.

The team's original goal was to salvage the Nuvuk burial site, which is being destroyed by the eroding coastline. When the first graves were discovered, it was thought they were buried by people who were just traveling through the area. After the erosion revealed a number of graves, it became clear that people had settled there, Jensen said.

She said if the artifacts were not collected last summer, they would have been lost because of the erosion.

"We were certainly surprised and were not expecting to spend two months there," Jensen said.

Nuvuk, located eight miles from Barrow, is at least 1,000 years old, but the early Ipuitak artifacts are older than that. The artifacts were discovered when wood samples were being collected for Claire Alix, a research associate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Alaska Quaternary Center, who was part of team at Nuvuk. Alix is a specialist in wood use and driftwood availability.

Alix said about 4,000 items were excavated including some distinctively Ipiutak stone tools, a broken paddle and two sled runners.

Alix said the further back in time, the rarer wood specimens are.

"It's pretty unique. It's pretty rare to find preserved wood that old," Alix said.

Three-fourths of the items brought back from the site were wood, Alix said. The collection includes artifacts, wood chips and fragments of cottonwood boxes.

Alix said she originally thought the wood found would be shaped and gathered by natural features.

Natural features occur when wood is transported and shaped by means such as wind or waves and humans have no contact with the wood.

Stone chips and cultural materials that look like natural features have complicated the study of the artifacts, Alix said.

"It's beautiful, and it's very interesting to have this knowledge of past technology," she said.

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