A century ago, when the pioneering Canadian Arctic Expedition started to go awry, anthropologist Diamond Jenness found himself stranded for nearly a year on Alaska’s North Slope.
He spent the time studying the indigenous Alaska culture, excavating Barter Island and collecting thousands of artifacts.
When open waters returned the next summer, he sailed back to Canada, taking with him the Barter Island artifacts, which date to the proto-Inuit culture known as Thule.
Now those artifacts, which number about 3,000, are back in Alaska — though only temporarily — and being studied by the descendants of those who left them and by other Alaska experts.
That means use of high-quality digital imaging, 3-D reproduction and other technology to replicate the artifacts, said Josh Reuther, curator of archaeology at the Museum of the North.
“Our whole intent was to make sort of a virtual collection,” he said. Compared to having the items back in Alaska for good, “it’s kind of the next-best thing,” he said.
Some artifacts at least 500 years old
The items, including ulus, arrowheads and harpoons, were excavated at semi-subterranean house sites. Such living quarters held a wealth of artifacts, Reuther said.
“It’s not that unusual to have that many artifacts, especially in a site like this,” he said.
The oldest artifacts are believed to date back at least 500 years, though analysis is still being done to better determine ages. The newest are believed to be from the early 20th century, or possibly just a few decades before Jenness’ arrival, Reuther said.
What is striking to him, he said, is how the artifacts tell the story of European arrival in the North – if not directly on the North Slope, indirectly in goods that made their way through trade. A copper ulu with copper-iron rivets, for example, blends indigenous culture with European technology, he said.
Barter Island is the aptly named site where the Thule people and their Inuit descendants conducted brisk commerce and trade, so it is logical that goods of varying origins wound up there.
The museum hopes to be able to put some of the artifacts on display this fall in Fairbanks, Reuther said, and possibly send some for display in Kaktovik, the Inupiat community on Barter Island. If the originals cannot be displayed, replicas might be used, he said.
Project funding from ExxonMobil
Funding for the exchange project comes from Exxon Mobil as part of a cultural-preservation commitment included in the company’sdevelopment plan for the Point Thomson oil and gas field. Working on the examination and replication, along with the museum, are two contractors — Northern Land Use Research Alaska and Chumis Cultural Resource Services — and the community of Kaktovik.
Jenness was probably the first anthropologist to use fully scientific methods in Alaska, Reuther said. While some 20th-century anthropologists and archaeologists were seen as insensitive to local peoples of the North, Jenness was progressive, taking the effort to be respectful of the communities where he worked and the cultures he was studying, Reuther said. “He was very much ahead of his time,” Reuther said.
The respect was apparently mutual; children in Canada’s eastern Arctic, where Jenness spent much of his time, were named after the anthropologist, and many villagers attended his funeral when he died in 1969, Reuther said.
Series of misfortunes
Jenness’ sojourn on Alaska’s North Slope was the result of a caribou hunt that turned out to be fortuitously timed.
After their ship, the ill-fated Karluk, became stuck in the late-summer ice, Jenness, expedition leader Vilhjalmur Stefansson and a few other expedition members came ashore for the hunt. While they were on land, winds and drifting ice drove the Karluk west from Alaska’s Camden Bay, and a lead of open water separated the men from the ship. Months later, near Russia’s Wrangel Island, the misfortune continued. The Karluk was crushed by ice and sank in January 1914; eight of the crew members still with the ship died while trying to reach Wrangel, and three more died on the island, according to historical accounts.
As with the timing of Jenness’ caribou-hunting trip, his retrieval of the Barter Island artifacts might have been fortuitous.
Later in the 20th century, during the Cold War, the U.S. and Canadian governments established a Distant Early Warning system across Arctic North America, with a Kaktovik site right about at the place where Jenness made his excavations, Reuther said. Since then,accelerated erosion on the Beaufort Sea coast has created additional threats to remaining cultural resources, he said.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Promoting Inuit history through kayaks, Radio Canada International
Finland: Four divers charged with raiding ancient shipwreck in Finland, Yle News
Norway: Norway returns Inuit artifacts to Arctic Canadian community, CBC News
Sweden: Swedish ships mapped at bottom of sea, Radio Sweden
United States: IDs made in 1952 Alaska plane crash, Alaska Dispatch