Alaskan Ice Patches

Barbed bone or antler point with copper tip from Alaskan Ice Patch. Source: Dixon, NPS

All over  Northwestern North America, from Colorado to the NWT, global climate change is rapidly melting glaciers, and their less mobile cousins, permanent patches of ice which accumulate and never completely melt.  Some finds from these ice patches have revealed exceptionally-preserved organic technology dating from recent times to more than 8,000 calendar years ago.  Additionally, of course, there is the remarkable story of Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį, Long-Ago Person Found, a man who died on a glacier in the Tatsenshini area hundreds of years ago.  All of these would make good posts for the future!

For today, though, I found an article online (PDF) about the lesser known Alaskan ice patches, which have been researched primarily by E. James Dixon.  In the picture above you can see a remarkable barbed bone projectile point with a copper tip, presumably made from a nugget of native copper. Two others with copper staining each date to about 1600 years ago, suggesting this is not copper traded from Europeans.  Below, you can see the careful lashings of sinew that once held a projectile point to an arrow shaft.  Also  below, to further accentuate the preservational conditions, is a 700 year old birch bark container or basket.  These finds are all from Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which is just inland from the northern Northwest Coast (map).

The dates I am citing are from an article by Dixon et al. in American Antiquity, 2005.  As is all too common with JSTOR and American Antiquity, the online PDF available through research libraries is missing most of its illustrations — but more on the numerous inadequacies of the Society for American Archaeology in the future.

Two more contextual thoughts come to mind:

1.  Almost nothing has been done on Ice Patches in British Columbia, even though it is certain such archaeological sites are abundant in this province.  I suspect lack of direct impact on these high altitude places combines with the likelihood that ice is rated as “zero potential” on most archaeologists predictive models (both mental and paper models of where things “ought to be found”) to mean they are still off the radar of many practicing archaeologists. Nonetheless, this is a disappearing resource of the highest importance, so we can hardly take a distanced view that these are somehow not threatened sites.  They are extremely threatened: once the ice melts, normal preservation conditions will prevail and these precious glimpses into technologies we usually see nothing of will disappear.  We need to make an effort to do pro-active research and salvage work on these, as they have done in neighbouring jurisdictions.

2.  The Dixon article I am linking here comes from the US National Park Service, a special issue on climate change (see for example the careful study of recent isostatic rebound at Glacier Bay). The NPS has a strong program of research and of public interpretation in all aspects, natural and cultural, of US National Parks.  To a somewhat lesser extent, Parks Canada, the agency responsible for Canada’s National Parks, also has a research program.  Where the gap lies is with British Columbia’s Provincial Parks, a massive network of protected land which undoubtedly contains numerous ice patches and thousands of archaeological sites.  However, to my knowledge, BC Parks has essentially no research, or even management, schemes in place for archaeological sites or for other cultural resources in the Parks they oversee.  Parks are so much more than just a place for deer and rocks and pictures, and even the environment is a long-term cultural ecology.  Can the cultural resources of BC Parks be managed without an effort by the Provincial Government to invest in knowledge of such resources?  I am willing to be corrected, but I just don’t see it happening, and certainly there is nothing on the internet I have seen suggesting BC Parks does anything with archaeology.  For such a rich province too: I am calling shame on the BC Parks service and on the current and past governments of this province of all political orientations.  We should know the archaeological record of BC Parks better than any other land in this province; instead we hardly know a damn thing.

Sinew hafting on an arrow shaft from Alaskan ice patch. Source: Dixn, NPS.

700 year old birch bark container from Alaskan Ice Patch. Source: Dixon, NPS.

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8 responses to “Alaskan Ice Patches

  1. BCArchaeologist

    BC Parks is very close to being unable to fulfill their mandate in any area as they have virtually no research scientists of any type to either gather data or to understand and interpret that little which is collected by others. They very rarely employ archaeological consultants to do work in a park, and have never had an archaeologist on staff.

    Parks Canada on the other hand employs several archaeologists, some of whom work exclusively in BC, others that have shared responsibilities in BC and Alberta. Some of the work they do ranks with the best archaeology being conducted in the NWC, and in North America. They have a policy to conduct inventories of and research into natural and cultural resources within each new park as it is formed. BC has no such policy.

    The differences in such approaches are found in the numbers.

    There are 7 main federal parks in BC, along with a number of smaller properties managed by Parks Canada. The parks comprise about 6,600 square kilometres. There are about 2,200 sites recorded in these parks, or 0.33 sites/km2.

    BC Parks is responsible for 1,080 Protected Areas, including parks, ecological reserves, conservancies, wildlife managment areas and other category of protected lands. These total nearly 135,000 km2, or 14.3% of the BC land base. There are around 5000 sites recorded in these lands (most records are from activities unrelated to BC Parks, often predating park formation). This amounts to less than 0.04 sites/km2.

    If BC Parks were conducting inventories in their parks to the same intensity as Parks Canada does, we might expect 44,000 sites recorded in their properties. In other words, they are trying (not) to manage cultural resources in ignorance of any information at all for about 39,000 archaeological sites.

    The Ministry of Environment’s (BC Parks is in this ministry) current service plan ( has only one mention of cultural resources on page 22. It is included as a Key Strategy to meet a ministry goal called Well Managed Parks and Protected Areas. This strategy is: “collaborating with First Nations and communities in protected areas planning and management to ensure long-term protection of natural, cultural and recreational assets”

    You cannot successfully plan for or actually manage what you do not know exists. This service plan goal is impossible with the level of knowledge that exists for BC protected areas.

    Since civil servant jobs are disappearing by the thousands right now, this situation is not going to improve any time soon, if ever. I suppose things can’t get worse, so when change does come, it can only be for the better.

  2. Those are increadibly cool artifacts. The first ice artifact I heard of was in an early 1990s (?) National Geographic article talking about carniverous pikas that live on nunutaks in St Elias Range – and the research biologists had found a stitched bearskin pouch in the bergscrund (sp?). This location required something like 40 km of over-glacier travel to get to. It was mentioned as an interesting aside to the main article.

    We put together a research proposal for looking for ice patch artifacts in the northern Rockies, but didn’t get it the first time (yes, we were rushed) and haven’t had time to reapply. Hopefully someone will.

    And ‘BC Archaeologists’ yes BC Parks is not fulfilling their responsibilities. I took a short hike on the main hiking trails at Summit Lake north of Fort Nelson a couple of years back and found seven lithic scatters, at least one of which was a quarry. This was in less than 2 hours and not all in high potential landforms. THere must be dozens if not hundreds of sites in that one park alone – and they are being impacted, and the only sites recorded were right beside the highway, recorded back in the 1970s or early 80s.

  3. BCArchaeologist – those numbers comparing BC Parks to Parks Canada are so much worse than I had imagined. Interesting to have my grumpy impression that they are under-performing turn out to be based on something other than low blood sugar! This is actually a bit of a scandal – I’ve long suspected that the BC government sees Parks mainly as a reserve tank of gasoline to be plundered when needed, not as a permanent and dynamic social institution. A complete disregard for research fits with the idea that you don’t really care about them as Parks, more as places to play, until we run out of coal.

    Interesting point about the St Elias finds, Morley. It seems so “wrong”, that copper-tipped barbed point. I think Grant Keddie at the RBCM has a hafted arrow from a BC glacier which someone turned in decades ago, so there has been (as there so often is) a hint of such things for a long time. Can’t remember the details of that, though.

    • Oh, here we go on the Keddie arrow: from the Tweedsmuir area.

      An Arrow from the Tsitsutl Glacier, British Columbia

      Grant Keddie; Erle Nelson
      Canadian Journal of Archaeology Volume 29,
      Issue 1, p.113-1

      An almost complete arrow found in British Columbia in the early 20th century has been re-discovered in the Royal BC Museum collections. Speculation as to its antiquity was tested by radiocarbon dating, which reveals that the artifact was likely made in the middle of the second millennium AD. The arrow was compared to recent finds of both arrows and darts from glaciers and ice patches. The failure of this specimen to clearly fit the criteria of either of these weapon technologies raises some new questions.

      • That arrow from Bella Coola came into the RBCM collection in 1925. So, in fact its been 85 years of hints. The first time I ever heard of caribou hanging out on snow/ice patches in the summer was in the 1980′s with regard to caribou near Anahim Lake, not that far from Bella Coola.

        Furthermore, there are reports, substantiated by circumstantial evidence but no solid proof, that a human body was seen in or melting from a glacier near Revelstoke in the nineteen teens or thereabouts. I personally believe that story, though whether we will ever know for sure, I don’t know.

  4. copper point bares a great resemblance to Old Copper Culture (before 500 b.c.) ‘rat tail’ point. it tells so much more of the methods used by ancient hunters.

  5. It’s not just super ancient stuff that is coming out of Alaskan Ice — here is a report on a 60 year old plane crash, with 50 dead, slowly being re-exposed

  6. very important paper introducing a special issue of Arctic on ice patch archaeology from the NWT and the Yukon published last year is now view-able on – btw co-author Glen MacKay is a UVIC anthro alum

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