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.