New Finds from NWT Ice Patches

340 year old bow made from willow wood - bow was found in multiple fragments. Photo: Tom Andrews via

In many parts of Northwest North America glaciers and ice patches are melting at unprecedented rates.  In some cases, these are revealing extraordinary archaeological remains, as I have noted before for Alaska.  There’s recently been some short news reports about new finds in the Northwest Territories, to add to the substantial work already done there.  Most of these reports rehash the same news release from the Arctic Institute of the Americas, which sponsored the research through International Polar Year funding (now ended).  Only a few sites have photos, though.

Birch arrow and projectile point. Photo: Tom Andrews, via

The photo above shows an arrow, made of birch wood, dated to 270 years ago.  it is said to be an arrow because of the slot-shaped nock in the upper-left hand fragment, which would have coupled to a bow string.  The stone point in the foreground seems very large to be an arrow head, to me, and I wonder if it was firmly associated with the arrow shaft.  The article doesn’t say.

Because so much of the commentary I have seen (thanks, again, CBC) seems extremely confused, it is important to note that these artifacts were deposited on ice in the first place, by hunters who were targeting caribou.  Caribou shelter from heat and insects on ice patches, but in so doing expose themselves to human predation.  So let me just state clearly here:  this evidence does not somehow disprove  global warming.  Indeed, it is evidence for the exact opposite: the fact that such artifacts can be over 8,000 years old and are only now being released from the ice on which they were laid, is itself strong evidence that the current melting regime is unprecedented in the Holocene.

You can listen to an interview with NWT Archaeologist Tom Andrews by downloading this mp3 file from the CBC radio show “As it Happens” – the interview starts at 27:10 of the 45 minute show.  I see you can also buy a splendid-looking, illustrated book on NWT ice patch archaeology by Andrews, Leon Andrew, and UVIC’s own Glen MacKay.

In the previous posts on this topic – Alaska and B.C.’s Tsitsutl Glacier find from the 1920s – a good discussion broke out about why there is essentially no research of this kind going on in B.C.  The fattest target is B.C. Parks, whose vast Alpine and sub-Alpine lands go with no discernible archaeological management of any kind.  This is not a question of funding research – this is heritage conservation within Parks which were designed and mandated to do exactly that.  Once again, I call shame on the B.C. Parks system for their inadequate attention to the archaeology they have been given a custodial duty towards.  Wake up, B.C. Parks: you have multitudes of highly threatened archaeological sites and you must act now.  Contact them: or better yet, why not email the Minister responsible the Honourable Barry Penner at .  It would be interesting to have them on record as to how they see their responsibility towards these sites.  Right now their actions speak for themselves: They. Do. Not. Care. Indeed, now I wonder if the Heritage Conservation Act contains any levers which could be applied to press them into action.

Here is the text of the press release:

Ancient artifacts revealed as northern ice patches melt Scientists hope to save artifacts as ice recedes

YELLOWKNIFE, NT – APRIL 2010 – High in the Mackenzie Mountains, scientists are finding a treasure trove of ancient hunting tools being revealed as warming temperatures melt patches of ice that have been in place for thousands of years.

Tom Andrews, an archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife and lead researcher on the International Polar Year Ice Patch Study, is amazed at the implements being discovered by researchers.

“We’re just like children opening Christmas presents. I kind of pinch myself,” says Andrews.

Ice patches are accumulations of annual snow that, until recently, remained frozen all year. For millennia, caribou seeking relief from summer heat and insects have made their way to ice patches where they bed down until cooler temperatures prevail. Hunters noticed caribou were, in effect, marooned on these ice islands and took advantage.

“I’m never surprised at the brilliance of ancient hunters anymore. I feel stupid that we didn’t find this sooner,” says Andrews.

Ice patch archeology is a recent phenomenon that began in Yukon. In 1997, sheep hunters discovered a 4,300-year-old dart shaft in caribou dung that had become exposed as the ice receded. Scientists who investigated the site found layers of caribou dung buried between annual deposits of ice. They also discovered a repository of well-preserved artifacts.

Andrews first became aware of the importance of ice patches when word about the Yukon find started leaking out. “We began wondering if we had the same phenomenon here.”

In 2000, he cobbled together funds to buy satellite imagery of specific areas in the Mackenzie Mountains and began to examine ice patches in the region. Five years later, he had raised enough to support a four-hour helicopter ride to investigate two ice patches. The trip proved fruitful.

“Low and behold, we found a willow bow.” That discovery led to a successful application for federal International Polar Year funds which have allowed an interdisciplinary team of researchers to explore eight ice patches for four years.

The results have been extraordinary. Andrews and his team have found 2400-year-old spear throwing tools, a 1000-year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years. Biologists involved in the project are examining dung for plant remains, insect parts, pollen and caribou parasites. Others are studying DNA evidence to track the lineage and migration patterns of caribou. Andrews also works closely with the Shutaot’ine or Mountain Dene, drawing on their guiding experience and traditional knowledge.

“The implements are truly amazing. There are wooden arrows and dart shafts so fine you can’t believe someone sat down with a stone and made them.”

Andrews is currently in a race against time. His IPY funds have run out and he is keenly aware that each summer, the patches continue to melt. In fact, two of the eight original patches have already disappeared.

“We realize that the ice patches are continuing to melt and we have an ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed,” says Andrews. If left on the ground, exposed artifacts would be trampled by caribou or dissolved by the acidic soils. “In a year or two the artifacts would be gone.”

9 responses to “New Finds from NWT Ice Patches

  1. I’ve been reading the book you link to – it really is a very nice production. It is aimed at the community and not at an archaeological audience but it is informative and extremely well illustrated. I have one small complaint in this story (and the book) – it does not acknowledge the example that they are following from the excellent work done in the south west Yukon on this same topic. The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations together with the Yukon Heritage Branch and other first nations set a very high standard for this kind of work more than 10 years ago. It set the stage for the NWT project.

    I know of several attempts to start this kind of work in BC.All failed due to lack of the serious dollars needed for this kind of work – helicopter time does not come cheaply.


  2. Hi APM,

    Yes the Champagne and Aishihik were at the forefront of this research, together with researchers like Greg Hare in Whitehorse. Here’s an article about it from 2000:

    One interesting thing about at least some of these early projects was the incorporation of aboriginal youth “Science Camps” and the ice patches being used as a rediscovery venue. I know I’ve seen stuff on the web about these camps and should dig it out and post it.

    Then, as I think you noted in a previous thread here, familiarity with the ice patch concept in the SW Yukon was an important predisposition and preparation for all concerned when Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was found in NW B.C.


  3. Hi-

    Last week I was lucky enough to stumble on this blog. What a wealth of current information! Thank you.
    I have only recently taken an interest in NW Coast archaeology, so I have a lot of questions. Some pretty naive ones. Maybe someone can help clarify some of them.

    The ice patch archaeology is amazing. I just finished reading E. James Dixon’s Boats, Boats and Bison and some of his writings dovetail well with the apparent long time high altitude use by people shown through the recent artifact finds.
    Has anyone been looking at the receding ice on Olympic Peninsula? Some years ago someone found a basket fragment in the Hurricane Ridge area sticking out of the snow.

    I read someone’s comments in this blog of how BC Parks has no focus on the inventory or protection and preservation of archaeological sites in their protected areas. So true! Heck, BC Parks does not even have the wherewithall to look after its natural resources (can’t manage without knowing what’s there!). There is too much attention given to recreational values and how to generate income from them.
    Could anyone tell me why the Archaeology Branch does not override the Park Act and assumes the role BC Parks does not play?

    I also have a question related to development of private property containing an archaeological site. This relates to a resort development plan on the land that contains DfSj-35, just down the coast from DfSj-100 (Little Beach). An AIA has been done for the area proposed for development (a string of tourist cabins). Now I read in the papaer that the Ucluelet First Nation has signed an agreement with the developer that was ‘mutually satisfactory’. This agreement is not made public. (Similar to protocols signed between First Nations and fishfarm and mining companies in Clayoquot.) How does such an arrangement work? Does the Arch Branch get to look at this? Does the government have a veto or any input at all in such an agreement?
    Same for Little Beach ‘development’ which is now managed by the Heritage Branch and the UFN with input from the District of Ucluelet. Their focus is on ‘non-intrusive’ tourist development of the site.
    That’s all for now.


  4. Hi Edgewater,

    Thanks for your comments. I can’t answer all your questions, but maybe some other readers can. For now,

    1. I knew about the Hurricane ridge find but have been stumped on finding it on the web — even though that is where I found out about it in the first place. Whether there is active work going on there or not, I don’t know. I will say that the U.S. National Parks Service and the U.S. National Forests both have much stronger archaeology programs than B.C. Parks (not that hard, but in fact the NPS and NFS both have some really great archaeology, both management oriented and research) – so it wouldn’t surprise me.

    2. It is a grey area when sites are threatened by natural forces and not by human agency or development. There was a recent case in Victoria area where a site at Portage Park in View Royal, which is rapidly eroding, instigated an attempt to access public funds to pro-actively stop it eroding, even though it was hard to say that the erosion was anyone’s fault. My knowledge of this is hazy, I hope someone chips in with the outcome. But generally, if there is no one to pay, then the Province does not usually pay for mitigation of natural erosion, it lets nature take its course. I don’t see a reading of the Heritage Conservation Act which would call for agencies to spend money to prevent erosion. I do see a reading of the Parks Act that requires BC Parks to be proactive in conservation within their domain, and I certainly do see a moral responsibility that they take on. Maybe some of those 39$/night camping fees and 10/day parking fees could be put into something other than paying the people to collect them in the first place.

    3. I really can’t speak at all to the Ucluelet case you cite or to the ways in which agreements might be made with First Nations. Each one, I suspect, is a unique case decided Nation by Nation with reference to the specifics of the proposed development. Someone else reading this may have some insight into that case or the protocols.


  5. Nice to see some renewed interest in ice patches. Having given a helping hand in 1997/1998 to some of the folks working on the Yukon ice patches, the topic slowly disappeared from the BC archaeology limelight as – and APM succinctly identifies the issue – funding was never really forthcoming. I tried to secure funding in 2000 for ice patch work in the MKMA, but it was the only proposal of my three that year that didn’t receive support – primarily due to the high cost of logistics vs the return on funds for employing locals & stakeholders. Now, having said that …

    On my own time and in BC alone I have racked up six ice patches with cultural remains, a couple dozen with a high probability of containing archaeological remains, and another dozen suspected but extinct ice patches (artifacts located where ice patches used to be based on archival air photos) – all between Dease Lake and Fort Nelson, and all without the support of helicopter (quads, sleds and walking being the primary modes of survey). The sad part is that I have had neither the time or reason to officially record these locations. None have yet produced the stellar artifacts seen in the Territories, but with a little extra effort before it’s too late I am confident BC’s north will reveal wonderful examples of alpine hunting … if 2010 proves to be a warm summer again, I’ll be out looking once more, but it is getting tougher as many of the ice patches you see on the B+W orthophoto sets from 1997/8 have already melted and their (organic) contents decayed.


    • Hi Remi,

      Thanks for this information. It seems obvious there are a huge numbers of ice patches in BC and good to hear some boots have visited some of them.

      It puts BC to shame by comparison with the small-population, relatively less affluent NWT and Yukon, both of which have managed substantial research-oriented projects on ice patch materials.

      The thing is, other than getting there (and 14C), it is fairly inexpensive research to conduct. Consider the recent Englishman River kerfluffle, which was a pretty bog-standard impact assessment process and apparently cost $35,000. That would be about 20-25 hours of helicopter time. Based from, say, Dease Lake or even Smithers, that could be a weeks worth of pick ups and drop offs on nearby ice patches (identified, I’m told, by their brown colour on google earth, even).

      The amount of money tossed at archaeology piece-meal in this province is astonishing. I’d love to add it all up someday, but I’m going to ballpark it is 50 million bucks. What do we really learn from that? It’s a giant connect-the-dots project. I’d love to see projects that focus on this rapidly disappearing, highly threatened, qualitatively different site type. And it is the provincial government (BC Parks, not the Arch. Branch necessarily) that needs to step up and not make us look bad compared to the NWT and Yukon.

      Anyway, don’t lose the co-ordinates on those sites. Filing site forms might trigger impact assessments in otherwise “low potential” impact zones.


  6. The up-front expenses can be substantial, yes, but the long-term benefits I think far outweigh this consideration. I completely agree with your point about the amount of effort that goes into consulting work not amounting to much in the end, for the most part – keeping in mind that a significant portion of the ‘cost of doing business’ is nowadays sponged up by OHS requirements, insurance, HR, benefits, etc, whereas even 10 years ago these costs hardly existed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the average (global) recovery cost of a flake is running to $200-300/piece, or about half the cost of a regular C14 date – which is why I have a hard time understanding the community’s general relucantance to sell a little harder the science behind the discipline. Anyways, I feel a rant coming on, so I’ll stop here.


  7. Rants are not unwelcome or unknown here, so let’er rip.

    I’ve heard some scary stories about the safety requirements now. I can remember working in the 1980s and being classified for Worker’s Comp purposes as “Librarian or Museum Worker”, all the while skipping along 20 feet above the ground on half-rotten wet hemlock deadfalls.

    I don’t know what the answer to the “what do we learn” question. It seems that we need better syntheses for sure. The bar for analysis vs. description probably needs to be higher – things like XRF will help; we should be thinking about more floral recovery and analysis, and certainly things like Ground Penetrating Radar should see much wider use than they currently do. Things like Carbon-14 dates should be absolutely 100% universally required — how else are we even going to get a handle on the basis time-space grid of the province?

    This is not some laundry list of exotica either: the above methods are very common S.O.P. in some other jurisdictions. Yes it costs money and that has to be “sold”, especially when it is landowners being asked to cough it up. OK I feel a rant coming on, too!


    • Where there is a will, there is a way … unfortunately for the pioneers, they are the ones who usually pay a steep price while the followers reap the benefits.


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