Old World metal objects found in Alaska, dating from hundreds of years before European contact

Old_World_Metal_Alaska_Dated_Before_European_Arrival_1Credit: Jeremy Foin/University of California, Davis

According to Purdue University researchers, Cape Espenberg on the northwestern coast of Alaska has yielded two objects made of metal that was originally sourced from the Old World, specifically Eurasia. This particular Alaskan area on the Seward Peninsula was inhabited by the Thule people, who are considered as the ancestors of all modern Inuit. Their culture was originally pronounced around the Bering Strait (circa 200 BC), but migrations led to their spreading westward even to Greenland by 1300 AD. As for the objects in question here, the two items pertain to a cylindrical bead and a fragment of a small buckle strap-guide.

The metallic part of these items were made of leaded bronze, which basically entails a alloy of copper, tin and lead. Interestingly enough, analysis of the leather from from the buckle by radiocarbon dating has revealed that it is around 500-800 years old, thus harking back to conventional middle ages (or Late Prehistoric Period in the Arctic regions, circa 1100 – 1300 AD). On the other hand, the metal parts could actually be even older than the leather fragment. This is what H. Kory Cooper, an associate professor of anthropology, who led the artifacts’ metallurgical assessment, had to say –

This is not a surprise based on oral history and other archaeological finds, and it was just a matter of time before we had a good example of Eurasian metal that had been traded. We believe these smelted alloys were made somewhere in Eurasia and traded to Siberia and then traded across the Bering Strait to ancestral Inuits people, also known as Thule culture, in Alaska. Locally available metal in parts of the Arctic, such as native metal, copper and meteoritic and telluric iron were used by ancient Inuit people for tools and to sometimes indicate status. Two of the Cape Espenberg items that were found – a bead and a buckle — are heavily leaded bronze artifacts. Both are from a house at the site dating to the Late Prehistoric Period, around 1100-1300 AD, which is before sustained European contact in the late 18th century.


Now beyond just the date, the discovery of a belt buckle sheds new light into the ‘industrial’ scope present in the Thule culture. According to Cooper, this belt buckle specimen actually resembles a horse-harness component that was prevalent in north-central China after 7th century BC. And other than just the leaded bronze objects, the archaeologists have also found four copper items from another native house – though this other residence is dated from 17th to 18th century.

So at the end of the day, Alaska, along with proximate Arctic regions, presents a rather dynamic historical side that is not just limited to the ‘late-coming’ European side of affairs. As Cooper added –

This article focuses on a small finding with really interesting implications. This will cause other people to think about the Arctic differently. Some have presented the Arctic and Subarctic regions as backwater areas with no technological innovation because there was a very small population at the time. That doesn’t mean interesting things weren’t happening, and this shows that locals were not only using locally available metals but were also obtaining metals from elsewhere.


Credit: University of Colorado

The study was originally published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Source: Purdue University

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