First evidence of ancient trade with Asia uncovered in Northwest Alaska

There’s new evidence that metal goods from central Asia made their way to Alaska long before contact with Europeans.

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An excavator works at what was once an ancient settlement at Cape Espenberg. (Photo courtesy of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve)
An excavator works at what was once an ancient settlement at Cape Espenberg. (Photo courtesy of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve)

That’s according to a study published this month in the Journal of Archeological Science, but there’s still a lot unknown about one artifact in particular.

“The buckle is about three centimeters in length and maybe two to three centimeters wide,” explained Kory Cooper, an archaeologist at Purdue University and one of the authors of the study. He’s been working for the past few years with Owen Mason, who was there when the buckle was discovered.

“Near the end of the season, as it always is, one of our excavators came across [a] metal object,” Mason explained.

Mason spends almost every summer at Cape Espenberg in northwest Alaska—one of the oldest inhabited settlements in North America. Mason’s team, also led by archaeologist John Hoffecker, has found a handful of other metal artifacts over the years, but he said he knew right away the buckle was unique.

“Cast bronze, which is a very elaborate type of technology, had really never been seen before, so immediately, this piece stood out,” Hoffecker said.

To cast or to mold metal requires very high temperatures, and, according to Mason, there’s never been any evidence of that in Alaska’s prehistoric settlements.

The metal buckle found at Cape Espenberg. (Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado, Boulder)
The metal buckle found at Cape Espenberg. (Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado, Boulder)

To be sure, Mason sent the buckle down to Kory Cooper’s lab in Indiana, where Cooper used x-ray technology to confirm traces of tin and lead in the buckle.

“So this is the first time that anybody has found this kind of object that is definitely something that was made by metal-producing cultures,” Cooper said, “most likely somewhere in Eurasia.”

Cooper was also able to confirm the buckle dates back to at least 800 AD, when Cape Espenberg was still a village, but Owen Mason said a lot of questions remain unanswered.

“There’s still a lot of mystery here,” Mason said. “How did something get manufactured in Manchuria or Korea, and how long did it take to make its way to Alaska?”

Mason and his colleagues are still working on those answers. Their efforts are part of a larger project funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs.

Mason said archaeological work at ancient sites like Cape Espenberg is more urgent than ever.

“With the thawing of permafrost, with global change, with climate change, the sites are being subject to thawing and degradation,” Mason explained.

Mason is on his way back up to Cape Espenberg for what he hopes will be another groundbreaking season in the field.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.