Birnirk collection comes home
DECEMBER 2011 - A large collection of archaeological artifacts has returned to Alaska, nearly 60 years after they were excavated near Point Barrow. The Birnirk collection represents a phase of prehistoric Eskimo culture dating back to 500 AD.
“This collection has tremendous research significance,” said Jeff Rasic, acting curator of archaeology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “The Birnirk site is the ‘type site’ for the Birnirk culture, which occupies a key juncture in the branches of Eskimo prehistory and the first decidedly Eskimo phase of cultural development seen on the Alaska mainland.”
The collection was excavated in the early 1950s by a group of Harvard graduate students, headed by Wilbert Carter. They completed a three-season program of archaeological work with the support of the Arctic Research Laboratory, established at Barrow by the Office of Naval Research. The collection is owned by the US Navy and was housed for decades at the Harvard Peabody Museum.
The collection contains almost 26,000 items, ranging from hunting tools and harpoon parts to snow goggles and knives. The site offered excellent organic material preservation, producing an exceptional catalog of prehistoric materials, such as wood, bone, antler and even plant fibers.
Besides adding to the UA Museum of the North’s collection, which contains artifacts representing the entire span of Alaska prehistory, the donation represents a research bonanza.
“Carter never published a final report on the site,” Rasic said. “So the data and the documentation have great research potential, both in terms of bringing unpublished data to light, and applying modern analytical techniques.
“There are dozens of MA thesis projects that could be done with this collection.”