Noatak site contains new artifacts for Alaska
August 2011 - When Mareca Guthrie packed her bags to join a team of archaeologists on an expedition to the Noatak National Preserve in Northwest Alaska this summer, she made sure to bring some art supplies along with the camping gear and obligatory mosquito head net. “I packed pencils and even a watercolor set.”
The fine arts collection manager at the University of Alaska Museum of the North joined the expedition to a prehistoric settlement on Feniak Lake to make sketches and take tracings of a group of boulders adorned with petroglyphs, part of the foundation rocks used for several groups of ancient house pits.
At first, Guthrie was just excited for an opportunity to get out of the basement of the museum for a week, but she quickly developed an appreciation for the people who had lived there. “It felt so intimate to be looking through someone else's things, knowing that they sat in the same spot and saw the same view of the mountains.
"When I started getting tired of the mixed nuts I brought for lunch, I thought Did the kids complain when they ate caribou day after day or were they thankful to have it? I became so hungry to know more about them, I'm afraid I may have driven the archeologists a little crazy with my questions.”
While prehistoric rock art is common in some regions, such as the American Southwest, it is exceptionally rare in Interior and Northern Alaska. Archaeologists working in the 1960s and 70s found boulders at three different lakefront sites in what is now the Noatak National Preserve. The rock art remained on location, undisturbed for almost 40 years, until a team from the UA Museum of the North and the National Park Service assembled to create a permanent record with sketches and tracings.
During small-scale excavations in the shallow depressions that mark the remains of prehistoric dwellings, Scott Shirar, a research archaeologist with the UA museum of the North, and his colleagues made an exciting discovery. They found four clay disks decorated with lines, grooves and perforations.
“The first one looks like a little stone that had some scratch marks on it,” Shirar said. “We got really excited when we found the second one with the drilled hole and the more complicated etchings on it. That’s when we realized we had something unique.”
After collaborating with experts and looking up examples in the archaeological record, Shirar said the disks appear to be a new artifact type for Alaska. "We only opened up a really small amount of ground at the site, so the fact that we found four of these artifacts indicates there are probably more and that something really significant is happening."
The crew visited the site to document the rock art, but also to excavate the subterranean house pits to find samples for radiocarbon dating, like animal bones or other organic matter that will give scientists a better idea of when people lived there. Given the house features and other information they’ve gathered, it looks like sometime in the late prehistoric era or the last thousand years.
Archaeologists use the term rock art to describe any human-made marks on natural stone. Petroglyphs are pictures created by picking, carving or abrading the surface of a rock. Shirar said the precise meaning of these petroglyphs, as well as the designs on the clay disks, is still unknown, but their value is clear.
"These objects and places clearly had special significance to their makers. These finds offer an especially tangible reminder of the rich spiritual and intellectual lives they led."