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In Alaska, archeologists unearth ancient bronze buckle from Asia

Image courtesy: University of Colorado at Boulder

A bronze buckle cast in Asia at least 1,400 years ago was discovered last August in an archaeological dig on the shore of the Seward Peninsula, marking the first time such technology has been unearthed in Alaska.

The buckle — a rectangular bar with a broken circular  — was found inside an excavation of a 1,000-year-old Inupiat house that had been dug into a beach ridge at Cape Espenberg by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The object spans 2 inches by 1 inch, with a bevel on one side and concave shape on the other — all indications that it had been created in a mold, according to archaeologist and CU research associate John Hoffecker.

"I was totally astonished," Hoffecker in this story posted by UC Boulder. "The object appears to be older than the house we were excavating by at least a few hundred years."

A seven-member team, led by Hoffecker, was working the site as part of a larger effort to study how ancient Native Alaskans responded to climate change, especially during a Northern Hemispheric heat wave called the Medieval Warm Period.

Doctoral student Jeremy Foin, from the University of California at Davis, was sifting soil through an archaelogical screen when he spied the buckle. The soil had been excavated from beneath three feet of sediment in what would have been the entryway into the house.

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"The shape of the object immediately caught my eye," Foin said in this story. "After I saw that it clearly had been cast in a mold, my first thought was disbelief, quickly followed by the realization that I had found something of potentially great significance."

Other prehistoric and pre-contact materials from Asia have occasionally been unearthed in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, suggesting that Pacific Rim people traded goods and technology long before Russian fur traders and European explorers ventured into the region in the late 18th century.

Old Chinese coins have been discovered in coastal Alaska, for instance, and were sometimes sewn into tunics by Tlingit people to create armor. Last summer, two Chinese coins were discovered by archaeologists in the Yukon. The finds included a 340-year-old object minted during the Qing Dynasty reign of Emperor Kangxi, unearthed at a dig on a bluff overlooking the Yukon River about 150 miles northwest of Whitehorse. (See photos of it at the Yukon News.)

The buckle was much older. It emerged from the dirt with a small hunk of leather still wrapped around the rectangular bar. A radiocarbon analysis of the material dates from about year 600 CE. The buckle itself could be far older, Hoffecker said.

The original owners might have used the device in a harness, or as part of an ornament for a horse, the scientists said. Just how Inupiat Alaskans deployed the object remains a mystery. The scientists speculated that the Alaska Natives might have also used it as some kind of a clasp, or possibly as part of regalia worn by a shaman.   

What they do know is this: The practice of casting copper and tin to create bronze was unknown in prehistoric Alaska, suggesting that the buckle had to come from East Asia.

As a result, the artifact offers more evidence for long-distance trade from production centers in either Korea, China, Manchuria or southern Siberia into Alaska and the Western Hemisphere, according to team member Owen Mason. People began casting bronze in the steppe region of southern Siberia several thousand years ago.

Another intriguing possibility: What if the buckle came to Alaska in the possession of the first Eskimo immigrants — ancestors of the Inupiat people who spread across the Arctic beginning about 1,500 years ago?

"It was possibly valuable enough so that people hung onto it for generations, passing it down through families," Mason said here.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com