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Ice Patch Archaeology

Many portrayals of archaeology in popular culture include travelling to remote locations in order to recover artifacts regarded as “treasure”, usually under dramatic and somewhat harrowing circumstances. For Greg Hare, the Yukon Territory’s site assessment archaeologist, ice patches are the equivalent of the treasure filled tombs in an Indiana Jones film.

Figure 1. Archaeologists Survey the Friday Ice Patch, Yukon Territory Photo courtesy of Yukon Cultural Services Branch
Figure 1. Archaeologists Survey the Friday Ice Patch, Yukon Territory. Photo courtesy of Yukon Cultural Services Branch

Ice Patch Archaeology began in the late 1990s through the Yukon Ice Patch Project (Hare 2011: 2). Ice patches are accumulated snow and ice from previous winters that does not melt in the summer. They are found in alpine regions around the world, including the southern Yukon. Unlike glaciers, they do not flow downhill or move over time (except for seasonal melting along the perimeter). When the Yukon Ice Patch project began, changing temperatures were resulting in massive melting of these ice patches, which revealed many archaeological artifacts that had previously been encased in the ice. Due to the extremely dry and cold conditions, as well as the sedentary state of the ice, these artifacts are  remarkably well preserved and can include sinew, hide, and feathers on objects up to 9,000 years old (Hare 2011: 22).

It may seem odd that so many artifacts are recovered from these remote ice patches, but there is a simple explanation for these archaeological hotspots. Caribou herds travel to ice patches in the summer heat in order to cool down and escape from insects, providing an ideal hunting ground for ancient hunters (Figure 1). Not surprisingly, the artifacts recovered from ice patches are almost exclusively hunting tools such as projectile points and dart shafts (Hare 2011: 20). The large quantities of black material at the base of ice patches are further evidence that it was caribou that drew people to the ice patches. They were recognized by the man who first discovered an ice patch artifact in 1997 as “the largest concentration of caribou dung he had ever seen” (Hare 2011: 6).

Even today, Indigenous elders can recall oral histories of hunting caribou on these ice patches. The Yukon Ice Patch Project works closely with many different First Nations groups because these archaeological zones are located across traditional territories, and “the discoveries have become a source of pride for local First Nations people” (Hare 2011: 5). Many local Indigenous people are actively involved with and very enthusiastic about the project, even going so far as to join archaeologists on the ice patches to help look for emerging artifacts.

Flying to these remote ice patches via helicopter, archaeologists are tasked with surveying them and recording the degree of melt since the previous summer. Archaeological work on ice patches does not require excavation.  Instead, it involves walking along the edges of the patch and the surrounding area looking for artifacts with the naked eye — no digging required! This ensures that any artifacts that have melted out of the ice will be spotted and brought to the lab for preservation and analysis. Some of the more fragile organic artifacts must be kept refrigerated to replicate the environmental conditions of the ice patch (dry and cold). One example is a 1,400 year old caribou hide moccasin found in 2003, making it the oldest known moccasin in Canada (Figure 2). However, most of the artifacts recovered from ice patches such as throwing shafts and dart points can be stored at room temperature. They are placed on trays in cabinets to prevent breakage and allow for additional examination.

Figure 2. Caribou hide moccasin. Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon (Hare 2011).
Figure 2. Caribou hide moccasin. Photo courtesy of Government of Yukon (Hare 2011).

Ice patch archaeology:

is conducted only in a few areas in the world where ice patches are found. Currently, there are ongoing projects in the mountains of Alaska, the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Colorado, Norway and elsewhere, in addition to the work in the Yukon. While Indiana Jones prefers to loot artifacts and destroy tombs, ice patch survey is an ecologically responsible and effective localized adaptation of archaeological practice, pioneered in Canada’s very own Yukon Territory.

Written by Nahanni Dynes  for Adventures in Pop Culture Archaeology taught by Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, Western University.

References Cited

Hare, Greg

2011    The Frozen Past: The Yukon Ice Patches. Government of Yukon. Retrieved from http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/publications/The_Frozen_Past_the_Yukon_Ice_Patches_2011.pdf

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