James Dixon
James Dixon in the Arctic on a research trip in 2012. 
Credit: Kelly Monteleone

Many people think of North America and Eurasia as two worlds that were isolated from one another until about 500 years ago. However, people living in Asia and North America have exchanged ideas, technology, and trade goods, for more than 14,000 years explains E. James Dixon, director of UNM’s Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and author of the new book “Arrows and Atl Atls; A Guide to the Archeology of Beringia."   

The book, recently published by the National Park Service, tells the history and recounts the life-ways of the people who inhabited Beringia, a vast and rugged land stretching from Siberia, across the Bering Sea into Alaska and adjacent parts of Canada. Beringia was the major conduit for trade and the exchange of ideas and technology between North America and Asia.  “Arrows and Atl Atls” synthesizes knowledge from a vast literature, many archeological sites, and museum collections housed in Russia, North America and Europe.

“Writing this book has enabled me to look at cultural patterns, reflect on archeological problems, and to suggest some different ways of looking at cultural development and human interaction over time,” Dixon said.  “It is my hope that some of these ideas will provoke discussion among colleagues and stimulate future research by a new generation of Beringian archeologists.” The book sets this human story against the dramatic backdrop of soaring mountains, arctic seas, powerful glaciers, and places it within the context of climate change.      

“Arrows and Atl Atls” considers two new frontiers in Beringian archeology: underwater water archeology and glacial archeology.  Underwater research focuses on the search for ancient sites on the continental shelf stretching from British Columbia, under the Bering Sea, to northern Japan. Early people occupied these vast areas that were subsequently flooded by rising sea level.  “These submerged landscapes are lost worlds containing very early evidence of maritime adaptations in the Americas.  Locating archeological sites on the ocean floor is essential if we are to obtain a realistic understanding of the archeology of the Americas and early cultural relationships between North America and Asia,” Dixon said.  Satellite navigation and underwater technology now make it possible to search for these sites.  Dixon is currently leading a multi-year underwater research project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Glacial archeology is another research frontier in which Dixon has been a leader.  Since the 1980s, arctic researchers have recognized that glaciers have been melting and the extent of sea-ice is decreasing as a result of global warming.  Rare archeological remains such as clothing, basketry, and wooden tools exposed by melting soon decompose and are lost forever.  A race is now underway in arctic and mountainous regions around the world to locate, save, and interpret these rare perishable artifacts. Dixon’s research grants support four UNM graduate students working toward their Ph.D. degrees and one post-doctoral fellow.

View Artifacts and Video of Discovery

 Dixon will present highlights of his archeological research on glaciers at a members-only event for Friends of the Maxwell Museum on Friday, October 25 at 6:30 pm.  The event will feature an exclusive showing of some of the rare artifacts recovered from melting glaciers and a preview of “Archeology on Ice”, an exhibition that will open at the Maxwell in 2014.  Dixon encourages everyone to become a member of the Friends of the Maxwell Museum and join him for this exciting event.  Memberships can be obtained by calling 505-277-1400 or emailing Maxwell@unm.edu Memberships will also be available at the door the night of the event. 

Arrows and Atl Atls” is available at the Maxwell Museum Store.  All proceeds from its sale go to support UNM students and the programs of the Maxwell Museum.  The book is also available from the Alaska Regional Office of the National Park Service.