The research is difficult and the conditions are uncomfortable, but the results are amazing. Artifacts last seen and used by humans hundreds or thousands of years ago are appearing in the mud and water of melting glaciers in the northernmost reaches of the North America continent. That’s where University of New Mexico Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology James Dixon spends part of each summer.
“Ancient ice is melting for the first time and dating the artifacts allows us to determine the age of the melting,” Dixon said. “This research brings home the reality of global warming. All of the ancient ice has disappeared from several of the ice patches I surveyed a decade ago.”
Dixon began working in Alaska in 2000. He kept hearing about discoveries made in Canada in the late 1990’s. With the help of grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Park Service, he began to search. Every summer, Dixon and his graduate students spend weeks exploring in the mud at the edge of the ice patches.
The research video below gives a view of what Dixon and his research team see when they're in the field.
The rewards come slowly. “Ice patches and glaciers containing artifacts are rare," Dixon said. "We surveyed more than 250 glaciers and ice patches in several different regions of Alaska over many years. Artifacts have been found at nine or ten of these sites. This suggests that less than five percent of ice patches preserve evidence of former human use.”
This video gives perspective on the climate change that is part of the research.
Its dangerous work in small planes flying through fog and mist in the mountains, but Dixon says it is also thrilling. ”Discoveries of these rare artifacts are exciting because they are so well preserved. They have been frozen in ice for hundreds and often thousands of years and provide a glimpse into the ancient past seldom seen by archeologists. Artifacts made with organic material such as wood, bone and leather usually decompose rapidly and are rarely preserved in most archeological sites.”
Another video shows some of the technology used by the ancient hunters and discovered at the ice patches.
The phenomenon of artifacts found in melting glaciers is now so widespread it has become a sub-discipline in archeology. There have already been three international conferences and there are active research programs in Canada, Scandinavia, Switzerland, the United States, Russia and some high altitude regions in South America. The first issue of “The Journal of Glacial Archaeology” will be published later this year. Dixon is a member of the editorial board.
Later this summer, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology will hold an exhibit of artifacts found in the course of Dixon’s research.