National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
Prehistoric Transport of Obsidian
Photo by Jess Peterson
Archeologist Chris Houlette Evidence of stone tool manufacture and use is unique geochemical signature (chemical element
records information about a common in the prehistoric archeology of the central makeup) that is consistent to that source. Thus, when
prehistoric site near Kurupa Brooks Range; in contrast, arctic and sub-arctic an obsidian artifact is found in an archeological
Lake, Gates of the Arctic conditions have largely prevented the preservation site, it can be chemically analyzed to determine
National Park and Preserve,
of organic materials, such as bone or wood. To the original geologic source, a technique known
where chert artifacts were
study the behaviors of the region’s past inhabitants, as sourcing. Through sourcing, archeologists can
found in 2009 (orange ﬂags
indicate locations). Obsidian archeologists often turn to the analysis of lithic track or reconstruct certain prehistoric behaviors,
artifacts were found at Kurupa artifacts (items made of stone), such as obsidian tools. namely people’s movements and/or their interactions
Lake during excavations in the (through trade and exchange) with other people.
1970s, but not in 2009. Tools made from obsidian—a naturally occurring
volcanic glass—can be extremely sharp. Obsidian Batza Tena obsidian—source and transport
artifacts, including sharp-edged projectile points or Although there are no known geologic obsidian
knives, are frequently found in archeological sites in sources in Gates of the Arctic, the primary obsidian
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. source in prehistoric Alaska lies only 56 miles (90
km) south of the park. The Batza Tena source
In 2009, as part of a larger study known as the Alaska (which means “obsidian trail” in the local Koyukon
A blade made from Archeological Obsidian Database Project, Chris Athabaskan dialect) is located near Indian River, a
Houlette—an archeologist with the University of tributary of the Koyukuk River.
obsidian can be
Alaska Museum of the North—hoped to address
sharper than a two questions related to obsidian sources and Ethno-historic accounts from the past two centuries
modern surgical steel artifacts at Gates of the Arctic archeological sites: (1) describe how interactions between Eskimo and
What obsidian source materials were used by past Athabaskan populations in the region vacillated
scalpel. inhabitants of Gates of the Arctic? and (2) How were between peaceful trade and hostile warfare. Batza
these materials transported through the region? Tena lies within Athabaskan territory, yet obsidian
artifacts sourced to Batza Tena are found throughout
Obsidian sources Gates of the Arctic, well into Eskimo territory. Batza
Obsidian is restricted to areas of past volcanic Tena obsidian was clearly a valued material, but was it
activity where geologic events have created outcrops willingly shared and traded, or perhaps guarded as a
of volcanic glass. Each outcrop tends to have a restricted resource?
Study methods Batza Tena sites and seasonal travel routes
Previous eﬀorts had sourced 252 obsidian artifacts Given the proximity of Batza Tena to the park, it is no
from Gates of the Arctic. In 2009, park archeologists surprise that, from the 130 sites analyzed, 718 of the
sourced 476 more obsidian artifacts from 38 obsidian artifacts (red dots on map below) matched
Photo by Chris Houlette
diﬀerent sites—some discovered during ﬁeld work, the signature for Batza Tena. However, 11 artifacts
others borrowed from museum collections. The from nine park sites had obsidian signatures that are
increased sample size improved the ability to analyze known archeologically, but do not match any known
obsidian sites spatially, and increased the chances to geological source (black dots).
identify rare obsidian sources.
The presence of obsidian from unknown sources
Houlette mapped the distribution of obsidian suggests that past occupants knew more about the
artifact sites throughout the Gates of the Arctic resources of the Gates of the Arctic region than even
landscape for further analysis using Geographic modern geologists and archaeologists do. Hopefully,
Information System (GIS) technology. Ethno- additional obsidian data will better deﬁne the
historic accounts describe how travel in the region distribution of the artifacts, which may help identify
Photo by Jeff Rasic
diﬀered by seasons: in summer people followed the geologic source.
open ground and ridgelines avoiding open water
and heavy brush, while in winter frozen rivers
acted as highways. Using this information, along
Photo by Chris Houlette
with environmental data such as elevation, slope,
Field work gathered more
presence of ground water, and vegetation cover,
obsidian artifacts from pre-
Houlette modeled possible summer and winter
historic sites, like this one near
the North Fork of the Koyukuk. overland routes between the Batza Tena source
and the sites. He then compared these hypothetical
Chris Houlette analyzes the models to the routes known from accounts of trade A variety of new obsidian artifacts were found in
geochemical signature of an between Eskimo and Athabaskan populations during the Kobuk River region during ﬁeld work in 2009.
obsidian artifact. the 19th century. He predicted that the prehistoric The projectile point at far left is 2" (5 cm) long.
and historic populations traveled similarly over the
landscape. While these preliminary results cannot truly answer
questions of prehistoric trade and interaction, in
general, the sites with sourced obsidian artifacts are
Archeological sites with obsidian artifacts in Gates of the Arctic region, in relation to located along the ethno-historical travel routes (red
hypothesized summer (yellow) and winter (turquoise) travel routes that prehistoric
lines on map), supporting the hypothesis that people
peoples may have used for transporting obsidian. Known ethno-historic routes are
have used the landscape in similar ways for travel and
shown in red. Gaps in sites along routes may direct future searches for sites.
resource use during the past several thousand years.
Radiocarbon dating of a few sites in this study show
use of Batza Tena obsidian as early as 7000 years ago.
Indeed, the prehistoric peoples of the Gates of the
Arctic region, who transported obsidian and made
tools, may have used the same routes for considerably
longer than had previously been considered.
Additional sites, future obsidian analyses, and more
radiocarbon dates can help archeologists continue to
address these questions of prehistoric landscape use
and transport of obsidian.
This study was funded in part by a Murie Science and
Learning Center Research Fellowship from Alaska
Geographic through the MSLC, with additional
support from Gates of the Arctic, The Smithsonian
Institution Museum Conservation Institute, and the
University of Alaska Museum of the North.
For more information
University of Alaska, Museum of the North
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