Lithic Artifacts
from North of the
Arctic Circle


Tony Baker
September 9, 2008





I created this webpage to share my photographs of lithic artifacts from the North Slope of Alaska. The red area on the map indicates where these photographs were taken. But, before I show and discuss them, I want to tell the reader how and when I acquired them.

Overview of Eight Wonderful Summers
For eight years, during the months of June and early July, I had the extraordinary opportunity of performing survey archaeology on the northern slopes of the Brooks Mountain Range located in northern Alaska. Specifically, I was a member of a small team of five to seven individuals, BLM employees and volunteers, searching for archaeological sites in the most southern portion of the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska (NPR-A). I was one of the volunteers. The program ended after the summer of 2007 and I didn't realize until the summer of 2008 just how much fun I had had the previous summers and how much I would miss it in the future. Those summers were truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There are no roads in the southern portion of the NPR-A and therefore the only access is by helicopter. It is possible to land a small plane at a few locations but these are very limited in number. As a result, few people in modern times have penetrated this region of the world and the archaeological record is undisturbed. When one finds a site, it is pristine. Only the forces of nature have altered it.

Our normal mode of operation was to set up a base camp at the beginning of the season and then work out of that camp. In the morning our helicopter would fly us (teams of one to three individuals) to the field and then the teams would walk across the landscape searching for archaeological sites. The helicopter would then retrieve us at the end of the day. So, a helicopter pilot and a mechanic supplemented our small group of five to seven archaeological types.

When we located a site we would document it by mapping the significant artifacts with both distance and direction from significant landmarks on the site, and GPS locations. Additionally, we sketched the significant artifacts. Notes, maps and drawings were taken back to Fairbanks, but the artifacts were left on the ground where they were found. It was our opinion they were safer there than in a museum or someone's office.

During the process of recording a site, I would frequently photograph those artifacts to which I took a fancy. It is these photographs that I am sharing in this webpage. Over the eight years my cameras evolved from film to low quality and then high quality digital and this can be seen in images. I have modified many of the images by removing the background. However, I have left the background in some to give the reader a sense of the environment.

Steve Rinella, a writer for Outside Magazine, joined us in 2006 for a few days and then wrote an article about what we did on the North Slope. Check out Meet the Flintstones published in August 2007.

The Artifacts in the Images
The vast majority of what we found were lithics. However, on a rare occasion we might find a piece of a wooden sled runner or an old, steel soda-pop can that a pilot tossed out the window of his plane as he flew over. One time, we found a 150 year old Russian made double barrel shotgun that had survived in the alkaline soil. That said, the images in this webpage depict only lithics. Specifically, they depict the following types:

Points
      Mesa
      Sluiceway
      "Kobuk Bear Points"
      Misc.
      9 images
  13
    7
    8
Scrapers
Gravers
Preforms
Bifaces
Blades and Microblades
Cores and Core Tablets
  10
    2
  12
  19
    4
  22
106 images

Click on thumbnails and a new window will open with all 106 artifacts displayed in thumbnail fashion. I have sized the thumbnails so the artifacts are relative to each other in size. Click on the individual thumbnail and a large version of the image will open.

A quick glance at the number of images per artifact type would suggest that I didn't take a fancy to gravers or blades and microblades, since the associated counts are low. There may be some truth in this, as it applies to blades-and-microblades, but not so for the gravers. Gravers are rare on the surface of the North Slope as are all small artifacts. Much of the surfaces consist of shattered limestone, a product of freezing and thawing cycles, and the small artifacts fall into the cracks between the shatter. Therefore, when one excavates a site with this type of surface, the large artifacts tend to be on the surface and the tiny chips and small tools are found below the surface. Images I4 and J3 are good examples of these surfaces. The two images of microblades, U2 and U3, were unusual circumstances. U2 represented microblades eroding out of a slope. If we had been there a year or two earlier, or later, most likely they would not have been there. The ones in U3 were part of a concentration of microblades lying on solid soil. They probably represented a one time knapping event.

Discussion of Artifacts Types
Mike Kunz introduced the Mesa point type to the world in 1982. It was the first paleoindian point to be recognized in Alaska. With its lateral and proximal edge grinding it was said to look very similar to the Agate Basin point from the lower 48 states. Some people even said it was Agate Basin and the type had migrated north into Alaska. However, the Mesa type-site was a high, small ridge with many small hearths indicating a lookout station that had been used many times over the years. Most of the hearths dated around 10,200 RCYBP, but some dated in excess of 11,000. These dates are contemporaneous with and older in some cases than the Agate Basin dates to the south. A summary of the dates can be found in The Mesa Site: Paleoindians above the Arctic Circle (Kunz et al. 2003:20).

In 2000, Jeff Rasic introduced the Sluiceway point. It was very similar to the Mesa point with lateral and proximal edge grinding, but it was much larger. Some people said it look like a Mesa point on steriods. As the dates began to come in for Sluiceway, it became apparent that they spanned the same period as Mesa. In 2004, I suggested that Sluiceway might be Pre-Clovis in my Clovis First / Pre-Clovis Problem--Revisited 2004 webpage. Also there is a summary of Sluiceway dates in that webpage.

As our little team of BLM archaeologists continued to work the North Slope in subsequent years, we found more sites with Mesa and Sluiceway points commingled. Soon, it became apparent that the two points were being made and used by the same people. From that conclusion came the idea of a personal defense weapon. Mesa points appeared to be suitable as atlatl dart points, but Sluiceways were too large. So it was proposed that Mesa points were for hunting and Sluiceway were for personal defense. The Sluiceway could have been hafted in a long jabbing spear, which might have been their most effective defensive weapon against bears or other nasty Pleistocene critters.

The "Kobuk Bear Point" is in quotes because it is a name we gave to the type. They are a long, narrow point with a tiny stem and no grinding. We would stumble across two or three or these each summer, but never in a site. They were always found by themselves suggesting that they were lost while hunting. We found a few of these depicted in Slogging, Humping, and Mucking Through the NPR-A: An Archaeological Interlude (Davis et al. 1981) where it was suggested that they were about 1000 years old. However, they were never named.

The miscellaneous types are just that. They were the points we found that were not Mesa, Sluiceway, or Kobuk Bear Points. The reader should note that there is one fluted point in the group.

The scrapers depicted here are a mixture of all types. There are not more images of scrapers in this webpage because they are rare on the North Slope. The smaller ones tend to fall in the cracks of limestone shatter as discussed above. But, there is also another reason for the scarcity. The North Slope is rich in lithic material and nicely made end scrapers are actually a product of many cycles of use and rejuvenation. Since material was abundant, there was little incentive to rejuvenate a scraper so most never reached the recognized classic morphology. Hafting a scraper changes this dynamic since there is an investment in the haft. This investment is then a reason to rejuvenate the lithic portion and probably is responsible for the scrapers in images I1, I2, and J3.

The two categories of preforms and bifaces are intended to be different types of artifacts. However, at times I almost had to flip a coin to decide in which category to place some of these images. Technically, both are bifaces or artifacts with flakes removed from both faces. However, preforms are those artifacts that were abandoned in the process of making a point. Biface are all the others bifaces. One will notice there is a large number of preforms and this is because we found a number of Mesa/Sluiceway manufacturing sites. To me the preforms are just as interesting as the finished point, so I took lots of photographs of them.

Blades and Microblades give the impression that they are distinct categories. Yet, it is my opinion for working on the North Slope that they only represent extremes of a size continuum. As mentioned earlier, we found very few blades or microblades so this impression is founded on the cores we found. Especially the cores we found at one very unusual site. This site yielded only cores and tablets. There were no blades, flakes or other lithic artifacts, only cores. Images V2, V3, W2, W3, W4, X1, Y1, Y3, and Z2 depict all the cores, but one, that were found at that site. As you can see, all sizes of cores are represented. We made the gross assumption that it represented a one time blade making event. And, they took the blades with them when they left. Or, in jest, maybe the site was a blade core cemetery.

Acknowledgements
I want to thank the following people for making the subject eight seasons truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. First, there is Mike Kunz, the BLM archaeologist over the lands to the North of the Brooks Range. Mike offered me the invitation to participate in this project. Connie Adkins of the BLM provided great companionship, food, and music. Mystery Man, who was my partner every season, taught me most of what I know about the Arctic. During the last couple of seasons we were joined by Dale Slaughter who taught me about recent Arctic archaeology. I was kept safe while flying around the countryside by Mel Campbell and the other helicopter pilots and mechanics.

Each summer we had one college student volunteer, always female, who kept us old men and women on our toes. These individuals made life very enjoyable. On the other hand, it probably was dullsville for them since the rest of us were all over 50 years.

Finally, I want to thank the other BLM employees who worked in the Fairbanks office and warehouse. They helped me through the government bureaucracy and still made me feel like I belonged.

References

Davis, Craig.W., D.C. Linck, K.M. Schoenberg, and H.M. Shields
1981   Slogging, Humping, and Mucking Through the NPR-A: An Archaeological Interlude. Occasional Paper No. 25. Anthropology and Historic Preservation, Cooperative Park Studies Unit, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. On File at National Park Service, Anchorage.

Kunz, Michael L.
1982  The Mesa Site: An Early Holocene Hunting Stand in the Iteriak Valley, Northern Alaska. Anthropological papers of the University of Alaska 20 (1-2):113-122.

Kunz, Michael L., Michael Bever, Constance Adkins
2003  The Mesa Site: Paleoindians Above the Arctic Circle. BLM-Alaska Open File Report 86.

Rasic, Jeff T.
2000  Prehistoric Lithic Technology At The Tuluaq Hill Site, Northwest Alaska. Unpublished Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington.


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