The remains of a 650-year old birch
bark basket complete with stitching
holes, found at the base of an ice
patch in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains.
Photo by William Manley
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.
On a late summer evening a few years ago, a scrap of birch bark caught the eye of William Manley as he walked along the edge of an ice field in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. The geologist yelled to nearby archaeologist Jim Dixon and Ruth Ann Warden of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation.
“When I pointed it out to Jim and Ruth Ann, they immediately saw that it was something special,” said Manley, who works for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Dixon and Warden noticed stitching holes in the bark fragment that lay among recently exposed rocks and moss. After later dating the birch-bark basket, they found an Alaskan had left it at the site about 650 years ago.
The basket is one of many artifacts scientists are finding on ice patches — dying fields of snow and ice that are too small to flow like glaciers. These ice patches, located in the mountains of Alaska and Canada, are shrinking to reveal at their edges arrow shafts, barbed antler points, and other items that usually decompose before archaeologists can find them.