Looking at polar science

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Don't forget your Swiss army knife!

In the eternal scarcity of the Arctic, small things can attain great value. Before traders brought the wealth of the industrialized world to the Arctic, you needed a hunk of the proper stone to make something as basic as an oil lamp. You needed a bit of flint to make a fire. You needed a small piece of chert -- a fine, hard-grained stone -- to make cutters and scrapers.

where did these guys get metal?And you needed metal for the really tough tools, like knives and harpoon tips. Iron made strong scrapers that were especially useful for making the grooves that divided large bones into smaller hunks that were fabricated into implements.

But until recently, metal was seldom found at Arctic archeological digs. A bit of copper here and a rusty trace of iron there, maybe the occasional knife or harpoon point. Until recently, archeologists assumed that metal was so valuable that it was used and reused until it literally turned to dust. Harpoon heads were fitted with new shafts and resharpened, and usable metal objects were passed down to the children.

The metal detectors
That analysis made sense, but it did not help archeologists, who lust for physical evidence (as opposed to, say, sheer speculation). Then in 1994, a team lead by James Helmer and Genevieve LeMoine of the University of Alberta found 288 iron and copper objects by simply using a metal detector. Where typical excavation reports once listed two or three metal objects, now "it's there in abundance," says veteran Arctic archeologist Allen McCartney of the University of Arkansas. "Now we realize that metal is very common."

The metal-working technology was primitive. Arctic people did not use heat, so metal was neither purified from ore nor alloyed with other metals to increase its strength. And they worked metal cold, hammering it into shape between stones, McCartney says.

The new-found abundance of metal has forced archeologists to reevaluate their views of ancient Arctic culture. Most of the reassessment reflects the effort to answer one simple question: How did Arctic people get the metal?


Sources of copper and iron are exceptionally rare in the Arctic. Copper seems to have come from two locations. Most of the iron came from Cape York, Greenland, where a large, almost pure iron meteorite broke into fragments while descending through the atmosphere thousands of years ago.

By analyzing isotopes -- different forms of an element -- scientists can trace metal artifacts back to their sources. This analysis shows that Cape York iron was used through much of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic, indicating that it was carried by a widespread trade network. It's possible, McCartney speculates, that the metals were traded at early versions of the summer trading fairs that Arctic peoples held until recently. "If they are dependent on something that's traded a thousand miles or more ... you begin to appreciate the necessary social relationships among these people," McCartney says. "They were not isolated and using solely their own resources. The metal shows they were connected to everyone else." (This deduction shows how archeologists use durable objects like metal, ceramic and bone to obtain hints about such non-material topics as social relationships and activities.)

Although it's impossible to know for sure, metal may have been traded from one group to another in so-called "down-the-line" trade. The metal may have been traded by long-distance peddlers, but McCartney observes that the territorial imperatives of Arctic peoples might have hampered such a trading technique.

Copper, a softer but still useful metal, originated at the Coronation Gulf-Coppermine River area along Canada's central Arctic coast. Other metal may have been traded in across the Bering Strait.

Whatever the details of the metal-trading relationships, they apparently were considered reliable by the Thule, a large group of early Arctic people. Starting around 1,000 AD, shortly after metal from the Cape York meteorite began appearing in the Arctic, these people began using iron in preference to flaking stone. (Flaking is a common technique for making sharp stone tools). "They gave up on flaked stone," says McCartney. And metal, rare though it was, remained the material of choice in the Arctic until the arrival of European traders, who discovered that metal tools were among their most popular wares.

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