Birnirk Prehistory and the Emergence of Inupiaq Culture in Northwestern Alaska

The project Birnirk Prehistory and the Emergence of Inupiaq Culture in Northwestern Alaska, Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives  is a multidisciplinary program of research for three years (2015-2018) to explore human interaction, settlement history, climate and landscape dynamics in relation to the Birnirk archaeological complex at AD 1000. Inter-related and integrated analytical approaches involving cultural and physical anthropology, archaeology and paleoecology form a framework for studying past social networks, subsistence systems and technology, and to understand the impact of climate and resource availability on peoples activities, decisions and movements during this period of change in the Arctic. The project builds on the research conducted from 2009-2011 at the site through the Human Response to Climate Change at Cape Espenberg Project.  Project activities include continued excavation of several features at Cape Espenberg (from site KTZ-304), as well as an expanded analysis of recovered materials. The first field season of the project was carried out in summer 2016 and a second season of work is planned on site in 2017.

The international  team includes researchers and students from Portland State University, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Université de Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne, University of Kansas, and University of Colorado at Boulder.  The research team is working closely with the community of Shishmaref; together we will learn about Kigiqtaamiut ways of knowing and integrate local perspectives with the practice and scientific basis of archaeology, anthropology and paleoecology to extend knowledge of the origin of Inupiaq people and the development of its culture.


Excavations at Cape Espenberg, summer 2016 (Photo by Katelyn Braymer).


Anderson’s work on the project is focused on analysis of ceramic materials.  Prior analysis of northwestern Alaska ceramics showed the existence of specific geochemical groups and the uniqueness of some decorative types and clay sources to Inuigniq and several other northern Seward Peninsula sites. These ceramics spread to other parts of northwest Alaska through interaction networks that were active over at least the last 1000 years. Most of the KTZ-304 ceramics cannot be assigned to known regional geochemical groups. This suggests that KTZ-304 Birnirk occupants either 1) imported ceramics from a region outside northwest Alaska or 2) used clay sources from outside of northwest Alaska.

This question will be explored through additional sourcing and technological analysis of KTZ-304 ceramic collections. Additional source data will shed light on Birnirk sphere of influence and help address the question of continuity and change over time through comparison with later Thule ceramics at the site and at other locations across northwest Alaska. Furthermore, comparison of KTZ-304 Birnirk ceramic technology to that of the Birnirk type site in Barrow, will help define who the Birnirk culture was and how it contributed to later Thule culture. Both petrographic and residue data will be analyzed to characterize Birnirk ceramic technology and to link ceramic use to other subsistence data. Limited ceramic mineralogical and geochemical sourcing will be carried out to further refine the nature of ceramic interaction networks between KTZ-304 and its surroundings.


Birnirk ceramic material in situ (Photo by Katelyn Braymer).