Ceramic Sourcing and Social Networks

In the 2000 years before European contact in the 19th century, the people of Northwest Alaska experienced significant social and economic change.  For people committed to full-time hunting and gathering lifestyles, the development of large-scale subsistence whale hunting, intercontinental trade networks, and occasionally, extensive coastal settlements, is rare.  Although mid-to-late Holocene hunter-gatherers of Northern Alaska are generally recognized as having a complex social structure, the development of this way of life is not well understood particularly in areas away from the coast. 1-1941=2901

Previous researchers have pointed to the complicated system of social alliance and exchange networks that crossed the region in the 19th century as a key factor in the earlier development of complex social organization.  People could access goods and materials not available locally through exchange networks.  People or families with more extensive networks were perhaps better situated socially and economically, particularly when times were hard.  They could also have elevated their own status and wealth by controlling access to networks by other community members.  The questions guiding this work are:

1)      Did social networks play a role in the development of more complex social organization in Northwest Alaska?

2)      How extensive were past social interaction networks and did networks change over time in their structure and extent?  Why?

To address these questions, hypotheses about the structure and extent of past social networks were evaluated using ceramic source and typological data.


The nature and extent of past social networks were assessed by studying the movement of ceramic vessels across Northwest Alaska.  Ceramics from 17 archaeological sites dating to the last 2000 years were included in this analysis. In the summers of 2009 and 2010 a clay survey was also conducted in order to understand ceramic raw material availability and to link ceramic source data to geographic areas.  Sources reported by community members in oral histories and ethnographic literature were located and sampled along the Kobuk River, in the Kotzebue region, on the Seward Peninsula, and north of Cape Krusenstern.  Additional sources identified during the clay survey were also sampled.


To supplement the existing chronology, 14 ceramic samples were subjected to thermoluminescence dating.  Macroscopic and microscopic analysis of the ceramic assemblages (n=3772) was conducted to identify ceramic types.  A sub-sample of the ceramics was subjected to chemical (n=296) and preliminary petrographic (n=21) sourcing analysis, in order to identify ceramic source groups; a total of seven ceramic source subgroups were identified.  Ceramics in source groups 1, 2d, and 2e are likely produced from a southern source, while 2a, 2b, and 2c are probably from northern or central sources. Source group 3 includes too few samples to link it to a geographic region at this point.  A total of 30 clay samples were subjected to the same chemical sourcing analysis – Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis – as the ceramic samples.

Source and site map

The small number and size of ceramic fragments from sites more than 1000 year old prevented study of temporal trends in data.  Research focus shifted to understanding how ceramics were moving around the region – either with groups of people or between groups through exchange – and identifying geographic patterns in ceramic circulation.  Geographic patterns in ceramic circulation were correlated with ceramic surface treatment types indicating that ceramics were indeed part of regional interaction networks. The distribution of ceramics suggests coastal-inland relationships, as well as interior interaction networks between river valleys.

This is the first large-scale study of ceramic technology, production and distribution in Northern Alaska.  As such, this research is a unique and exciting contribution to our understanding of the role of social interaction in hunter-gatherer social evolution. Continued research includes expanding the geographic and temporal scope of the project, the inclusion of  mineralogical source data, and study of ceramic production and use.

Project Outreach and News

Ceramics and Social Exchange in NWAlaska Fact Sheet

Web info on my project at UAF and the CPS polar field services blog.

Elfshot Research Profile

Ceramics Research at UAF 

Ceramics and Social Networks: CPS polar field services blog