The remains of an umiak, which is a type of boat made out of dried animal skin, were discovered among the recently acquired Birnik collection at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The remains have been dated at 1,000 years old, making these the oldest skin boat fragments in the Arctic North.
Jenya Anichenko, a researcher at the Anchorage Museum, identified the pieces during her trip to Fairbanks earlier this year to work with the Birnik collection; she has been researching open skin boats in the Arctic regions. She says that discoveries like this are uncommon because most found umiak remnants are unrelated in time.
"Skin boat assemblages are extremely rare in the circumpolar archaeological record," said Anichenko. "These pieces are unique because they all belong to the same boat and are 400 years older than what we've seen so far."
The Birnik collection is, by Anichenko's count, an umiak collection of 30 wooden pieces, ranging from small portions of baleen lashing to keel timber and cross pieces for the bottom of the skin boats.
The Birnik archaeological site is near Barrow and was first excavated by James Ford of the United States National Museum in the 1930s, but a full analysis was never published. Ford's findings, however, did list several boat findings.
It was a grant from the National Science Foundation that allowed three umaik samples to be radiocarbon dated, one side rib and two of the umiak's bottom crosspieces. The shorter of the two crosspieces is believed to represent the cross-bottom nearest to the stern or stem post. It is embellished with three oval ivory inlays held in place with ivory pins. Anichenko says these pieces were probably used for dispays or during rituals.
According to Anichenko, umiaks have always been important to the Inupiaq people.
"Boats were the most techologically advanced devices in all of the indigenous arctic societies," said Anichenko. "Umiaks contain a wealth of meanings, from arctic seafaring and subsistence to social organization and spirituality."
The Birnak collection's return to Alaska has enormous potential for piecing the past together and will support a vareity of studies and interests, according to Scott Shirar, the University of Alaska Museum of the North's research archaeologist.
"Now that this collection is back in Alaska and at the UA Museum of the North, researchers have the opportunity to access many untold stories just waiting to be discovered," said Shirar.
Contact Jessica Ridgway