Blue glass beads in Alaska’s tundra | Polarjournal
Ten of these small glass beads, which originated in Venice and were valuable trade items centuries ago, were found in the tundra of the Brooks Range in northern Alaska. Photo: Kunz & Mills, 2021/American Antiquity

Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering North America by sea in 1492, but blue glass beads from Venice apparently reached Arctic Alaska decades before him. American archaeologists found the blueberry-sized beads during digs in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska and dated their discovery to the 15th century. The beads may thus be the first European objects to reach North America.

During digs in 2004 and 2005, the excavation team found three beads along with plant fibers and jewelry made of metal at Punyik Point which has great significance from an archaeological perspective. Today Punyik Point is uninhabited, but in the past it was a seasonal camp used by generations of inland inuit. Ancient trade routes passed by here and it was probably also a good place to hunt caribou. Archaeologists have been digging at this site for a long time. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, William Irving of the University of Wisconsin found two of these glass beads at Punyik Point.

At least ten of the small blue beads with a hole through the center, made in Venice, Italy, survived the centuries largely unscathed in the cold tundra floor at three different locations. Archaeologists Mike Kunz and Robin Mills recently unlocked the mystery of the beads in a study published in the journal American Antiquity, according to a press release from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In addition to the beads, archaeologists also found copper bangles, earrings, and other metal pieces that could have been part of a necklace or bracelet. Photo: Kunz & Mills, 2021/American Antiquity

The plant fibers wrapped around one of the metal rings found in close proximity to the beads allowed the two archaeologists to determine their age quite accurately using accelerator mass spectrometry. The carbon dating revealed that the beads must have arrived at Punyik Point between 1440 and 1480, years before Columbus even thought about his voyage. A result that stunned the two archaeologists.

“We almost fell over backwards. It came back saying (the plant was alive at) some time during the 1400s. It was like, wow!”

Mike Kunz, archaeologist at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska

With this result, later confirmed by similar finds at two other sites in the Alaskan Arctic, archaeologists knew these pea-sized objects told a great story. “This was the earliest that indubitably European materials show up in the New World by overland transport,” Kunz said.

By studying the history of glass bead making in Venice, they figured that the beads must have come from the lagoon city famous for its glass art. But how did the beads, which have not been found at any excavation site west of the Rocky Mountains, get from the canals of Venice halfway around the globe to a plateau in the Brooks Range?

In the 1400s, artisans in the city state of Venice traded with people all over Asia, and pearls were valuable trade goods at the time, used as currency. The authors therefore suggest that the “trade pearls” may have traveled eastward to China in a horse-drawn cart along the Silk Road. From there, “these early Venetian beads found their way into the aboriginal hinterlands, with some moving to the Russian Far East,” they write in their current study.

The pearls probably found their way from Venice via the Silk Road of that time to the territories of the indigenous peoples in the northeast of what is now Russia. From there, a trader probably took the pearls with him across the Bering Strait to Alaska. Map: Kunz & Mills, 2021/American Antiquity

After this great voyage, a trader might have stowed the pearls in his kayak on the western shore of the Bering Sea, as described in the press release. He then dipped his paddle and set off for the New World, now Alaska. Crossing the Bering Strait at its narrowest point, he had to navigate some 84 kilometers of open ocean.

Kunz and Mills believe the beads probably arrived at an ancient trading center called Shashalik, north of present-day Kotzebue. From there they were carried by people on foot, perhaps with a few dogs, deep into the Brooks Range.

At Punyik Point, someone may have strung the exotic blue beads on a necklace that they lost or left behind when they moved on. The tiny blue spheres then rested for centuries at the entrance to an underground house north of the Arctic Circle, waiting to be found.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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