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Archaeology on Ice Coming to Marquette Regional History Center

Marquette, MI – Ancient ice is melting throughout the world and unique artifacts are emerging from melting glaciers. A team of researchers from the University of New Mexico and other institutions has been investigating glaciers in Alaska for more than a decade to recover these rare artifacts. The results of this research is featured in a traveling exhibit opening at the Marquette History Center in Marquette on Monday, October 7-December 28.

Most of the artifacts featured in the exhibit were found at small glaciers called “ice patches” located in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Ice patches attract caribou in the late summer months to escape the heat and insects that harass them. People who hunted them and other animals that visited the ice patches occasionally lost tools, weapons, and other objects that became frozen in the ice and preserved for thousands of years. The exhibit has been enhanced to explore the connection between climate change and archaeology in the Lake Superior watershed.

The research was led by Dr. James Dixon, former Director of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico who is now semi-retired and lives in Marquette. Speaking of the ice patches, he said, “As a result of climate change, annual average temperature in the arctic has increased and this has resulted in a decline in the size and number of glaciers. This has led to the discovery of artifacts that have been frozen in ice for thousands of years in glaciers throughout the northern hemisphere.”

Dr. Dixon will speak at the special exhibit opening reception October 16, 2019 from 5-7 pm at the Marquette Regional History Center. He will describe his research background, the inspiration for the exhibit, and the relationship between climate and archaeology. He will be available to guide tours of the special exhibit and answer community questions about the broader science of archaeology.

The research was conducted in partnership with the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, the regional Native American Tribal Organization near Alaska’s Mount Saint Elias National Park. Together they have found artifacts that are more about 4,000 years old, as well as artifacts dating to later times.

When asked about the contents of the exhibit Dixon said “It highlights the discovery of rare artifacts of wood and antler that are seldom preserved in other types of archaeological sites. The artifacts found at these sites include arrows, spear points, and the remains of a birch bark basket.” He went on to say, “Arrows were made from wooden staves split from carefully selected white spruce that was then tapered, shaped and notched. The discoveries reveal that people often used the feathers from birds of prey, such as golden eagle, to make the arrows fly straight and perhaps give them the homing power of birds of prey. The arrows are tipped with finely crafted barbed arrowheads carved from antler.”

Dixon also will speak about his work and the exhibit on December 12, 7-8 pm as part of the Science on Tap at the Ore Dock Brewing Company across the street at the Marquette Regional History Center. The Marquette Regional History Center will also host visiting school groups and the 4-H History Club to engage with the exhibit and encourage students to think more deeply about climate science and the long history of the Upper Peninsula’s unique environment.

The exhibit is scheduled to coincide with the History Center’s 7th Archaeology Fair on October 19, 2019. School field trips to the History Center in October will offer hands-on activities related to archaeology.

For more information contact the Marquette Regional History Center at or call 906.226.3571.

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