Most people probably imagine a desert or other warm climate when they imagine archaeologists sifting and troweling for artifacts that tell stories about past civilizations. But when H. Kory Cooper digs in the subarctic region of Alaska, that means breaking the ground just a few centimeters at a time so the dirt can thaw.
Excavating in the rocky and majestic Copper River Valley also means either dressing for the snowfall that is possible any day of the year at higher elevation or the occasional 80-degree heat. When the weather is pleasant, that usually means the mosquitoes are not.
Cooper is piecing together the details of the Ahtna people's past by examining copper tools that were used several hundred years ago. These tools, along with decorative items, are found at sites in the lower-elevation areas along rivers with abundant salmon resources where the Ahtna have lived for generations.
Copper, as noted by the region's name, is a plentiful mineral found in the rugged, rocky higher elevations around the valley. This metal is soft in its natural form and nuggets can be collected by hand without the need for mining tools and equipment. Long before Europeans and Euro-North Americans moved into the area, the Ahtna people collected copper. Because of its malleable properties, they could shape the metal into awls to help with sewing or knives or arrow points for hunting.
"Even though other researchers have made notes during the last few decades about copper tool use and its importance, we still don't have a basic understanding of how widely this material was distributed in relation to its sources," says Cooper, assistant professor of anthropology and materials engineering.
Thanks to a $512,950 grant from the National Science Foundation, Cooper will be able to investigate this ancient innovation among the various Ahtna communities, and neighboring groups in Canada, and examine how the use of this metal differed from region to region and changed over time.
Since 1995, Cooper has made seven trips to the area, which includes the southeastern corner of Alaska that encompasses Wrangle-St. Elias National Park. He will be making additional trips in the future as part of his research, including working with the Ahtna Heritage Foundation to develop educational materials to teach today's Ahtna youth about their ancestors' toolmaking.
Cooper wants the young people to have a better understanding of the metal that is part of their daily landscape and inspires their history and culture. Students, along with adult family members, will work with samples of copper, look at copper artifacts, and study copper samples under a microscope. Purdue graduate and undergraduate students will play a significant part in the development of this workshop and its goal to engage younger generations in the study of archaeology, science, and engineering. Additionally, the grant will help the Ahtna Heritage Foundation create exhibits at their new Cultural Center in Copper Center, Alaska.
"I'm trying to piece together a picture of when the Ahtna began to use native copper, who used it, and how far their technological innovations -- their tools -- spread in these prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies," Cooper says. "If someone could control this new valuable material, then it could translate into political power and prestige. In a few times and places, native copper also was used for personal adornment. When we find this evidence in the archaeological record, then it is a clue that something else was going on in these societies."