Ancient artifacts found in Tagish

Most dogs hunt for bones. But B.J Bayne’s Alaskan husky, Circle, is a little more picky. She likes attractive stones.

Most dogs hunt for bones.

But B.J Bayne’s Alaskan husky, Circle, is a little more picky.

She likes attractive stones.

And, on August 28th, she got lucky.

Climbing up a steep sandy bank after taking a dip in Six Mile River near Tagish, Circle came across a bundle of worked obsidian.

“I saw her stop and start sniffing at this black object on the bank,” said Bayne, a Tagish home care worker.

Sliding down to investigate, he found six pieces of stacked obsidian.

Two of the top pieces were loose and were about to slide into the river, he said.

“At first I thought it was some kind of mineral, then I picked up the second piece and realized it had been worked.”

Bayne took his find to Bill Barrett, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation who knows about rocks and artifacts.

“And he knew right away what it was, and government archeologists were contacted,” said Bayne.

“One of the things that struck us about it was just how large these obsidian pieces were,” said Yukon archeologist Ruth Gotthardt.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, it looks like a dinner plate.’”

Stone tools, like knives or spears, are usually something that can be held in one hand, she said.

“But these were pretty much bigger than anything we’d every seen.

“The original pieces must have been very large.”

 Although they aren’t sure exactly how old it is, the obsidian was found below the layer of White River ash, which means it is more that 1,150 years old, said Gotthardt.

It was actually discovered several inches below the ash, so it could be 2,000 to 3,000 years old, she added.

There are two known sources of obsidian in the area, one in Kluane National Park and one near Telegraph Creek in British Columbia.

But even in Kluane, Gotthardt never saw such large specimens.

“It struck us as unusual,” she said.

“And it was kind of fun, speculating that maybe there’s a source we don’t know about.”

Gotthardt plans to take a small chip from one of the stones and use an X-ray fluorescents technique to determine its source by examining the obsidian’s chemical composition, which is often geographically distinct.

“So you can sort of fingerprint the source,” said Gotthardt.

Talking with Art Johns in Tagish, Gotthardt may have discovered a third obsidian source in the region.

“Art said his father, Johnny Johns, had mentioned, years and years ago, when Art was a young man and not paying attention, that he thought there was a source on one of their trails,” she said.

“Art had never gone looking for it. And now he’s thinking, ‘Jeez, we should.’”

The obsidian probably ended up in the sandy bank during early trading, said Gotthardt.

Yukon First Nations traded obsidian with coastal peoples, in exchange for mother of pearl and dentalia, a sort of elongated, tube-like shell.

The coastal Indians were known for placing caches on the trail, stashing their stuff and then moving on to do more trading, said Gotthardt.

“People would do that, ‘Let me finish trading, then I’ll come back and take it with me.’

“But for some reason this one didn’t get picked up — maybe something happened to the fellow, or who knows.”

This was, basically, a cache of tool blanks, said Gotthardt.

The obsidian had not yet been shaped into finished tools.

“So we can’t tell if it was going to be made into knives, or scrapers,” she said.

But all of the excess had been trimmed off to lessen its weight for travelling.

This obsidian was bi-faced, or worked on both faces. And was the first bi-faced cache found in the area.

The coastal/interior trade has been well documented for the last 300 years, said Gotthardt.

“But it’s interesting to see how far back in time it goes.”

Tagish has always been an important place for people and trade, she said.

“And the area was checked 15 to 20 years ago and was on our inventory.”

The obsidian was found on Carcross/Tagish First Nation settlement land, and was given to the band.

“I really thought that since the band had lost so many of its own artifacts over the last century, it was only right they should have this,” said Bayne.

“And if I had kept it, what would it do? It would gather dust on the shelf and no one would ever get to see it.”

Government archeologists plan to work with the band this winter to develop a display for the obsidian.

“It would be nice to get it up in the band office where everybody can have a look at it,” said Gotthardt.

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