Ongoing exploration and development activities in the Arctic and on the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) require marine archaeological assessments. Current United States requirements are based on known archaeological sites, and predictive models for potential submerged archaeological sites. At present the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) Alaska office requires archaeological assessments for any area deemed to be potentially archaeologically significant.
BOEMRE guidelines have established that archaeological sites in Alaska may include prehistoric sites or historic sites fifty years of age or older. These historic sites may include downed aircraft, shipwrecks, submerged structures, or other manmade objects. The guidelines also provide for prehistoric site potential based on sea level low stands approximately 13,000 years BPE. Low stands along the Alaska coast typically align with the 60 meter bathymetric contour making much of the shallow Alaska OCS a high potential area for submerged archaeological resources.
Standard geophysical data is used to seek, and identify submerged archaeological sites in Alaskan and Arctic waters, just as it is used in the Gulf of Mexico Region. These data provide a glimpse into the history and prehistory of Alaska in a way unavailable on land. Previous studies focused on the unlikelihood of discovering unidentified submerged cultural resources in Alaska and the Arctic. Recent discoveries throughout the northern latitudes, however, have proven that the potential for intact, undocumented sites is highly likely on the Alaskan and Canadian OCS.
This paper explores the potential for submerged cultural sites in Alaskan waters, recent discoveries in the Arctic region, and the potential for future unanticipated archaeological discoveries in northern waters.
Several misconceptions seem to surround Arctic underwater archaeology. The first of misconception involves the Bering Land Bridge and the image of a narrow strip of land above the Bering Sea on one side and the Arctic Ocean on the other with people and animals moving in opposite directions. Certainly the existence of the Bering Land Bridge has been well documented by geologists and archaeologists alike. The bigger issue is the ability of the Land Bridge to provide a transit route into new hunting territory. For several decades archaeologists have deliberated over whether or not there was more than a single migration into the western hemisphere via the Bering Land Bridge, but current research demonstrates there were several waves of migration into the western hemisphere. These migrations likely occurred through a variety of means including the Bering Land Bridge, small boats arriving on the Pacific coast, and potentially even small boats arriving from the European continent on the Atlantic coast in the prehistoric past.
The second misconception is that ice has destroyed any remnants of past cultures, but recent discoveries in the Canadian Arctic have proven this belief wrong. Research by Parks Canada supports the idea that there is less damage from the ice on submerged cultural resources than there is from the rapid freezing and thawing cycles which are eroding the headlands and beaches in the Arctic at a rapid rate. Indeed, shore-fast ice may very well provide some of the best protection for submerged cultural resources in Alaska. Seasonal ice movement may as well provide some small protection to submerged sites by either pulling sites into deeper water, or by depositing fine sands and gravels over the sites as the ice rafts move away from shore.