Dating and Digging Stratified Archaeology in Circumpolar North America: A View from Nunalleq, Southwestern Alaska

Paul M. Ledger, Veronique Forbes, Edouard Masson -MacLean, Richard A. Knecht

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Through the case study of the Thule-era village site of Nunalleq (GDN-248), this paper presents 14C dating results and perspectives on the issues associated with radiocarbon dating stratified archaeological sites in circumpolar North America. The objective was to investigate relative variation in the 14C age of ecofacts with the aim of establishing a hierarchy of dating suitability for Nunalleq that could more widely inform 14C sample selection on archaeological sites across the North American sub-Arctic/Arctic and Greenland. Owing to the complexities associated with interpreting and establishing the relative chronology of the deeply stratified sod deposits at Nunalleq, we adopted open area excavation and single context recording methods. This, we suggest, allowed us to eliminate stratigraphic complexity as a source of variation in 14C measurements and permitted an assessment of the taphonomic issues associated with dating different ecofacts. In total, sixteen samples, comprising two sets of eight different ecofacts from stratigraphically-contemporary, but spatially discrete, contexts were submitted for dating. In most instances, the 14C ages of ecofacts were statistically indistinguishable between the two contexts and support the relative chronological relationships established by excavation. Only Elymus arenarius (grass) manufactures and Heleomyzidae (fly) puparia produced different inter context ages, variations that suggest they are unreliable dating materials. As noted in previous studies, Phoca sp. (seal) and Oncorhynchus sp. (salmon) bone collagen demonstrated a strong marine reservoir effect (c. 700 14C yr.). Picea sp. (wood chips) were marginally older than seeds from edible berries (Rubus chamaemorus and Empetrum nigrum) and caribou (Rangifer tarandus) bone collagen, which provided the most consistent ages.
Original languageEnglish
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2016

Bibliographical note

The results presented in this paper were funded by a NERC Radiocarbon Facility grant (NRCF 1917.0415), while the wider project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/K006029/1). The authors wish to thank all the members of the excavation crew from the 2014 field season for their hard work in the challenging weather conditions of southwest Alaska – without their attention to detail this study would not have been possible. Additional thanks are also due to Qanirtuuq Incorporated for logistical support and warm hospitality in Quinhagak. We also wish to thank Kevin Edwards and Kate Britton, who read an earlier draft of this paper, and three anonymous reviewers for highly constructive criticism that helped us to improve the final manuscript.


  • radiocarbon dating
  • single-context recording
  • Arctic
  • Alaska
  • Thule
  • archaeology


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