Every artifact in a museum tells a story. Every painting once was the focus of an artist being inspired to put paint on a brush. Every mineral was formed somewhere within the Earth. Every spear point was crafted by a man or woman, probably working in a special spot set aside for the task. Where did they find the raw material? Or was it a traded commodity? These are the stories museums try to answer because these stories create links from the past to the present. From the person who sat and crafted that spear point to the child who wanders through a museum, fingers on the glass, gazing at its wonders.
Often the items in a museum are silent. Parts of the story get lost along the way, and the artifact becomes quiet, with only a short description in a catalog, noting the type of stone and perhaps the name of the person who found it.
This past month, Sam Coffman, Research Archaeologist at the UA Museum of the North, visited the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum at Prince William Sound College and brought with him a technology to help give some of our artifacts a voice. Part of his research includes the non-destructive portable X-ray Flourescence (pXRF) geochemical sourcing of different materials, specifically rhyolite and obsidian. Over the course of two days, Sam painstakingly aimed the hair dryer-sized ray gun and scanned 53 spear points, in situ in their displays, which were either obsidian or rhyolite. Each scan took several minutes and resulted in a computer readout of all the elements and their percentages in or on that point. He then compared these elemental signatures “to known and existing data for obsidian sources located in the Russian Far East, Alaska, and parts of the Yukon and British Columbia Providences of Canada.”
Elsewhere the technology has been used to identify the pigments used on Old Masters paintings and to analyze the elements found in ancient bones to help determine where people or animals were born, based on the ground water elements of possible locations.
According to the results of Sam’s testing and research: “The majority of the obsidian artifacts housed at the Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum in Valdez, Alaska are likely from obsidian sources located in the Contiguous United States and not from Alaska (or circumpolar north) obsidian sources. Despite this, three artifacts were manufactured on Alaska obsidian. The Group N designation for AOD-22202 is tentative, and based on distribution of known samples, only occurs in Northwestern Alaska indicating the artifact was likely collected from that region at some point . . .” One positive match was made to the Glass Buttes obsidian source located in southeastern Oregon for a single point (pictured). Did Maxine bring these with her when she moved to Alaska? Did she obtain them from the previous museum owner? How did she collect these, and what was her motivation? We may never know, or the stories may remain silent until new technology is developed.
If you are interested in viewing these and many more artifacts at the Whitney Museum, the museum is open daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and weekday appointments may be made during the off season (with the exception of University holiday closures) by calling 907-834-1690.