The Swan Point Archaeological Site

Swan Point Photo
2013 Excavation

The Swan Point archaeological site was discovered by Alaska Office of History and Archaeology (OHA) personnel in the early 1990s and has been under intermittent investigation since. The site is located on a small hill in Shaw Creek flats in the Tanana Valley State Forest west of Delta Junction.

  • The Timeline of Swan Point

    • Chronological outline for cultural units in central Alaskan archaeology, circa 2016.

      Swan Point is a stratified, multi-component site with an archaeological record that spans over 14,000 years.It is the oldest well-documented archaeological site in Alaska and has been recognized by listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The cultural history for the Tanana Valley in central Alaska has been divided into five archaeological traditions plus the historic period (Holmes 2008; 2011). These traditions are associated with five environmental periods, the earliest being the Beringian Period.

      Swan Point
    • BERINGIAN PERIOD (ca. 14,500 to 13,00 cal. yr. BP)
      • 15,000 years ago, a global warming began and a climatic optimum, called the "Bölling-Allerød" was reached around 14,700 years ago. The earliest known archaeological remains in Alaska date to this time. A land connection still existed between Alaska and Siberia, and the landscape was open grassland and parkland, before the forest was established. Cultural Zone 4 at Swan Point (Excavation Levels >14) is unique in Alaska, in both its age and stone tool technology. Artifacts include: scrapers, diminutive lanceolate point forms, dihedral and transverse burins, and a distinctive microblade industry. The "Yubetsu" or "Dyuktai" microblade production technique is prevalent in the earliest materials, and suggests that a common culture was widespread across northeastern Asia, Siberia, and eastern Beringia (Alaska) during the Late Pleistocene.

        The term East Beringian tradition (EBt) is an archaeological term used to describe these earliest Alaskan assemblages, and includes the cultural materials from the Beringian and early Transitional environmental periods. The EBt is divided into three archaeological (cultural) phases. The EBt phases are delineated by radiocarbon dates, stratigraphy, and artifact assemblage and spatial patterns, and include Cultural Zones 4 and 3 at Swan Point. Cultural Zone 4 belongs to the warm "Bölling-Allerød" period and Cultural Zone 3 ends shortly after the harsh "Younger Dryas" cool period.

        East Beringian tradition cultural units and phases.

        EBt Phase 1: Swan Point Diuktai (CZ-4b), is dominated by microblade/burin technology and the use of tusk ivory and antler raw material. Recovered faunal remains suggest that mammoth, horse, bison, elk, swans, geese, and other birds and small mammals were hunted. Phase 1 hearths are defined by concentrations of burned bone, burnt residue, and soot stained artifacts. Our working hypothesis is that campfires were fueled by bones of large animals because of the scarcity of wood for fuel (B. Crass bone-burning reference). Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry was used to analyze concentrations of saturated Fatty Acid Methyl Esters (FAMEs) from burnt residues in hearths. The resultant FAME patterns are consistent with burning bones of large ruminants (e.g., bison, elk) as well as monogastric herbivores (e.g., rodents, hare, horse, mammoth). Phase 1 at Swan Point is dated between 14,200 to 13,800 calBP.

        Swan Point Ebt Phase 1, Cultural Zone 4b artifacts.

        EBt Phase 2: (CZ-4a) This phase dates between ca. 13,500 and 13,100 calBP and contains diminutive lanceolate biface forms unlike Chindadn/Nenana bifaces. This component is difficult to characterize because of the small number of artifacts recovered thus far.

        Swan Point Ebt Phase 2, Cultural Zone 4a artifacts.

    • TRANSITIONAL PERIOD (13,000 TO 9,500 cal. yr. BP)
      • During this environmental period the land connection with Siberia, the "Bering Land Bridge," disappears and the region undergoes animal extinctions, a changing climatic, and the beginning of forestation. Starting at about 12,800 calBP, the planet quickly returned to near glacial conditions (i.e., cold, dry and windy), and stayed there for about 1,200 years: this is known as the "Younger Dryas" event. This period is one of cultural development in Alaska that is independent from that in Siberia. At Swan Point it is distinguished by a variety of projectile point forms. Aspects of the Denali, Chindadn, and Nenana complexes can be found from this time. Cultural Zone 3 is comprised of Levels 9-12 at Swan Point.

        Swan Point EBt Phase 3, Cultural Zone 3b Chindadn type bifaces.

        EBt Phase 3: Chindadn/Nenana is defined by distinct bifacial point/knife technology and reliance on birds, small mammals, and fish. Phase 3 hearths contain hundreds and sometimes thousands of gastroliths along with tiny burned bone fragments of birds and small mammals. At Swan Point, Phase 3 has been subdivided into CZ-3b (12,800-12,200 calBP) and CZ-3a (12,000-11,400 calBP) on the basis of differences in bifacial morphology.

        Swan Point Ebt Phase 3, Cultural Zone 3a Chindadn type bifaces.

    • EARLY TAIGA PERIOD (9,500 to 6,000 cal. Yr. BP)
      • The boreal forest becomes fully established during this time. The earlier American Paleo-Arctic tradition is replaced by the Northern Archaic tradition. There is continued debate on the issue of migration of new peoples into Alaska and the recognition of an "Archaic" tradition. It may be more accurate to refer to this period as the Proto-Northern Archaic. The archaeology of this period is only poorly known for the region. At Swan Point this period is represented in Levels 7 and 8, and is assigned to Cultural Zone 2. Artifacts include lanceolate projectile forms, large side scrapers, and sub-conical microblade cores.

        Swan Point Cultural Zone 2 artifacts: a. sub-conical microblade core; b. lanceolate biface; c. lanceolate point base fragment; d., e. side scrapers.

        Swan Point Cultural Zone 2 artifacts: a. sub-conical microblade core; b. lanceolate biface; c. lanceolate point base fragment; d., e. side scrapers.

    • MIDDLE TAIGA PERIOD (6,000 to ca. 3,000 cal. yr. BP)
      • The local Tanana variant of the Northern Archaic tradition includes continuation of microblade and burin technology from the Early Taiga Period. Cultural Zone 1b artifacts at Swan Point (Levels 5 and 6) include large side scrapers, knives, notched and lanceolate projectile points, "Donnelly-type" burins, and block/tabular style microblade cores, often with rotated platforms.

        Swan Point Cultural Zone 1a artifacts: a. notched point; b.
        Swan Point Cultural Zone 1a artifacts: a. notched point; b. "fish-tail" notched point fragment; c.-e. lanceolate point base fragments; f., g. tabular microblade cores; h. side scraper; i. thin bifacial knife; j.-l. Donnely burins.

    • LATE TAIGA PERIOD (ca. 3,000 cal. yr. BP to modern)
      • The start of this period represents a continuation of the basic Northern Archaic tradition (Tanana variant) traits, with the eventual loss of microblade technology. Technological change around 1,500 cal. yr. BP marks the beginning of the Athapaskan tradition, which leads to ethnically recognizable Athapaskan groups. Cultural Zone 1a (Excavation Levels 1 -5) at Swan Point includes: antler arrow points, tabular and boulder spall scrapers, ground and pecked adzes, various scrapers, notched and lanceolate projectile points, and native copper tools. Also, small wedge-shape "Campus-type" microblade cores occur.

        Swan Point Cultural Zone 1a artifacts: a., b. notched points; c. adz fragment; d.-f. end scrapers; g. refit lanceolate point; h.-j. lanceolate point base fragments.

        Swan Point Cultural Zone 1a artifacts: a., b. notched points; c. adz fragment; d.-f. end scrapers; g. refit lanceolate point; h.-j. lanceolate point base fragments.

        The historic period is recognized by manufactured items such as glass beads, metal cans, and rifle cartridges.

        Examples of Swan Point metal artifacts: A. condensed milk can; B. .22 cal. (head stamps
        Examples of Swan Point metal artifacts: A. condensed milk can; B. .22 cal. (head stamps "F, C, H"); C. .22 cal. (head stamps "US, U, US"): D. .30-40 Krag (head stamp "W.R.A. Co. 30 U.S.G."); E. .30 cal. (head stamp "W.R.A. Co. 30 W.C.F."); E. .44 cal (head stamp "F C 44 REM MAG"); G. .44 cal bullet; H. grommet fasteners; I. tobacco tag, race horse logo; J. zipper pull, "TALON;" K. copper awl.

  • Suggested Further Reading

    • Holmes, Charles E. 2001. Tanana River Valley Archaeology Circa 14,000 to 9000 yrs. B.P. Arctic Anthropology 38(2):154-170.

    • Robert J. Speakman, Charles E. Holmes, and Michael D. Glascock. 2007 Source Determination of Obsidian Artifacts from Swan Point (XBD-156), Alaska. Current Research in the Pleistocene, 24:143-145.

    • Holmes, Charles E. 2008. The Taiga Period: Holocene Archaeology of the Northern Boreal Forest, Alaska. Alaska Journal of Anthropology, 6(1-2):69-81.

    • Kedrowski, Brant L., Barbara A. Crass, Jeffrey A. Behm, Jonathan C. Luetke, Angela L. Nichols, Alyssa M. Moreck, and Charles E. Holmes. 2009. GC-MS Analysis of Fatty Acids from Ancient Hearth Residues at the Swan Point Archaeological Site. Archaeometry, 51(1):110-122.

    • Holmes, Charles E. 2011. The Beringian and Transitional Periods in Alaska: Technology of the East Beringian Tradition as Viewed from Swan Point. In: From the Yenisei to the Yukon: Interpreting Lithic Assemblage Variability in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene Beringia, edited by Ted Goebel and Ian Buvit, pp. 179-191. Texas A & M University Press, College Station.

    • Potter, Ben A., Charles E. Holmes, and David R. Yesner. 2013. Technology and Economy among the Earliest Prehistoric Foragers in Interior Eastern Beringia. In: Paleoamerican Odyssey, edited by Kelly E. Graf, Caroline V. Ketron, and Michael R. Waters, pp.81-103. Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A & M University Press, College Station.