Place

Wales Sites National Historic Landmark

A grassy mound on the tundra with a black rock ridge on the horizon and a sunny sky.
The Kurigitavik Mound Site and Wales Site National Historic Landmark, Alaska

NPS/RHood

Quick Facts

Cape Prince of Wales, the westernmost point of land on the North American continent, forms the western tip of the Seward Peninsula and the eastern edge of the Bering Strait. The Wales sites are strategically located at the point where the Russian mainland lies within reach by umiak (a large Inupiaq skin boat) from North America, about 68 miles. In the past, Wales was the hub through which people, their material culture, and ideas would have passed from Siberia to Alaska since the submersion of the Bering Land Bridge by the Bering Sea.

The Wales Sites National Historic Landmark is made up of two archaeological sites that spans the period from the Birnirk culture--the earliest recognizable manifestation of modern Inupiaq culture in Alaska--to the present Inupiaq residents of the modern settlement of Wales, Alaska (Wales, Alaska, is originally known as Kiŋigin in Inupiaq). People have been living in Kiŋigin, Wales, Alaska since at least 500 A.D.

When the Wales sites were first designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1962 it included three archeological sites, the Kurigitavik Mound site, the Hillside site, and the Beach Mound site. Since then, the Beach Mound site has eroded into the Bering Sea and no trace remains.

The Wales sites hold an important place in the history of Arctic archeology. It was at the Kurigitavik site, the Hillside site, and on the Diomede Islands in 1926, that the archeological excavations of Diamond Jenness from the National Museum of Canada brought to light the first evidence of the successive stages of precontact Inupiat culture in northern Alaska. This work represented the first systematic archeological investigations in Alaska north of the Aleutian Islands.

Henry Collins, who worked for the Smithsonian Institute, continued the archeological excavations at Wales in 1936. His findings represented another great advance in the documentation of Alaskan precontact history. The Kurigitavik site was identified as the first Thule material culture site studied in Alaska. Prior to this new discovery in Alaska, archeologists had identified the Thule culture in the Central Canadian Arctic and had postulated an Alaskan origin for it. At the time it was only a hypothesis that Thule culture had developed in Alaska and then spread east by at least a thousand years ago. However, until the discovery of Thule at the Kurigitavik site, there were no known Thule sites in Alaska.

Collins’ work at the Kurigitavik site also produced stratigraphic evidence that he believed to be a confirmation of the transition between Birnirk culture and Thule culture in Western Alaska. Collins felt that the Birnirk-Thule relationship was shown by the distribution of harpoon heads and ceramics in the site’s midden. The midden’s stratigraphy contained Birnirk artifacts at the base, a Birnirk to Thule transitional phase in artifacts in the middle levels, and Thule artifacts in the upper levels of the site. Collins also saw influences on the Thule material at the Kurigitavik site from the Punuk archeological culture of St. Lawrence Island.The presence of Birnirk, Thule, and Punuk artifacts at the Kurigitavik site, which are not found in the Canadian Thule cultural record, were interpreted by Collins as evidence that the eastward migration of Thule culture must have originated from some point farther east, such as the Point Barrow area.


Additional Information

Toward an archaeology of late prehistoric Eskimo bands in coastal northwest Alaska, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2013, by Roger Harritt

Variations of late prehistoric houses in coastal northwest Alaska: a view from Wales, Arctic Anthropology, 2010, by Roger Harritt

Henry B. Collins at Wales, Alaska 1936: A Partial Description of Collections, by Don E. Dumond, with sections by Henry B. Collins, in Arctic, 2004, by Peter Schledermann

Archaeological Excavations at Bering Strait by Henry B. Collins, 1937 in Explorations and Fieldwork for the Smithsonian Institution in 1936, pp.63-68.

Outline of Eskimo Prehistory, 1940 in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 100:533-92.“Archaeological Investigations in Bering Strait, 1926” by Diamond Jenness, 1928 in the Annual Report to the National Museum of Canada for 1926. National Museum of Canada Bulletin 50:71-80.

“Archaeology of the Central Canadian Eskimos, the Thule Culture and Its Position within the Eskimo Culture” by Therkel Mathiassen, 1927 in the Report of the 5th Thule Expedition, 1921-24, 4(1 and 2).

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Last updated: August 16, 2021