Prehistoric earring

Bone-carved items that researcher believe are prehistoric earrings are pictured in a photograph taken by Shaw Creek Archaeological Research. The items were found in a 2013 dig between Fairbanks and Delta Junction. The discovery was announced Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Barbara Crass, Director of Shaw Creek Archaeological Research

FAIRBANKS — Archaeologists say they unearthed one of North America’s oldest works of art last year at a site between Fairbanks and Delta Junction: two sets of fish-shaped bone earrings. 

Researchers found the matching sets of carved bones in the 2013 field season at the Mead Site, between Fairbanks and Delta Junction, according to Barbara Crass, director of Shaw Creek Archaeological Research. 

The group believes the carvings are one of the earliest known examples of art in North America. They came from a site that held stone tools and animal bones that dates from between 11,820 to 12,200 years ago. 

“Outside of a few beads there’s nothing else that age and artistic in the New World or at least North America,” she said. 

Researchers from University of Alaska Fairbanks and Shaw Creek Archaeological Research found the bone carvings in 2013. They didn’t previously announce the finding because they were hoping to find more in the 2014 field season, she said. They didn’t find more. The finding hasn’t yet been the subject of any scholarly articles. The group plans to do further research on the pieces, she said.

The carvings may appear primitive to the contemporary eye, but would be considered sophisticated for their time period. The news release announcing their discovery describes the smaller carvings as “elegant inverted V-shapes designed for suspension. They have tiny serrations on the interior edges of the V and delicate cross-hatching along the outer edges, possibly representing stylized bird tails.” 

The larger pair is similar in structure but appears cruder or incomplete. 

The Mead Site has been the site of annual excavations since at least 2009, Crass said. It’s owned by Shaw Creek Archaeological Research and was purchased for the purpose of archaeological research. 

The discovery tells researchers more about early-human life in the region as well as about the continued potential for the Mead Site, Crass said.

“It means they had time to decorate things and do ornamentation,” she said. “It also means that this may have been a little more than a hunting camp.”

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.