Visiting the Alaska Heritage Museum was hands down the highlight of my stay in Anchorage. The single room on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo bank – inconspicuous and easily missed – houses a treasure trove of artifacts and is free to enjoy.
Models of umiak boats, made from walrus or seal skin stretched over driftwood frames, sat next to 1000 year old harpoon heads and blubber hooks. There were baleen buckets, baleen sleds and baleen baskets. Many of the baskets had carved ivory starter pieces of the heads of marine mammals, as they’re seen from a kayak. Woven from thin strips of baleen, the baskets were light as a feather and seriously robust.
A collection of carved tusks caught my eye. Incredibly intricate maps, scenes and animals had been etched into the ivory, whilst others also had three-dimensional figures on pegs that slotted in to holes in the tusk. The curator of the museum, clearly very knowledgeable and with a mischievous air, opened up the display so I could take a closer look. “The people would have traded metal tools for carving these designs”, he told me, “and they also collected metals from fallen meteors”. Really? “And, apparently, squirrels’ teeth are incredibly hard”, he added. Wait, what? If trying to find fallen meteorites seemed crazily unfeasible, what were the chances of happening upon squirrels’ teeth? It only occurred to me later that whole squirrels – teeth and all – are easier to locate, but I’m still not entirely convinced.