For the Arctic archelogist there are no wondrous chambers full of golden chariots. He squats on a bleak, winblown slate beach, hands stiff with cold, chipping through gravelly ice that thaws an inch a day, to find . . . a silver of decorated tusk.
This particular archeologist studies the decorations and finds they are different from what he expected, in fact older, much older, not Indian at all but Asiatic. And if he weren't such a quiet person he would shout. Because what he discovered is positive proof that the Eskimos migrated over the Bering Strait.
Last night a select group of Arctic archeologists gave a banquet for that man. Dr. Henry Collins, the dean of them all, 56 years with the Smithsonian, at 80 still publishing, still talking animatedly about his experiences in the far north, still astonished at the energy and intelligence of the Eskimos.
"A verturesome people," he told a visitor to his office. "Inquisitive and genial and friendly. They're the most widely distributed race on earth, you know. Six thousand miles across the north of the continent. And one language. They're completely different from Indians. For one thing, they know how to cope with the white man."
There is a story about an Eskimo and an Indian fishing together in the Yukon when a plane landed near them. The Indian took off for the woods. The Eskimo ran straight for the plane, patted its fuselage and asked the pilot in pidgin English, "How much him cost?"
As late as 1926 the scientific party line was that the Eskimos were originally Indians who had moved north through Alaska. An opposing theory held that they were descendants of the reindeer hunters of eastern Asia who presumably had gotton so hungry for reindeer that they pursued them clear across the Bering Strait.
That same year anthropologists Ales Hrdlicka and Diamond Jenniss brought a few curiously carved trinkets from Eskimos, and in 1928 Collins sailed to St. Lawrence Island in the Strait hoping to find more of the same. Working a huge 18-foot pile of ancient trash, he dug up traces of the stuff, which he called Old Bering Style. But he also found another style, simpler, much later, for the art had degenerated through the centuries. He called it Punuk. He sensed he was onto something.
Returning to the western tip of the island in 1930, he combed the flinty beaches, digging two or three inches down each day as the summer ice thawed ("it's not so bad, it ensures careful work"), fighting off the mosquitoes whose existence in the Artic he still regards as an outrage against justice if not nature.
"I hit the jackpot," he said, "I found five separate levels in villages relating to the ancient beach lines, all in different styles. They were all in tandem, which is very rare (like Schiliemann's Troy), and the earliest was pure Old Bering Style, carbon-dated at 2,258 years old. That's about 280 B.C.
"Up till then everyone thought the Thule culture was the oldest Eskimo culture, but Thules appeared in the upper third of my sequence."
Further more, the earliest samples of human handiwork he had found were no, tentative scratchings but the peak of an art tradition, exquisitely incesed on bone and tusk, sophisticated in design . . . and just exactly like the work of early Siberians.
Today Soviet achelogists are digging in two village sites on their side of the Strait. Collins keeps in touch with them. There is no Cold War in Arctic science.
It is 20 years since Collins visited the far north, but his Smithsonian office is cluttered with it, from a 2,000-year-old walrus skull with tusks that he found made a fine seat while digging in the ice, to a photo of him bathing in the frozen sea at Cape Kialyak in 1929 ("It was the Fourth of July and it was so hot we decided to go for a swim, it was 45 degrees"), to an old picture of Eskimos in a boat towing a whale carcass. When he showed a slide of this to some Eskimo friends, a woman cried out, "Say, that's my father there in the middle, that was his boat!"
About those mosquitoes: Collins first heard of them from Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great Arctic explorer, concluded the man was a liar but found out for himself that the pests were only too real. They flourish in summer all the way to the ice line beyond which nothing grows, beyond which in Central North America there isn't even driftwood for fuel. (Eskimos there burn fat from seals which they catch through the ice.) Anyway, Collins and Stefansson becamfast friends.
"Stef was the last real explorer," Collins mused. "He went up there on foot, with a dog team -- and that's no fun, you know, you don't ride, you run behind most of the time -- and discovered the last large land mass on earth, above Baffin Land. Reporters always asked him if he'd been to the North Pole, and he always said no, he wasn't a tourist, but his wife had been. She'd flown over the Pole in a jet one time."
Also invited to last night's party at the Smithsonian Castle was the late Stefansson's former wife, Mrs. John M. Nef, who lives in Washington, as do Collins and his wife of 31 years, Carolyn. Other colleagues there included Danish archeologist Helge Larsen and Canada's W. B. Taylor, both of whom worked with Collins in the Canadian Arctic.