The survivor camp of the Russian frigate Neva

Cache of early 18th century Russian Axe Heads. Source: Dave McMahon via NSF.

Cache of early 19th century Russian Axe Heads, on Kruzof Island, Alaska. Source: Dave McMahan via NSF.

In late 1812 or early 1813, the London-built, Russian-owned frigate Neva foundered on rocks somewhere near Sitka Sound, in Tlingit territory on Baranof or Kruzof Islands,  SE Alaska, (map).  The Neva was a prominent ship of Russian colonial Alaska having, for example, taken part in the 1804 Battle of Sitka as well as making multiple round trips during the maritime fur trade hauling sea otter pelts to Chinese and Russian ports. The actual wreck site has never been found.  However, in 2012 archaeologists led by Dave McMahon and the Sitka Historical Society found a small historical-era site which they thought might be where the 28 survivors of the wreck sheltered for a month before being rescued in January 1813.  An intriguing and suggestive find in 2012 was an apparent cache of Russian made axeheads (above), suggesting further work was called for.  In 2015, a fuller excavation took place finding a remarkable assemblage “focused on survival”, not at all typical of early historic settlement sites.  So, while there is no smoking gun yet, such as crockery with the Neva’s monogram, there are plenty of indicators that this site is where the survivors sheltered in the not-entirely benign Alaskan winter while awaiting a rescue that might never come.

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Public talk in Portland, Oregon: The Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį Project

View of the glacial edge high in the Tatsenshini where Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was found in 1999.

View of the glacial edge high in the Tatsenshini where Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi was found in 1999. Photo credit: Al Mackie

I don’t usually plug public talks in cities that don’t contain the Shining Tower of Blog HQ, but I’m making an exception for this one.  BlogBrother Alexander and BlogSisterInLaw Kjerstin are speaking on Tuesday evening in Portland on the topic of “The Kwädąy Dän Ts’ìnchį Project, a Collaborative Study of a Man Frozen in a Glacier and His Belongings.

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More Mayne Island Museum

Unusual object in the Mayne Island Museum

Unusual object in the Mayne Island Museum, and two celts.

The above is maybe the most unusual object I saw in the archaeological cases in my visit to the Mayne Island museum.  As you can see, it’s labelled as a “large stone abrader” and may well be, I suppose.  It’s thin, an the reddish cast and sort of laminate structure of the rock makes me think it is schist, a material commonly used for flaked “slate” as well as for saws.  If it’s an abrader, I’d say it’d be a saw, since no sign (on this face) of any smooth abraded areas.  However, the general shape seems pretty elaborate for any abrader or saw from my experience. Maybe an elaborate ulu-style knife intended to be hafted across the neck.  Or, what I was wondering when I was there, maybe triggered by a false association to the shape, was something like the ground slate mirrors from the North Coast.  These would be polished to a sheen, then wetted, thus providing a reflection, and if memory serves (and it often doesn’t) were used in rituals more than for popping blackheads. But it doesn’t seem polished enough for that.  All the same, the shape rings a bell and rather than spend too much time looking through old Syesis’s (Syeses?  Syesisis?? ‘copies of the journal Syesis’ – phew) I’m throwing it out here for comment.

There’s a few other pictures form the museum below.

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Visiting Celts at the Mayne Island Museum

Mayne Island Museum and Gaol. Source: tumblr

Mayne Island Museum and Gaol. Source:

The only thing better than small town museums are small town thrift shops, but it’s close. I stuck my nose into the Mayne Island — a small island in the Salish Sea — Museum a day or two ago, which is housed in the former gaol  (that’s “jail” for my diverse readers).  These museums can be fun, but you do have to put on your “this place is historically situated” eyeglasses.  As in, there is usually an enormous preponderance of Settler material, and often there is a fairly reductionist, colonialist or otherwisely unfortunate depiction of First Nations. The Mayne museum doesn’t escape this altogether.  The First Nations display is probably 5% of the total, both in material display, and in the timeline presented (I didn’t take a picture but it is typed out pretty much verbatim here, compare to my pie chart timeline).  Anyway, I don’t want to focus on any negative vibes from the museum, they share the general issues of almost every community museum I’ve been to, but neither do I want to ignore them completely. To their credit they have a good section  the Japanese Internment Camps and the fate of Japanese-Canadian islanders during World War II.  Anyway, I took a few lousy pictures with my phone and I’ll share these below and in a subsequent post (since really who wants to read 2,000 words of pontification in one sitting?) We’re going to start with my favourite artifact type.

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Cod Bones and the Fish Trade

Cod bones (cleithra) recovered from the Mary Rose, with a stained modern example for comparison. Credit: Sheila Hamilton-Dyer

Cod bones (cleithra) recovered from the Mary Rose, with a stained modern example for comparison. Credit: Sheila Hamilton-Dyer

So the Upward Sun post yesterday was based partially on a combined ancient DNA and stable isotope analysis of ancient salmon bones. This triggered one of my own fossil memories of a cool, recent case study from England of all places.  Indeed, not far from my alma mater Southampton, which in some ways forms the intellectual antipodal point to Blog World Headquarters (now temporarily ensconced in this hellhole).  So the case study concerns tracking the 16th century trade or acquisition network of cod bones across the North Atlantic, based on a large comparative dataset of bones from many different region and a sample of cod bones from the Mary Rose, a sunken warship of King Henry VIII dating to 1545.  Relevance to the Northwest Coast is unclear but possible.  Bear with me, it gets a little long.  And I’m totally not a fish guy.

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Salmon fishing 11,500 years ago in central Alaska

Excavations at the Upper Sun River Site, Tanana Valley, Alaska. Photo: Ben Potter

Excavations at the Upward Sun River Site, Tanana Valley, Alaska. Photo: Ben Potter via

There’s been quite a bit of buzz surrounding a new paper by Carrin Halffman et al. documenting the use of  salmon at the Upward Sun River Site (more) which is on the Tanana River: a tributary of the Yukon River, but about 1,400 kilometres upstream from the ocean (and much further still from the paleo-rivermouth during Beringian times).  The authors report this as both the earliest evidence of salmon exploitation in the Americas, and the first evidence of Pleistocene salmon use.  The first I am on board with, the second I may quibble a little with lower down. (And this is all assuming we don’t consider eastern Beringia to be effectively part of Asia at this time!). But it’s a remarkable find and a very carefully researched and presented paper. [edit: be sure to read comments from Ben Potter below which tweaks some information in this post.]

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A cool new cave site near Tumbler Ridge?

Inside of Cave near Tumbler Ridge with members of Saulteau First Nation. Source: Mark Hume, Globe and Mail.

Inside of Cave near Tumbler Ridge with members of Saulteau First Nation. Source: Mark Hume, Globe and Mail.

Tumbler Ridge is a small coal-mining town on the eastern flanks of the Rockies, where British Columbia starts to resemble Alberta. It’s not a million miles, in distance nor in generalized setting, from Fort St. John (map), where Charlie Lake Cave remains one of BC’s most significant archaeological sites.  Charlie Lake Cave has radiocarbon dates of up to 10,500 years old (PDF), or possibly as old as 12,750 calendrical years or thereabouts. With interesting finds such as a basally-thinned projectile point reminiscent of a fluted point, and the deliberate burial of two ravens from the lower layers (PDF), combined with it’s location in the “ice free corridor” has made this site really significant for regional cultural history (PDF) as well as for larger issues in the peopling of the Americas debate.  (And see the new introduction/context to the Raven paper by Driver here).  The Cave was recently purchased by local First Nations, which is an interesting development with the goal of protection and developing a cultural tourism site.

Anyway, this post is not actually about Charlie Lake Cave, just to introduce the archaeological potential of caves in this general part of the province, a potential that is not really been realized yet. It’s cool then to see pictures of a newly discovered cave with some superficial archaeological findings near Tumbler Ridge, as pictured above and outlined in this good article by Mark Hume in the Globe and Mail.

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