Category Archives: alaska

These Outer Shores: A special edition of BC Studies

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 7.47.48 PMThe regional journal BC Studies has a new special issue out focused on local archaeology. Entitled These Outer Shores, the edition is available for a reasonable price (20$) and two of the articles plus the forward are already open access, with the rest to follow in a couple of years.  The publisher’s blurb gives a good sense of the edition:

Guest Edited by Alan D. McMillan and Iain McKechnie, These Outer Shores presents recent archaeological research along the outer coast, from southeast Alaska to the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. The authors challenge the long-held perception of the western edge of British Columbia as “peripheral” or “remote,” removed from major cultural developments emanating from more interior locations. Instead, recent fieldwork and analyses document a lengthy and persistent occupation of the outer shores over the past 13,000 years. Using a variety of modern approaches and techniques, the authors examine such topics as changing sea levels, human settlement history, fish and shellfish harvesting, whaling, and the integration of Indigenous oral history with archaeology.

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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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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 adn.com

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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Mercury Rising

Excavations at the Mink Island site, XMK-164., Katmai, Alaska. Source: ADN.com

Excavations at the Mink Island site, XMK-164., Katmai, Alaska. Source: ADN.com

Some news just puts the fear of Cod into you. For example, there’s an interesting study from earlier this year which suggests that rising sea levels in the Alaskan middle Holocene (in the study: roughly 7,000 to 4,000 years ago) released methyl mercury compounds into the nearshore environment (Open Source paper by Maribeth Murray et al., 2015). These then accumulated in fish, specifically Pacific Cod, Gadus macrocephalus, and presumably also in other species which predate upon these cod, such as humans. It’s an interesting preliminary study, but before you think, “Oh My Gadus, Ancient Alaskans were Mad Hatters running amok with mercury-induced neuropathy”, there are some important details to consider.

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The Nunalleq Site Fieldwork Blog

Collection of amber beads from the Nunalleq Site. Source: Nunalleq Blog. https://nunalleq.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/artefact-of-the-day-147/

Collection of amber beads from the Nunalleq Site. Source: Nunalleq Blog. https://nunalleq.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/artefact-of-the-day-147/

One of the benefits of running this blog is I get to decide what counts as Northwest Coast Archaeology, and today I’m including the amazing Nunalleq site in SW Alaska. Strengthening my claim this belongs to the NW Coast is that the indispensable Dr. Madonna Moss of U. Oregon has been working there lately – which makes it NW Coast, right? Q.E.D.  Anyway the project has been running for about five years, and their blog for three, so there is lots to read up on, and see.  The site, lying in Yup’ik territory, contains deposits (house and otherwise) up to around 2,000 years old and has been rapidly eroding of late.  What started as a salvage project quickly turned into a major effort as deposits of incredible richness were encountered, with preservation enhanced by frozen soil/permafrost.  I’m currently in a fairly remote spot with slow internet and bandwidth constraints, so I am just going to link to a few highlights of the blog and let you explore the rest.

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Stone Foundations and Tent Platforms in NW Coast Archaeology

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation near Juneau, Alaska.  Source: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

Tlingit house with stone wall foundation. “Photograph of a Taku village homes, photo likely by Partridge, circa 1887. Village site was located on the mainland across from Douglas Island, south of present-day Juneau”: SHI Archives, Richard Wood collection. http://goo.gl/hH9Pfl

We’re a little obsessed with wooden architecture in the NW Coast archaeology world – with good reason, I guess, since monumental wooden houses are such a prominent feature of the recent past. I suppose we sometimes stereotype these houses a little – a point some commenters made in the Houses on Stilts post here a while back – we think: “large rectangular house squatting in midden supported by giant house posts.” Not always the case, certainly not through time.

In general, we may underestimate large scale constructions in stone.  Burial cairns and mounds (one of Darcy’s consists of 18 dump-trucks worth of soil), rock wall defensive sites, trench embankments, canoe runs, fish traps, and of course, clam gardens, all involved massive deployments of stone, with associated labour investments and creation of a durable built environment. Anyway, we’ve recently been running into enigmatic rock structures on the central coast and Quadra Island, and in particular, the possibility of dwelling structures partially based on stone walls.  So it’s quite cool to run across the picture above from the SHI photo collections, showing a Taku Tlingit house from the historic period, sitting on a platform which has a stone wall as a foundation.

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Alaskan Fish Weir Photos

Screen shot from video of men building a fish weir near Atka, ca. 1946.  Click to see video.  Source: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg11/id/37038/rec/36

Screen shot from video of men building a fish weir near Atka, ca. 1946. Click to see video. Source: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg11/id/37038/rec/36

So, still rustling around the weird world of weirs.  The online Alaskan archives have quite a few interesting examples – and, kind of remarkably, a video showing the construction of a weir near Atka, which is on the Aleutian Islands.   The trap in the video is pretty similar to a couple of other Aleutian ones in the collection, which I’ll talk about below. It’s really cool to not only see a more-or-less traditional trap being built (look at the rocks being casually dropped down by the wooden fence!) but the photos also show weirs actually in use. There’s probably a lot to learn from these pictures – as any introductory textbook in archaeology will tell you, the more we know about the behavioural context of a given site type, the more we can reliably infer the cultural context when presented only with the archaeological remains.

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