Tag Archives: historical archaeology

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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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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ASBC Victoria January Meeting: Tom Bown & Historical Archaeology, Tuesday Jan 21st

Please note the new location for this talk (below) – ASBC Victoria is no longer at the Pacific Forestry Centee

Tom Bown
A Trail of Empties

Tuesday, January 21, 2014,
7:30 pm

Cornett B129, UVic

Abstract: Global expansion from the 17th century on could likely be studied just by the trail of bottles left behind. Fortunately glass preserves well and, based on the style and method of manufacture, can offer some very precise dating tools. In an archeological context glass fragments are often the first indication of contact or trade with the outside world. They can also offer information about a site and the people who lived there. During the talk I will offer an overview of how to identify and date glass bottles along with some “hands on” examples.

Feel free to bring bottles of your own for possible identification.

My spies in the UVIC Anthropology Department tell me they are really happy to be the new host for the ASBC, and are very grateful to the Pacific Forestry Centre for their many years of hospitality.  Instructions and a map to Cornett Building B129, UVIC are below.

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Imaging of Yukon Shipwrecks

3-D Sonar Scan of A.J. Goddard historic sternwheeler from Yukon. Source: Montreal Gazette.

A year or two ago, the well-preserved wreck of the Klondike-era paddlewheeler A.J. Goddard was found in Lake Lebarge on the Yukon River.  The find (which is now protected) got a lot of attention because of the ghostly images (click on the very high resolution pop-up ones here) as much as the historical significance.  The wreck was recently in the news again because divers had found some vinyl phonograph records which had the potential to be played. Listening to the music of the dead crewmen of a ship evocative of the Cremation of Sam McGee would create close, perhaps emotional, connection with these poor unfortunates.

Being made of stern stuff (heh) what I am more interested in is the intriguing  sonar image (above) that accompanied the mainstream press coverage.  The phonograph is cool, but archaeologically the more significant development are the new technologies being used on wrecks in general and some Yukon wrecks in particular.

I found more images and a very short article at Wired magazine and they are worth a look, as is much of the background info from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), which includes a photo galleryEdit: you can view a nice video of BluView and OceanGate’s sonar model of the wreck here.

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Seattle waterfront archaeology

"Native American encampment on landfill, circa 1900, south of South Royal Brougham Way and east of First Avenue South." Source: crosscut.com

At the ASBC talk last night it was clear that major industrial development can still leave substantial and highly significant archaeological materials interspersed even within the boundaries of heavy impact – in this case within a few dozen metres of a major hydroelectric dam.  This reminded me of a recent story I read about downtown Seattle archaeology.  Due mainly to concerns about what would happen in even a moderate earthquake comparable to the Nisqually event of 2001, Seattle is planning to replace the Alaska Way viaduct – that multi-level highway which blocks the city from its own waterfront.  You can watch a video of a simulation of the collapse of the viaduct here – I am sure most Seattlers would like to be done with that uncivic monstrosity, but not, perhaps, so suddenly.  Ironically, the ASBC talk on Ruskin Dam was also a seismic upgrade project.

Anyway, the current plan in Seattle is to put a cut-and-cover tunnel in its place – similar to some of the tunnels recently built in Vancouver’s new Canada Line LRT.  Crosscut.com’s Archaeology-savvy reporter “Mossback” (Knute Berger) has two excellent articles on the problems likely to arise when you dig such a large ditch through dense pre-contact and historic archaeology.  The first article ran on May 11th, with the followup article on May 12th.  If you are truly dedicated, there is a 200 page overview (6 meg PDF) of cultural resource management for the project, though it largely focuses on historic buildings and it relatively vague.

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Capilano University Field School Blog

"At each logging camp a familiar discovery was a wood burning stove or oven. The one pictured {above} had stumped some former students of Muckle's in the past because the student who helped recover the stove had read an engraving on the side saying "To Jake". After pondering upon this curious inscription, it was realized that the "J" had incorrectly been read, and the whole etching had actually said "To Bake", commonly found on ovens." Source: http://archaeologyfieldschool.blogspot.com/

I noticed that the Capilano University Archaeology Field School, which just started a few days ago near Vancouver, has a blog.  So far there are three days worth of entries and it looks like it will be a lot of fun to follow along with the students who, under the direction of  Bob Muckle, will be continuing to work on the archaeology of historic logging in the Seymour River Watershed, which flows into Burrard Inlet.  Much of the logging was conducted by Japanese immigrants, making for a nice overlay of ethnicity and capitalism and material culture.

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Handmade Garnet Musket Ball from New Archangel

Garnet musket ball from excavations at Sitka, Alaska. Source: Alaska OHA.

It is a common trick in archaeology classes to puzzle students with gunflints – part of the sparking mechanism of older muskets – which were made until recent times by the remnants of a European flaked stone industry until modern cartridges replaced them.  However, I had never heard of the use of stone musket balls before — but the picture above shows one made out of garnet, which is a heavy and dense mineral. This specimen is from a historic Tlingit-Russian site in Alaska.  As the caption notes:

“Large garnets can be found in schist… Because of the shortage of lead, the Kolosh [Tlingit]  use them instead of shot to kill sea animals.” [Khlebnikov’s 1817-1832 report, 1976:39]

It is typically ingenious for the Tlingit to have adapted traditional stone working technologies to the new, introduced technologies.

Over much of coastal Alaska the first contact aboriginal people had with Europeans was with Russians, rather than Americans, British, French or Spanish.  One of the most important Russian settlements was Novoarkhangelsk, or New Archangel, founded in 1799 at the present day town of Sitka (map).  The tumultous history of the founding of this outpost near a Tlingit village called Gajaa Héen, its subsequent capture by Tlingit warriors and ransom of Russian captives for 10,000 rubles, and its recapture 1804 by a Russian naval fleet during the “Battle of Sitka” is a subject for another day.

Suffice it to say that, as with all history, archaeology can fill in the stories of the everyday life of people and of events that go unrecorded by pen and paper.  In this respect, it is good to see the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology has a very full, very detailed report available online about archaeological work at “Castle Hill”, the ancient Tlingit fort known as Noow Tlein which subsequently became the cornerstone of the Russian defensive facilities at New Archangel.  You can browse the report chapters here, and the photos here and here.  No doubt I will post more in due course, as there are some extraordinary artifacts found at this site, not least among which is this hand-made toy musket.

The Russians may have won the battle of Sitka, but they eventually left, leaving behind the Sitka Tlingit tribes to continue their journey to the present, where their vibrant culture continues to thrive as this interactive place names map for the modern Town of Sitka makes clear.

Fort at New Arkhangel -- "View of the Establishment at Norfolk Sound," 1805-06 (from a watercolor by G.H. von Langsdorff). Source: Alaska OHA.

PS:  if you are skeptical about that Wikipedia link to the Battle of Sitka, then you can hear about the events in Tlingit here).

Plan of New Archangel, 1804. Fort site is to centre right. Source Alaska OHA.