Excavating the first burial of the season

We waited to start burial excavation until Dennis O’Rourke and Jenny Raff, the physical anthropology/ancient DNA folks were here.  The weather on July 8 was pretty sunny, although it was very windy in the morning.  The burial had been located by a vehicle churning up some human remains and scattering them along the trail for several meters, so we weren’t exactly sure where the burial was located, so we had to remove some of the gravel to find it.

Crew gathers to begin excavation of burial 10A918. Note the sea ice on the ocean.

After it was located, a smaller group began the fine excavation.  It quickly became clear that the burial was quite scattered, since portions of the skull showed up both north and south of pelvic fragments.  At least one of the pelvic fragments seems too small to belong with the others, so there may be two individuals involved.

Beginning excavation.

The rest of the crew moved back to STPs, which over the course of the day located two additional probable burials, as well as a fairly recent and quite large oosik (walrus penis bone).  Excavations were interrupted when the honey bucket tent somehow wound up with the door locked.  No one was inside, but no one could get in to use it either, so we needed to get that fixed.  Fortunately, the cover was just loose enough that Victoria, who is quite slender, was able to wriggle in between the cover and frame (after taking off her jacket) and unlock it from the inside.  Crisis averted.  Yay Victoria!

Our bear guard Larry Aiken made a good windbreak for the excavators.  Unfortunately it just got windier.  Eventually the gusts got so strong that an artifact blew away being passed hand to hand, so we stopped work on the burial, tarped it up well, and worked on STPs for the rest of the day.  We spent some time watching the sea ice, which was going by faster than I’ve ever seen.  One of the bear guards said Volunteer Search and Rescue had somehow measured the speed at 23 mph!

Larry Aiken's excellent windbreak, sheltering the crew.

The next day was also sunny and windy, but not nearly as bad, so we went back to working on the burial.  We found a number of vertical faunal (animal bone) fragments in the middle of the burial, around where the chest would have been.  The leg bones were more or less in place, so it looked like the disturbance was concentrated on the upper body.  We expanded to the south to make sure we recovered all the remains, and found the old ground surface under the gravel.  It had remains and some artifacts on it.

Working at 10A918. Dennis O'Rourke holding the stadia rod with reflector to record an artifact. Notice how much ice has gone away.
Dennis & Jenny shoveling (for Jenny & Justin)

We were able to find some material suitable for C14 (radiocarbon) dating underneath the bones that hadn’t been disturbed, so that was good.  We tarped the burial up for another night.

I’ve already mentioned how cold Saturday was, but we managed to finish the burial.  We found a couple really neat artifacts, which are pictured below.  Speaking of pictures, in case you are wondering, you won’t see any pictures of human remains here (or in any publications or presentations on the site).  We do photograph them for documentary purposes, but the community Elders have asked that they not be shown.  Like most people, they aren’t enthusiastic about having pictures of the mortal remains of people whom they consider as relatives all over the place.  The community has had some bad experiences in the past with this, and I think their position is completely reasonable.  It really doesn’t impeded research, and they don’t mind maps or drawings if needed to explain something.

Copper point, probably made from copper sheathing from a ship. It was probably for a sealing harpoon, judging by the size.
Older-style cartridge for a whaling shoulder gun. They haven't changed all that much today.

In the end, it looked like the burial had been disturbed twice, once in the late 1800s, when it looks like someone was digging a hole and dug up part of the burial, with remains being scattered on the same surface these artifacts were on, and then a week ago when they were exposed in the trail.

Updated 7/17/10 to fix a picture size problem some folks were reporting.

2 thoughts on “Excavating the first burial of the season

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