One of the great things about doing archaeology in the Arctic is that the preservation can be spectacular. Artifacts often froze the winter after they were abandoned, and only thawed when they were excavated. This means we get to find a lot of the bone, wood ivory and leather items that were undoubtedly part of most precontact people’s tool kits. We don’t have to guess at what people were using or extrapolate from a few stone tools that did manage to be preserved; we can see it firsthand.
This is not always an unmixed blessing. Arctic archaeology sometimes suffers from an embarrassment of riches.
In the past, archaeologists generally only saved the artifacts from a site. Animal bones and soil were pretty much ignored, or at best documented in the field (there are a lot of excavated houses in the Arctic where the animal bones are still piled at the edge of the excavation where they were left decades ago). As archaeological science advanced (radiocarbon dating began about 60 years ago) and people began to do more things with faunal (animal) remains and soil samples, people began to collect a lot more, and to bring it back to museums to save, on the assumption that one day someone would be able to do something informative with it. The idea is still a good one in theory, but it is bumping up against various realities. For one thing, in most areas these sorts of things require storage in climate controlled conditions or they will deteriorate and become useless. They are often quite bulky compared to just the artifacts. Most museums simply don’t have any place to put all this stuff! Some of the better-funded places, like the Smithsonian Institution, have built large off-site storage facilities in areas where real estate is a bit less expensive, just to keep all this stuff. But such places require operational funds and new staff, and that costs money too. Most places can’t really afford that. Some institutions have started charging for putting collections there, but there are problems with that as well.
So part of the new reality for archaeology is that we can’t keep everything. The question is how to decide what to keep and what not to keep. In general, the artifacts are kept. No problem there. The issue is how to deal with the other things.
It’s even more complicated for the Nuvuk project. We have had several areas where massive amounts of organic material, with some artifacts and faunal remains mixed in, were encountered. While one might normally choose to excavate this all in the field, in a couple of cases the areas were right at the erosion face, and could literally have vanished overnight. Combine that with a very cold field situation, where mild hypothermia can dull excavators’ thought processes, it didn’t seem like that was the best plan, since it risked data in a variety of ways. I decided to take tightly-provenienced (with very accurate information on where they were from) bulk samples, which can then be processed in the lab, where it is warm and we have good lighting, magnifying lenses and water to wash the dirt and gravel off so we can get a good look at everything. If excavators recognize an artifact in the field, it gets recorded there, but the idea is that we’ll find the less obvious ones in the lab.
One of the areas with a massive amount of organic material was what we called the Driftwood Feature. This level is about 1 meter (39 inches) below the Thule graves. It was actually permanently frozen, and therefore everything organic was in great shape. It looks like there was an Ipuitak dwelling (maybe there were more that had already eroded–we don’t know) on a ridge near the ocean. Sometime between 300-400 AD there was a huge storm, which washed all sorts of things (driftwood, bark, marine invertebrates, shellfish, peat, etc.) up onto the beach, all the way up to where the people were living. It left what is called a strand-line. It looks like they either left in a hurry and didn’t come back, or didn’t survive, since a number of artifacts were still there. The strand-line continued along what had been the beach ridge, and we wanted to see if there was any evidence of more human activity besides the one dwelling. Because there was so much wood, and a number of the artifacts at the dwelling had been wood, we had a needle in a haystack problem, with the haystack about to fall into the ocean (which it did the next winter). So we bulk sampled.
Now we are going through some of the bulk samples. I’ve been very lucky to have Dr. Claire Alix, a French scholar who specializes in Arctic driftwood and its use by humans, involved with the project since the very early days. She was based in Fairbanks, Alaska, for many years, but has recently gotten a teaching and research position at the Sorbonne in Paris. This is wonderful, since Claire is a great person & really deserves it, but it certainly complicates the logistics of her research on this wood!
Claire arrived on this morning’s plane, and is already hard at work going through samples from 2009 which were excavated after she left the field. She is looking for all worked (altered by people) items, picking out things that we can’t yet identify for further examination, and recording amounts & types of wood, bark, and other identifiable organics. The non-worked identified material is then being lab discarded. I’ve got the computer map up and color-coded so Claire can look at it when she needs to, Laura is unwrapping the samples, and I’ll probably end up doing the data entry in the catalog. She leaves again on Wednesday night, and won’t be back in the US until sometime after January, so we’ve got a lot to do, and not much time to do it.
Later this fall we are going to start going through soil samples and so forth. We hope to be able to reduce the volume they take up. Some of that will be done by separating the actual sample material of interest from the gravel matrix. Where that isn’t possible (for example with large logs or whalebone) we will have to sub-sample, retaining only a portion of the total sample volume. Otherwise, we’re going to run out of room.