Working on Wood (as opposed to woodworking)

Claire Alix, who is probably the world expert on precontact wood use in Alaska, is in Barrow for a 10-day stint of analyzing wood from Nuvuk.  She is working on wood from the Driftwood Feature (DWF), because there is so much of it and we need to figure out what needs to be kept.

The DWF was a storm strand line which was washed up onto and mixed with an Ipiutak settlement.  Not just any Ipiutak settlement, but the farthest north Ipiutak settlement by about 500 km.  The result was a mass of wood, bark and marine invertebrates, with a number of clearly identifiable artifacts included.  There was so much wood that we called the level “Wood/Sand/Gravel” because it seemed like there was more wood than matrix.  However, some of the smaller pieces of wood and bark were also worked, but it seems that the storm picked up smaller floatable artifacts and mixed them with driftwood.  Given the field situation, it was impossible to examine each small piece of wood in detail, so we erred on the side of caution and brought back a lot of things that probably aren’t artifacts, so they could be examined in a nice warm lab.

Chert artifact stands out in the middle of huge numbers of small pieces of wood, some worked and some not.
Wood level in the DWF.

The DWF was actually frozen, and had been for centuries, so we didn’t just want to bring the wood into a warm lab and let it thaw.  That generally leads to wood that looked really well-preserved “exploding.”  We have a nice walk-in refrigerator at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) just down the hall from my lab, so we have been holding the wood there, thawing slowly and keeping it cool to retard mold growth.  The large and important artifacts started the conservation process very quickly, but there are boxes of smaller things which need to be inspected to separate the worked wood and bark from the rest.  The wood that is just driftwood will be lab discarded, with that being recorded in the catalog so it will be clear in the future that artifacts haven’t been lost.  The artifacts will get analyzed and better information will be recorded.  This also lets us identify things for the conservator to work on when she next can come to Barrow.  Small artifacts are being brought out for gradual drying.  Wrapping wood in teflon tape to hold it together during slow drying has worked fairly well, so we’re doing that to move more out of the walk-in

All this is pretty laborious.  Claire has to do the analysis and wood IDs, but with her schedule we needed to find a way to speed things up.  The initial sorting of bags of wood and the wrapping of the wood are two of the most time-consuming aspects of the process.  So, last week Heather Hopson came in to do some data entry and initial sorting, and this week Trina Brower is joining Heather.  They are doing the initial  sorts, wrapping with Teflon tape & data entry, so Claire can keep looking at wood.

Heather & Trina hard at work in the lab.

Wrapping the delicate pieces of small wood is definitely fiddly work.  It certainly helps having someone to work with & talk to while working.

Wrapping an artifact to keep it together while it dries.

And when all else fails….

A most essential piece of lab equipment

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