Trip to Wainwright–Part 1

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I had to make a quick trip to Wainwright.  It was way quicker than I liked, because I didn’t have time to get in touch with folks before going, and really just had to do what I came to do and jump back on a plane.  A human skull had shown up during a survey, and the client wanted to know if it was an isolated find or not.

So I flew to Wainwright on Thursday night.  Tim Van Sickle from Olgoonik, the Wainwright village corporation met me and took me over to the Olgoonik Hotel.  We got some dinner and made plans for the next day.

After breakfast, we caught up with the son of the landowner, who was handling access arrangements.  After discussing it with him, we headed to the GPS location given by the surveyors, taking four-wheelers along the lagoon.  As usual, the LCMF surveyors GPS and my not nearly as fancy unit agreed, and it put me within .5m of the spot.  It was up on some high ground overlooking the Kuk River (kind of redundant name, if poorly spelled–kuuk means river) and lagoon.  The view was great.

Wainwright lagoon and small lake

Indeed, the surveyors were correct.  I examined the area, and discovered, that there were additional remains.  Interestingly, although the skull had been were it was found for quite a while (no plants growing under it) it had previously been about a meter away, where the lower jaw was embedded in the tundra, and a now-well vegetated depression into which the skull fit still existed!

Where the skull has been for a while

There was some indication that there might have been a grave, but there was also a frost crack and a bone partially covered with vegetation visible on the surface.  I gently removed some of the vegetation to let me see if the surface bone was human, and then tested where the jaw suggested the rest of the skeleton should be if it had been a burial.  Although we had a shovel with us, I opted to use only a trowel, to avoid any damage if there was anything buried.  Tim took pictures of me actually working, and I’ve included a couple which don’t show any human remains.  As he said, people always tell him he’s got great pictures of Alaska, but he’s never in any of them, so he volunteered to take some of me.  Many thanks!

Removing vegetation to identify bone. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Cutting sod with a trowel. Photo: Tim Van Sickle
Taking notes. Photo: Tim Van Sickle

In the end, it looks like the person, most likely a woman, probably was laid to rest on the surface, which was the practice in this area when Euroamericans arrived.  Exactly when the switch from actual burial, as at Nuvuk, to “surface burial” took place is not clear yet.  Since there is no actual project yet, and it is possible there never will be, or it will be located at a considerable distance (more likely due to this find), we placed some stakes so that people on four-wheelers or snowmachines would be less likely to run the remains over, and left them where they had been laid to rest.  If things change, time enough to move them then.  They are in a nice place, with lots of salmonberries nearby.

More salmonberries!

Sadly for us, the patches had been picked pretty recently, so we only found a handful of ripe berries :-(.

The good folks at the NSB (thanks Tommy and Qaiyaan) had provided me with maps of the area to take along showing locations of TLUI (Traditional Land Use Inventory) sites and AHRS sites plotted along with the GPS of the remains.  Several of them were very close, so after we had confirmed the existence of the remains, we went to look for evidence and more precise locations of those sites.  That way I can give that data back to them so they can improve their database.

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