The shape of artifacts and structures can be very important in determining not only what they are (obviously) but also when they were likely to have been made.
Jennie Brower and I found this harpoon head (along with a number of other artifacts) while excavating the burial that first indicated that the site was not just a recent settlement. The shape of this harpoon head, with the pinched “waist” is one that was found at the earliest sites from the Inuit expansion into the eastern Arctic. When I saw it, I realized we were not excavating a late precontact burial.
The term “ritual object” has become an archaeological cliche for items of unknown use. That’s not to say that people in the past did not have rituals, some of which involved objects. In some cases, objects had no clear practical purpose where they were found, yet had deliberately been placed there.
I would say that the rocks we found in burials at Nuvuk fit into this group. They were much larger than the average rock on that gravel spit, so they had to have been gathered deliberately. They were clearly placed in the grave. Why? We can only speculate. They could have been placed by mourners, somewhat like people may drop flowers in a grave today. Or they could have been given in trade for intact items buried with the person.
Folks who have been reading this blog are aware that erosion of archaeological sites due to global change effects (warming, sea level rise, etc.) is a huge problem where I live and work. Rapid decay of the exquisitely preserved organic contents of the sites is also a huge problem. But a blog only reaches so many people and actually dealing with the sites and otherwise doing my day job means that I can’t spend endless time on outreach. So when a member of the media is interested, I take the time to talk to them. Sometimes something comes of it, other times not.
Last summer Eli Kintisch, who writes for a number of scientific publications came up and spent a few days in Barrow. He managed to spend a day at Walakpa, although his schedule meant he couldn’t be there for the whole thing. He’s been working on it since, and I think the result is pretty engaging. The resulting article was just published by Hakai Magazine here and simultaneously by the Smithsonian website here. Hakai focuses on coastal issues and just recently published an article on Tom Dawson and SCAPE’s work in Scotland dealing with similar problems (minus the permafrost thawing and sea ice retreat).
It’s a big problem, and one that will take a considerable input of human and financial resources to deal with. We’ve only got a few decades (less in many cases) before all the cultural heritage and paleoenvironmental information in these sites is gone for good.
After a rather long, drawn-out saga, everything is in place and I can draw on funds so I can work on the WALRUS project. The delays have been really frustrating for everyone involved. Once I get the interns on board in Barrow, we’ll get back to going through the faunal material we have there for walrus samples.
We are trying to get samples from a wide range of sites. Since the sampling is destructive, we don’t want to use artifacts if that can be avoided. Ideally we want unmodified walrus parts, bone or tooth, or if we can’t get enough of them, manufacturing discards. As a fallback, we may wind up sampling things like shovels or bola weights, assuming we can get the museum’s permission, since they are common types of artifacts, and not diagnostic (or something that is likely to be displayed). We currently can’t use tusk parts, since there have been no modern studies to compare their chemistry to that of bones and teeth, so interpretation of results would be problematic. (If any carvers would be able to contribute some scraps from tusks along with a sample of bone and/or a tooth from the same animal, it would be a really big help). We are also looking for caribou or some terrestrial plant material from the same place in the site for radiocarbon dating, since marine mammals incorporate old carbon and the dates are hard to interpret.
More recent archaeological projects tend to have excavated faunal material in the same way as everything else, with decent stratigraphic control, and also tend to have brought it back from the field. However, in the early days, that was not often the case. Even if material was brought back, it often wasn’t cataloged in any detail, so reports are almost no help in figuring out if there is any walrus to be had in archaeological collections. A bit of walrus shows up in catalogs, but most of it is in the form of artifacts. A lot of walrus artifacts (particularly bone, since ivory was clearly an item of trade) suggests that the inhabitants of a site were hunting walrus, so the potential for walrus parts to exist in the collection is there.
Many of the classic sites on the coast of Alaska have strong indications that walrus were being caught by the people who lived there, but they were excavated decades ago, and finding suitable samples in the collections was not something that could just be done by getting someone to pull a particular bag or catalog number. It pretty much requires looking through mixed lots of artifacts and bags of bones. So I’m in Fairbanks doing just that.
We are mostly working in the museum, but it is closed on the weekend, so we got permission to bring a collection of faunal material to the PI (Nicole Misarti)’s lab, and we went through it yesterday. It took some doing, but we got though it, and should have plenty of samples. It was an adventure. We had 24 boxes, most of them full of bags like this:
Not all of the bags were correctly labeled, or at least the labels often didn’t specify species, just element, so we had to look.
We found a few other interesting things in the process, including this really large fish bone from Point Hope.
I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of cod (Gadid) but exactly what sort? It’s really big. If I have time, I’ll talk to the curator of fish, but the mission is walrus samples at the moment.
WALRUS – Walrus Adaptability and Long-term Responses; Using multi-proxy data to project Sustainability
We are seeking students (high school or college) to work in the archaeological laboratory on artifacts as part of several NSF-funded research projects. The lab crew will be working on processing artifacts excavated at Nuvuk, Walakpa and other North Slope sites.
This will involve cleaning (gently), sorting, marking, cataloging and preparing some items for transfer to a long-term repository. We will also be going through and sorting some frozen organic samples from an earlier project in Barrow that have been sent back from New York State.
We also will be attempting to find walrus bones in these collections for analysis at UAF. There is a possibility for student travel in connection with that project.
You do not need any prior experience; we can train you. Many archaeology crew members start as high school students. Once you learn how to do the work, scheduling can be very flexible. If you have skills in drawing, photography, or data entry, we can really use your help as well! Starting wages will depend on experience and qualifications.
To apply, send a resume and cover letter to Anne Jensen, email@example.com as soon as possible. You can use the contact form below for questions.
I have gotten far enough along in getting over the back surgery that I finally have enough energy to do things that are not strictly essential for work or staying fed. So we are ramping things up in the lab.
We are looking for a few more people to work in the lab here in Barrow, joining the current crew on weekdays or weekends. Due to the source of funding, these folks will need to be high school or college students. We are also looking for volunteers. I will post the announcements on here a static page and also as posts.
We aren’t sure yet if we will have funds available to do fieldwork this summer, but we are hopeful. If we do get into the field this summer, people who have lab experience will have priority for fieldwork jobs.
If you are interested, please contact me ASAP. Please pass this on to anyone you know who might be interested.
This Saturday, I’m giving a Saturday Schoolyard talk about the Walakpa salvage project. That means I need a lot of pictures. So I spent the last couple of days in the lab taking pictures of the artifacts from we recovered.