Some media attention, and why it can be a double-deged sword

For some reason, this year there has been quite a bit of media interest in Barrow and archaeology.  To begin with, there were several film crews in Barrow while we were working at Walakpa, two of which actually came out to the site and filmed as well as filming in the lab.  Only one of them has anything out yet.  PBS filmed for several both in the field and in the lab, and a little bit of it made it into this piece,  and a shot in the slideshow that they put up on the web in conjunction with the series on sea ice change. It was a very buggy day in the field, and it was quite the challenge not to be swatting mosquitoes all the time.

Oh, and the buoy experiment that Ignatius Rigor is working on in the film clip is supported by UIC Science staff (not that they have to do much, the idea is to see how the buoys do with no servicing). Their data can be compared to data from ARM’s established serviced meteorological instruments.   That way, when scientists get buoy data, they have an idea how reliable it is, and if there are any special considerations in interpretation (becoming uncalibrated over time, etc.)

We’ve also gotten interest from the press. Abra Stolte-Patkotak, one of our volunteers writes for the Arctic Sounder, and did a piece on the Walakpa excavations, which is on-line here.  For some reason, they don’t have the picture that was published up on-line, but I will ask Abra if I can put it up here & add it if so.

I am currently working with a free-lancer who has interviewed me and asked me to fact check the article before he goes further.  A very good idea, as many years ago I was interviewed by a reporter who mis-heard my answer to the question of how far back in time human occupation of the Barrow area was archaeologically demonstrated to extend.  I said “maybe 4 to 5 thousand years” which was what people thought reasonable for Denbigh at the time.  He refused fact-checking help, and published an article in which I was directly quoted as saying “45,000 years”.  Although Glenn & I could never get the Arctic Sounder to mail our subscription to us in Pennsylvania, apparently Tiger Burch could.  I got a very puzzled email from him after the article came out, in which I believe he was politely trying to ask me if I’d lost my mind.  Fortunately, he had enough experience with the press that he believed the explanation.

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A bit of interior decoration

We’ve added a couple of new student hire for the summer, but still have room for one or two more, so if you are interested, get in touch ASAP!

With the larger crew, we have been working on getting some of the Pingusugruk collection sorted and in proper archival boxes.  We need to move the container it was in, so we’d have to move the boxes anyway, and this way we can not only record which bag is in which numbered box, but also sort the “Tamis” bags, which are the 25% random sample drawn at time of excavation from the rest, to make future analysis easier, and find the rest of the bags from the column sample that Rebecca Connor & Angelique Neffe started on, so I can finish that analysis.  Most of this work is being done by our adult volunteers.

The students worked on this a little, mostly to get it set up so the volunteers can work easily, and also to get more room on the lab benches, so that they can work on the Nuvuk materials with no chance of things getting mixed up.  In the process, we had a number of animal bones that were collected on the beach or tundra and donated to us.  Some of them have been labeled as to species and element, and are being used to help with the preliminary sort and cataloging of the materials from Nuvuk Locus 6 midden.

There were a few things which were sort of superfluous, like a caribou skull.  The students really wanted to use it as a decoration, so with a little glue to keep the teeth in, it was suspended outside the door (using peel-off hangers of course to avoid damaging the wall.

The caribou skull
The caribou skull

Apparently, they found something else they felt was not necessary to include in the comparative collection, either because we haven’t found any (we haven’t) or because they figure everyone already knows what it is.  The next day, this is what the door looked like.

A addition to the decor
A addition to the decor
The new addition is a walrus baculum, often known as an oosik.  I doubt some of the visiting scientists know what they are looking at :-).

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A visit from the media

The important but not overly exciting routine of proposal preparation & writing on my part, and cataloging on Coby’s part was broken on Friday.  KTUU TV, the Anchorage NBS affiliate, sent a crew to Barrow for a few days.  They were covering the football team, and wanted to get some practice footage, but that left them with lots of free time, so they had to get as many other stories as possible, and they decided to go for science stories.

I know they did an interview with George Divoky, who had just made it in off Cooper Island (the weather has been really awful–not boating weather at all).  They also shot some footage about Nuvuk and coastal erosion.

First they stopped into my lab for an hour or so.  They shot a fair bit of footage of Coby Hatcher (who is going to HS on-line and therefore was working in the lab when they were there) doing various things one does in an archaeology lab, including re-bagging cataloged artifacts and entering storage locations for artifacts in the catalog database so they can be found again.

Coby updating storage locations in the catalog

With a big collection, this is pretty important, since otherwise it can be very hard to retrieve things.  It actually came up because I was trying to find the bird bone from the Ipiutaq levels that had been used to make needle blanks.  A number of folks think it looks like it is an albatross bone, which is interesting if true, since there aren’t many albatross around here.  One of them is involved in a project which is doing ancient DNA work, and offered to run some of this bone to see if it really is albatross.  There was no storage location in the catalog, so we had to look a bit.  We found it and I’ll mail it out, and Coby put updates in the catalog.

Then they shot some footage of me showing some of the artifacts, and some of me doing an interview about the project and what one can learn through archaeology.  That lead into what gets lots when sites are lost to coastal erosion and/or warming and permafrost thawing.

Dan Carpenter shooting video. He really liked this fox skull.
Dan Carpenter, KTUU, interviewing me in the lab. Photo by Coby Hatcher.

After that, they headed off to do something else.  In the late afternoon, we headed out to Point Barrow for them to get some shots of the site and, as it turned out, coastal erosion in action.  That’s a story in itself, so that will be the next post.

A not so quick trip to Nuvuk

I got out to Nuvuk today for the first time today. The ARM project that we support want to put a flux tower at the Point to measure flux off the ocean during the open water season.  The thing is that the ideal spot for the tower is on the ridge where the Nuvuk site is.

In the past, other folks wanted to put flux towers there, but there simply wasn’t room for a tower in an area where we had already tested and recovered all the burials, and we didn’t want to chance disturbance to a burial.  Now we’ve gotten a good way ahead of the erosion, so it seemed that it might be possible.  However, I didn’t want the tower to be on top of the possible Ipiutaq structures, just in case funding for their excavation is available.  Since the tower installation involved moving a little gravel, it was important for me to be there just in case something showed up.

It took a while to get out there, since the ARM Kubota is on tracks and can only go about 15 miles an hour.  We quickly got a spot picked for the tower.  After that, I spent most of my time looking around for bears while the others started putting the tower together.  I spotted 2, a mom and a cub, who were heading to the bone pile.

Polar bears heading for a meal.
Assembling the base for the tower.
Putting the tower together.
Putting the instruments on the tower.

We decided to use sandbags for the guy-wires and then added some more on top the tracks on the base plate.  To minimize disturbance to the site, we decided fill the “sand”bags with beach gravel, and bring them up with a four-wheeler.

“Sand”bags on the Honda.

After the tower was assembled and the instruments were on, the instruments needed to be wired up.  That took a while, but I had to sick around since one of them needed to look down are gravel, so we needed to cover the plywood base plate, which meant more digging.

That gave me time to check out the area where we salvaged the Ipiutak structure last fall.  Good thing we did that last fall, because that area is gone.  There is a big notch in the bluff there, and that’s it.  It would have been a pity to lose that, because we found some very interesting things in the field and in the lab.

Where the Ipiutak structure was…

While I was getting to play, the crew was working away in the lab.  They have finished floating and sorting the materials from the fall salvage, and are moving on.  Over the winter, we’ve had several sets of visitors on short notice, which required some materials to be cleaned off benches fairly quickly.  As a result, there were a lot of miscellaneous boxes around the lab.  The crew has reorganized several cabinets and gotten most of the boxes emptied. There is plenty of bench space, so we are moving on to cataloging and marking.

Part of the hard-working lab crew (l. to r. Victoria, Trina & Trace) working on faunal remains.

A doozy of a field trip

Wednesday was a fun and productive day.  There is a group of middle-school students from a Fairbanks charter school who are in Barrow for about a week on a class trip.  (I think the best we got in middle school was a one (loooong) day bus trip to New York City).  They are going to all sorts of places in the community, including my lab & the ARM site.  They came over to the BARC, and I gave them an archaeological tour of Barrow via PowerPoint, since some of the sites are hard to get to in the winter and don’t look like much right now if you do get there.   I also spent a bit of time on the various ways sites are endangered in Alaska (erosion, permafrost melting, etc.)  and why that matters.  They asked a lot of good questions.  Some of them (maybe all) have been helping in the archaeological collections at the UAF Museum of the North, so they had a bit of background.

Half of the students from Fairbanks in the lab looking at artifacts.

After that, we split them into two groups.  Half of them went out to the ARM site, where Mark Ivey of Sandia National Labs & Jimmy & Josh Ivanoff  gave them a tour, while the other half came to the lab, and then the groups switched.  Since we’re working on weekends, there are samples in various stages of processing, so I was able to show them the process we are using on the Ipiutak floor samples from this fall.  Then we looked at the Ipiutak sled runners, which I’d shown in situ (in place in the ground) in the PowerPoint.  After that, we looked at the items from the Nuvuk-01 hunter’s tool kit.  As usual, the little owl fastener was the star :-).

The little owl toggle from the Nuvuk-01 tool kit.

In the afternoon, I got two contract reports in for last year, and moved on to calibrating radiocarbon dates for the big project I’ve been doing.  I’m using CALIB, since it reportedly may be a bit more accurate, but it’s output format means that you can’t just cut and paste columns.  The only way to keep track was to do about 30 at a time.  I got several hundred done, and finally gave up when it simply kept ignoring two dates. I couldn’t see any problem with the input formating, but it just didn’t make any output.  Oh well, there is tomorrow.

Actually, there wasn’t, since I was home with a fever and sore throat.  We have a half-day holiday for Barrow employees for Piuraagiaqta (Spring Festival), which starts today and runs all weekend.   I’m actually taking the time off, since the Internet at the office is sketchy at the moment.  There is a switchover from one connection to the earth station to another in progress, and it is not going as well as hoped.

Tires shrink

It’s been pretty cold the last few days.  My vehicle has tire pressure sensors, and every time if goes below about -27, it shows low tire pressure, which  resolves as soon as the temperature goes up.  I guess I should add a bit of air, but it’s been a busy week.

I’m still working on papers.  Only a couple more to submit, plus whatever revision need to be done!

I spent a bit of the afternoon straightening up the lab a bit, before a group from the US Coast Guard and RAND Corporation came by to tour the BARC.  Naturally, they wanted to see the lab (there isn’t much happening just now in any of the other labs anyway).  I gave them a nice tour, which they seemed to enjoy, before the headed off to look at the rest of the building.  The lab humidifier seems to have gone belly up, so it looks like we’ll need another one.

Tomorrow is another lab day.  We’re pulling some more items for C14 dating as well as working our way through the Ipiutak house floor. The new Mac is getting set up too!

Going through the Ipiutak floor

I was traveling the last couple weeks to the Alaska Anthropological Association conference in Seattle, and then stopping in Anchorage on the way home to help  my daughter get settled there. The conference and the session went well.  I’ll try to put something up on the highlights, when I get a little more free time.  I’ve still got papers and also homework for an on-line class I’m taking.

Yesterday, we got back to going through the Ipiutak floor material from the summer and the fall salvage excavation.  Trace Hudson, Jacob Harris & Frieda Kaleak all came in, along with Laura Thomas, and we got going on the screening, floating and picking over the heavy and light fractions.

It’s a slow process, but a couple of things were found yesterday that may be interesting.  A couple of very small fragments of rock crystal (probably clear quartz) showed up.  This is interesting because of some of the properties of quartz crystals and the finds of larger quartz crystals at some Ipiutak sites.

We got so into that process that we didn’t actually get much straightening up done.  I’ll have to do that later this week, since some visitors are being brought to the lab on a tour late in the week, and it’s a bit messy there now :-(.

An update on the child

I’ve more or less recovered from whatever I had, so I’ve actually got some energy to post.  Herewith a quick update on the person in the parka and the skin clothes, etc that accompanied her (I’m no sure the person is a girl, but I need to pick a pronoun.

I was able to get the pantaloons off, although the legs fell apart.  The boot part was apparently made from either leg skins or fawn skins.  The waist seems to be have been made out of something similar, maybe as a waistband.  The main part of the pants is regular caribou hide, which has much longer thicker hair.  Since the waistband was wrapped around a belt made from a piece of hide, perhaps the regular caribou was too thick and inflexible to be suitable.

Fragment of belt, just above the photo scale.

The back of the parka was about 10-15 cm longer (I can’t be more precise since the preservation was not perfect), and looked like it may have had a rounded hem.  As far as I could see, there were no seams.  According to Murdoch (which seems to be out of print again except in print-on-demand), children’s parka didn’t have back seams, but I am waiting on a couple of other books on skin clothing, and a few more experienced skin sewers opinions.

Back of parka. Outside of garment (after it was flipped). Shoulders at top.

It took a bit of doing to get a look at the back, since it was fairly well stuck to the caribou hide underneath.  I ended up getting Shawn to help me.  We got a piece of Visqueen underneath the whole thing, very carefully, put plastic on top of it, and then put a piece of plywood on top to stabilize everything, held the plastic tight to the wood, and flipped everything.  It worked well, and we were able to use the same method for the sewn wolf-skin item (still unidentified).

The wolf-skin has a lot of seams.  Some bits are badly preserved or very badly matted, so it’s not clear what it used to be.  However, a number of the smaller pieces that have been sewn together are still pretty much intact.  I tried putting a picture of it onto my iPad, and opening it with Omnigraffle, so I could try drawing on the seam.  I’m hoping that it will make it easier to understand, and that maybe someone will recognize what those pieces go to.  I know this can work, since Bertha Leavitt was able to identify that the little girl from Ukkuqsi was buried with a kayak cover (among other things) based on the shape of a couple of pieces of sewn boat cover skins.

I’m still working on the drawings a bit to clean them up, and I’ll put them up on a separate page when they’re ready.

I also managed to finish a review today, and to get a bit done on a paper that I owe some folks.  Both are actually for the same journal, different issues.

Folks were out whaling, and Panigeo crew took a whale, which is probably nearly done being butchered by now (judging by Jimmy Nukapigak’s Facebook updates :-)) .  There was supposed to be one or maybe two more possibly struck, but I’m not sure yet.  The weather is supposed to get worse, so I hope they get in soon.

The child is out

Just a short post, because I’m home celebrating my birthday (mostly by coughing–the cold has moved to my chest).

The child is completely out of the parka and pantaloons (Murdoch’s term), and Shawn was able to examine the remains.  No change in the age estimate.

I was able to get some pictures of the boot part of the pantaloons.  They look like they may have been made from leg skin (something with shorter finer hair than the main part of a caribou hide), with separate soles.

Sole of the left boot

There was a seam up the middle of the vamp on each boot.  The boots seem to have been sewn to the pants, which were of caribou hide.

Seam up the vamp

More tomorrow.

Halfway done

I’m about halfway done getting the child out of the parka.  Fannie Akpik came out to look at the stitches.  She agreed with Qaiyaan and me that the stitching on the parka looked like waterproof seams, even though it is clearly caribou, which isn’t normally waterproof.  I took some samples to test for presence of marine mammal oil, which might have helped make it water-resistant anyway.

Stitches on the parka

I’m trying to video the whole “excavation” process, both to document it and to serve as a backup to notes & bag labels.  I’ve reversed the photostand I have, and put it on a lab bench with the camera mount at the tippy top, overhanging the person on the sheet of plywood.  I can just get the camera high enough to get the whole thing in the shot.  I use a stepladder to get up and down to work on it.  The only problem is that there is no low battery warning, so it just dies, which it did a couple of times yesterday.  Today we started setting alarms on our phones to check the camera, so that more or less solved that problem.  I haven’t been able to download the card yet.  The SD card readers at work are getting touchy, and my Mac at home said it couldn’t read the card.  The camera sees files, so maybe I need to hook it up directly.

Lab setup for documentation. Camera at upper right center. The child is under the plastic on the lab bench.

While looking at the wolf, we noticed that some of the pieces were cut with a rounded edge, and Fannie, who is Nuvukmuit (that’s the preferred spelling in their dialect, not Nuvugmiut) herself, thought it could be related to the rounded tail on the atikłuks they make for their dance group today.  Later I found another seam where wolf had been sewn to caribou.

Fur side of the wolf. Amazingly well-preserved!
Backside of the wolf, showing the stitching. It's a regular whip stitch. The sinew is still preserved.

It’s amazing how nice the stitching is, especially since they were done with a bone needle.

Starting to take the person out of the parka

If you remember, last summer we excavated a burial which had some well-reserved fur and hide, including a parka.  We put in a freezer (thanks to NSB Wildlife Department and Cyd Hanns in particular), and late last week we brought it to the lab.  It took a bit longer to thaw than I thought, so we were only able to start today.  Some of the folks I’d hoped could look at the skin sewing since the furs aren’t in great shape and some of the sinew thread (ivalu) has dissolved are out-of-town for the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Annual Meeting and related event, but Shawn is here, and it wouldn’t be right to keep the person around just to study.

So I set up a video camera, and am using two other cameras, one with a macro lens to record stitching and so forth, and another for overall shots.  Plus I’m taking a lot of samples, and notes as well.

The bundle of furs before we started.

I got started, with a bit of help from Shawn.  He still had one other person to deal with, so I went on without him for a bit.  Qaiyaan Harcharek, and Lottie Jones, from the Inupiat History, Language and Culture Commission staff came by.  Lottie had to get back to the office, but Qaiyaan, who has a degree in Anthropology, came back and we worked on the person until after 5:30.

The first bit of the caribou hide wrapping unfolded at lower left.

What we were able to figure out so far is that the person was laid on a caribou hide, so of which was wrapped up around the lower legs and over the left side.  It’s possible that it may also have been over the right side and decayed so badly it wasn’t recoverable.  I’ve got to go back and look at the pictures and notes from the excavation.  Once we got part of the hide unwrapped, it was clear there was another kind of hair present.  Caribou have long, fairly straight hollow hairs that don’t taper very much.  There was a lot of much finer, tapering hair, which had matted down.  We were discussing what this might be, and had guessed at maybe wolf when Qaiyaan and Lottie had to head back to town.

Further unfolded, with what turns out to be wolf beside the photo scale.

I kept unfolding layers of furry hide, and all of a sudden, there were long dark guard hairs showing.  One more fold, and there was a very well-preserved patch of what is obviously wolf (if you’ve seen wolf skins, anyway).  It actually feels very much like my wolf ruff, which was probably running around 5 years ago, even though this one must have been dead for hundreds of years.  We don’t have a date yet, but wolf should be good for dating.  So that mystery was solved.

Shawn was able to look at the remains of the cranium, which had not been as well-preserved, and the person seems to be a child of 4-6 years or so.  We all have kids, and it made us sad to think how this child’s parents must have felt.

We still don’t know what the wolf was.  It has stitching, but it seems to just be wrapped around the legs.  The child is wearing what appear to be skin-in caribou boots, which may actually go all the way to the waist, sort of like hip-waders.  The wolf doesn’t seem to be over-pants, especially as the hair side is in.  Maybe we can figure that out tomorrow.

Physical anthroplogy underway

Shawn Miller, the physical anthropology PhD student (and University of Utah anatomy instructor) who examines and records the data on the human remains from Nuvuk prior to their reburial, is here.  He has been working on the multiple burial with an intact box that we excavated in early July.  It is looking like there were two primary individuals, probably both men.  The juvenile elements could all have come from the same individual, Shawn thinks, so there may have only been three people in this burial.

It is looking like one of the adults has signs of porotic hyperostosis and cribra orbitalia.  These have generally been considered as signs of iron-deficiency anemia and a diet lacking in animal food-sources, but recently it has been suggested that this may be incorrect (Walker et al. 2009).  Certainly that would seem unlikely for someone living at Nuvuk, as there really was almost nothing available there but animal food.  It will be interesting to get the dates for the individual, who was apparently more recent, since there was reportedly considerable starvation after Yankee whalers decimated the bowhead stocks.

I went to get the coffins that we had in stock.  UIC RE Maintenance folks had made us a bunch, since it is easiest to cut a whole lot of standard size pieces at once.  Unfortunately, things seem to have been moved around in the warehouse where they were stored, and we seem to be short a few boxes and quite a few lids.  The ones I found were scattered in several locations.  I was able to find enough for the individuals in the burial, and will see about getting some new lids made later this week.

Pictures from the Ipiutak structure

I promised to put up a few pictures, so here they are:

Two chert artifacts, in situ
Biface fragment
Ground slate

And for the piece de resistance:

Composite labret in situ: jet outer part at upper left, ivory inner piece just right of center.

Pretty cool.  And you should see all the micoflakes the students managed to get out of the matrix in the lab!  Truly heroic effort on their parts.

Sometimes science produces unexpected results…

Much of today went trying to find freezer space for the person in the parka.  We were able to get X-rays done by the North Slope Borough vet clinic (they needed a bit of practice with a new machine anyway), and there are skeletal elements in the parka.  I talked to a conservator and it seems possible that the garments might be able to be preserved if the community chooses. We need to have a discussion with the Elders about that.

At least we need to document them really well, as they are being removed so the person can be examined and reburied.  To do that we need not only a good videographer, but also a group of experience skin sewers, since the sinew has decayed, and it may only be possible to figure out what stitch was use by skilled sewers looking at the ghosts they left.  We need to get the funds for that work, which probably won’t be available until October or so.  That means that we need a freezer to keep the person in a stable environment until the examination can happen.

CPS/UMIAQ couldn’t really offer anything right now, except to note that it hadn’t been requested in the program plan last year (sadly, I’m not clairvoyant–if I were, we could skip all the pesky shovel testing).  Fortunately, North Slope Borough Wildlife Management also has a freezer, and they were kind enough to step up and help out in this urgent situation.  Many thanks to DWM!  One UMIAQ fellow later thought of a freezer that might be a possible fallback, although it’s got stuff in it at the moment.

Next step, grant applications for that work and for the Ipiutak structure that remains at the bluff in the DWF, waiting for the next big storm to take it out.

What a day!

The weather was not pleasant.  It rained all day, and was pretty cold.  My fingers are swollen up like sausages.  The rain also took out the track pad on the computer for the transit, so we couldn’t back up the files in the field.  We were able to use a mouse in the lab, and got the files backed up and transferred to the other laptop, so if the track pad doesn’t perk up, we’re OK.  My Nikon Coolpix S9100, which I just got last night to replace one that failed after a week, died the same way today.  Nikon won’t issue a refund for 15 days, which is truly ridiculous under the circumstances.  I’ve been committed to Nikon, loved all the SLRs I’ve had (FM, 4 FEs, 4 N70s, D200) and liked everything about this camera, too, except it won’t work.  Epic fail.  So don’t buy one!

On the plus side, the very deep burial turned out to be a person wearing a fur parka and wrapped in hide!  You can even see traces of the stitching.  We aren’t sure how well-preserved the person is (we found a few finger bones and a nail inside the cuff).  We decided to take it out en bloc (complete) and take it back to the lab to excavate in controlled conditions so we can document the garment better, since it is very fragile.  We had some plywood brought out and managed to slide it through the gravel under the entire burial and lift the whole thing.  This required the digging of a very large hole, which we’ll now need to backfill.  Many thanks to Brower Frantz and his crew for bringing out the plywood and transporting the individual back to the lab while we kept on in the field.

Right arm and side of the fur parka, lying on a hide.
Close-up of stitching on parka

The DWF keeps yielding more artifacts, some of which are quite nice.  We’re trying to get to a reasonable stopping point and figure out a way to protect the exposed feature in case we can get funds to work on it in September.

Artifacts from DWF.