Alaska Anthropological Association–Day 1

I’m in Fairbanks on a combined trip to do some work on the WALRUS project and to give a couple of papers at the Alaska Anthropological Association’s 44th Annual Meeting.  I was supposed to come down on Sunday and got to a zooarchaeological workshop on teeth, but alas there was a blizzard in Utqiaġvik, and that didn’t happen.

Last night, there was the opening reception.  Jenny Blanchard had organized 2-minute talks, which went well.  I did 2 minutes on Walakpa 2016, with a plug for Walakpa 2017.  We didn’t get quite as many people as we’d hoped, since we were in a room at the end of the main entry hall, and people had to pass the bar with free beer to get there, so some folks got sidetracked.

The day started early with a paper on Arctic genetics by Jennifer Raff, Justin Tackney, Margarita Rzhetskaya, Geoff Hayes and Dennis O’Rourke, in a session on the Seward Peninsula.   All of them except for Margarita had worked on the Nuvuk people as part of a big project, also involving modern that was at least in part done at the request of Utqiaġvik Elders (although they didn’t have to twist Dennis & Geoff’s arms too hard).  That project contributed to this paper, and as results continue to come out, it is only getting more interesting.  Now that the North Slope is somewhat understood, the Seward Peninsula is the next gap.

The rest of the session focussed largely on the first field season of a project at Cape Espenberg spearheaded by Claire Alix and Owen Mason.  They are working on a couple of Birnirk houses, one of which was started by an earlier project there that I spent a couple of weeks on.  Very interesting material coming out, and very interesting geomorphological and paleoenvironmental work in progress.  Their dates for Birnirk seem to be running a bit later than what we are seeing at Walakpa, up into the range I would call Early Thule at Nuvuk.  Of course, we aren’t really talking about two different groups of people here, bur rather a change through time, but it is still interesting.  They aren’t nearly done with one of the houses, so it will be interesting to see if they get some earlier dates.

Spent the afternoon polishing my PowerPoints for tomorrow, and now I’m going to try to catch up on sleep.

Radiocarbon dates

I have been really busy the last month, trying to finish several reports and papers, plan for the summer, and get ready for a research visit from Tony Krus of SUERC, who was a member of the 2008 Nuvuk field crew before he headed off to grad school.  He is now Dr. Krus, and was able to get a grant to come over and work on Bayesian modeling for Barrow area dates, as well as attempting to improve the value for DeltaR (a correction factor used with radiocarbon dates on marine organisms to compensate for the excess older carbon found in the oceans).  Between the massive amount of writing I was doing and smashing a finger getting luggage out of the overhead coming back from a trip, I’ve not been blogging.

I hope to catch up with things a bit; there’s been considerable activity on the DONOP/global change threats to cultural and natural heritage front, as well as planning for Walakpa.

DNA results from the North Slope published!

When we first started archaeological work at Nuvuk, it took a while to find a physical anthropologist who was willing to work with the human remains here in Barrow.  Dennis O’ Rourke and his team were willing to do that.  Dennis came up to Barrow to speak to the community and the Elders to get their permission.  His lab works with genetic studies as well as skeletal material, and he asked if they would be interested in allowing ancient DNA studies on the remains from Nuvuk.  The Elders were not only interested in those studies, they suggested that the group undertake a program of modern DNA studies across the North Slope as well.   They developed a proposal to do just that, and once it was funded, research got underway, with resident of all seven North Slope communities contributing samples.

The analysis took a while.  The team traveled to all the villages to collect the data and returned to present the results to North Slope residents before they were published.  Finally, the first paper based on the project is published!  It is based on looking at mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from your mother.  It is present in many more copies than the more familiar (to most people) nuclear DNA, and therefore is often studied in archaeological situations, since all the extra copies make it more likely that some of it will survive.

The short version is that the modern DNA results support the North Slope as the source for the populations that migrated to the eastern Arctic, both the Neoeskimo (ancestors of today’s Inuit/Inupiat people) and the earlier Paleoeskimo.  This fits well with the picture from the archaeological data.

Jennifer Raff is senior author, with Margarita RzhetskayaJustin Tackney and Geoff Hayes as co-authors.

This paper has gotten picked up by a number of science news sources.


Edit:  4/30/15  Fixed a link that WP had put an ellipsis in the middle of the link.  It should work now.

Help wanted!

Crew members wanted

Nuvuk Archaeology Project

Walakpa Archaeological Salvage Project

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, as soon as possible.  You can use the contact form below for questions.

Ramping up in the lab

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.



A book about Nuvuk

I made it back from DC on Thursday night.  Friday was the usual scramble after being out of town.  Saturday night was the annual meeting of the Friends of the Library.  There was a business meeting, and a potluck dinner.  But the highlight of the meeting was the guest speaker, none other than Daniel Inulak Lum, author of the book Nuvuk, the Northernmost: Altered Land, Altered Lives in Barrow, Alaska.

Dan Lum showing slides of the photos in his book
Dan Lum showing slides of the photos in his book

Dan’s family is Nuvukmiut (that’s how it is spelled in Nuvuk dialect–it would be Nuvugmiut in Barrow dialect), originally from Nuvuk.  He ran a tour company which took tourists to Nuvuk for much of the time the Nuvuk Archaeological Project was active.  While doing that, he wound up taking a whole lot of pictures.  He has some really great animal photos, particularly of bears, as well as some really beautiful landscapes shots.  His family had to move to Fairbanks for a while for reasons connected to health of a family member, so he isn’t running the tour company any more, but it gave him an opportunity to look through his pictures and he wound up writing a book about Nuvuk and life in Barrow.

When he was running the tour company, Dan gave great tours.  He really wanted to pass on accurate information to his clients, and would stop at our excavations and talk to us, so he had the latest news.  As he said in his talk, the village is no longer there (due to erosion) so all the Nuvukmiut have to remember it by is information from oral history and archaeology.  He’d always check to see if it was OK to bring the tourists over (not if we were excavating human remains), and was always willing to bring things back and forth for us in his van.  When the Ipiutak sled runners were uncovered, Dan  stood by until we had them out of the ground around 2AM (despite having had tours all day) and then drove them very slowly back to the lab at NARL, making sure that they weren’t bounced around.  It took over an hour to go the five or so miles.  He also brought pop out for the crew on warm days.

Dan showed slides of many of the photos from the book, and talked about how he came to write a book in the first place.  He was very encouraging to audience members about writing and publishing their own books.

Dan takes questions from the audience.
Dan takes questions from the audience.

I’m going to be spending a good bit of time getting ready for International Archaeology Day, which is Saturday.


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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Article on Nuvuk Project available Free Access for the rest of January

I just got an email from the editor of Polar Geography, the journal in which on of the articles I have been working on over the past year or so was recently published as part of a special issue on Arctic Community Engagement during the 2007-2008 International Polar Year.  He has been able to arrange for several of the contributions to the issue, including my article, to be available Free Access (no pay wall) until the end of January 2013.  My article is here, and the contents of the entire issue, with links to the various articles, is here.

This is a limited time offer, so if you are interested, head over there now.  You should be able to download the free articles to read later.




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So today is my birthday…

And it’s been great so far!  The weather has been gorgeous, not too cold or windy.  The light this morning was amazing, golden reflecting off the clouds & snow.  Unfortunately no pictures from when it was best because I was trying to get stuff done before I start a series of back-to-back trips, although I did look out the window a lot when I was making phone calls.  I did get some a bit later, and it is still pretty great.

View out my office window
Looking south around 3 PM (local noon).
Clouds over Barrow & the Chukchi

Last year I got to finish unwrapping the child on my birthday.  This year was not nearly as exciting, but then archaeology really isn’t like Indiana Jones… much.  I finished and sent the quarterly report to the client on our activities supporting the ARM site.  It is good to look back and see what has been done, and I’m using a format that asks for lessons learned, so it forces one to think and track, which is not a bad thing and easy to skip when things get busy.

I made the final corrections on the encyclopedia entry on frozen sites, and am just waiting for one image to upload it to the publisher.  The Point Hope chapter is being read (quickly, I hope) by a couple of friends, and then will get sent to the editors for review.  I still need to recalibrate C14 dates for Northern Archaic and Palearctic, but that can get added to the final.

One of the things I’m involved in as part of the GHEA/Long-Term Sustainability RCN is a workshop on the Kurils & Aleutian Islands.  I’m a participant, not a discussant, which is a bit odd since I’ve never stepped foot in either one of them, or even worked on a collection from either area.  The workshop involves putting up some articles and a conference paper ahead of time, and some on-line discussion, in hopes that we will all be up to speed by the time we get to Seattle, and can hit the ground running.  I got put in a group looking at Ecological Dynamics and Paleoecological Histories, which is very cool.  I definitely have some catching up in the literature to do here, so I spent a chunk of the afternoon downloading the various papers & such folks in my group (and others) had put up.  I have put them into my Dropbox and synced my iPad, so I can read them while traveling.  It turns out I am not the only one who doesn’t have a conference paper done, and some of those that are there are not that formal :-).

I also need to find a way to get a paper I wrote on bearded seals in Greenland up.  I don’t have an electronic copy, but it seems pertinent.  One topic that seems to be coming up is possible sea ice extension into the region and folks seem to be making a few unwarranted assumptions about how species that are not now present in the area behave.  That would of course skew any climatic interpretations one might be trying to derive from faunal data.  I think the bearded seal paper covers that and provides a good example of some issues that are counter-intuitive.
And Barrow caught their final whale of the 2012 season!  Hey hey hey Anagi Crew!

View leaving the office.

Shortly after I got home there was a know at the door & flowers & balloons arrived! That was quite the surprise, since Glenn had already bought me a huge arrangement of flowers (and a Kindle Paperwhite, which is supposedly in transit).  I unwrapped them, and they turned out to be from the entire staff at UICS (arranged in secret by Tammy).  The flower arrangement is gargantuan!

Flowers & Balloons, with me for scale.
The flowers in close-up.

Now I am going to have cake.

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How to get writer’s cramp

I’m almost done with the last of the papers I (over)committed to.  I am waiting for one reference and the encyclopedia entry on frozen sites will be done.  I’ve got a few more references to add and a few more C14 dates to calibrate and the chapter on North Slope archaeology for a Point Hope bioarcheology volume will be ready to go off for review.  I have a general NS archeology document that I wrote and update on a regular basis that I use when people ask for background.  Because the available information about the published C14 dates from some of the earlier sites is not really sufficient to calibrate them (and the archaeologists haven’t published calibrated dates) I had been using BP (before present–present being 1950) dates in this, but decided that I needed to bite the bullet and get some calibrated dates.  Some more recent work has resulted in calibrated dates being available, so I can at least give date ranges for the various cultures in cal years, which should be an improvement.
I started to work on the two NSF proposals that are up next.  I am working on both a RAPID and a regular proposal for work on the Ipiutak component at Nuvuk.  Unfortunately the NSF Fastlane web site wouldn’t let me see any of the PDFs that it converts things to.  I’ll have to take this up with their tech support in the morning.

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A trip to the Point

On Friday afternoon we headed to Point Barrow.  I’d gotten KTUU set up with Aarigaa Tours, who picked them up in town at Top of the World Hotel, and then picked me up at my house at NARL on the way out to the point.  I’d run home from work to change into my warm gear.  A good thing, too, as will become clear later.

We’d been having a pretty strong blow from the NNW, and waves had actually been coming up onto the road.  The road to the point had actually been closed right by Piġniq (Birnirk), because the waves had been breaking over the road and had done some significant damage.  We were in a van equipped for off-road travel, so we were OK, but we had to detour through the cabin area. Once past there, the road was still in pretty good shape, but we could see water seeping in under the gravel berm.  Once we got out a bit farther we could see a number of vessels & barges that had come into Elson Lagoon to anchor up and wait out the rough weather.

Barges in Elson Lagoon, seen from the trail by the marked graves.

Once we got to Nuvuk and got a look at the site, it was a bit depressing.  However, it made a perfect example of coastal erosion in action, and made it really easy to illustrate how information about the past, which could have application to understanding what directions to take to have a sustainable future, is being lost.  At least 10 feet (3 m) of the site had been lost to the ocean since couple weeks ago.  The gravel slump that had been protecting the face was gone, and thawing permafrost was sticking out and undercut.

Exposed thawing Ipiutak level at Nuvuk.

And in that permafrost was the same strandline debris that has proven to be a marker for the Ipiutak occupation.  There was a large patch of what looked like fur or peat (which often seems to be found on the floors of Ipiutak structures) and an area where the wood seemed to be far more aligned and level than is normal for a strandline, but would be quite typical for an Ipiutak floor.  I tried to get decent pictures, but in the end decided I needed to try to get a sample.  I tried walking down on the permafrost, but it was angled, and I couldn’t get close enough without falling off. There were big waves, and the bluff was undercut.  If a really big one came at the wrong time, it could wash me off my feet.

Finally, I asked Ricky Bodfish, who was driving the tour van & giving the tour except for the archaeology part, if they had a rope.  He did, so he dangled it down the bluff by me, we waited until right after big waves when it looked like a lull and I went down to check it out and try to get close-ups and a sample.

Sampled peat in Ipiutak layer. My finger for scale.

The patch of material turned out to be peat, which I was able to sample, and will send out for dating.  My camera got some spray on it, but there was not way or time to clean the lens, so I just kept shooting.  Unfortunately a pretty big wave came and dumped gravel on the surfaces just before I got a shot off of the wood, (I managed to turn so I caught it on the side where KTUU’s microphone pack wasn’t) and I could hear the next one was even louder.  I ran, and made it into an area above the waves before the big one broke.

Edge of eroding Ipiutak layer showing some of the aligned wood. The white is the foam on the wave that is going under this layer into the bluff.

Fortunately, nothing soaked through the Carhartts so I just took them off for the rest of the trip.

We had been monitoring the tower we’d put out in June, and just a few days earlier had thought it would be fine.  However, the storm had taken out a lot of the bluff, and I wound up calling & texting the guys who work on the ARM project for UICS.  They wound up going out later that evening and hauling the whole thing about 50 feet (15m) farther back from the edge.  Just in time, since by the time they got out there, they figured it was 2-3 feet (< 1m) from the edge.

Getting close to the edge.

After that, the KTUU fellow wanted to see the farthest North point and go to the bone pile to see if there were any bears.  We set off, and almost immediately had to detour.  The trail we normally use to get to the site, which is always dry, had water all over it from the storm surge.

Trail covered by storm surge.

We made it to the farthest North point, which was a bit less far North than previously.  The storm surge had made it to the tip of one of the whale jawbones, and about 10 feet was missing here too.  However, we did get some nice light, and the KTUU guys got busy.

Crew and van near Farthest North Point
Dan Carpenter gets ready to shoot at the Farthest North Point.

KTUU crew at Farthest North Point.

Unfortunately, the trip to the bone pile did not come off.  The storm surge had caused it to nearly become an island.  Ricky was not sure how solid the ground was, and we did not want to get stuck there, so we gave it a miss.  On the way back to the road, it was really clear how much of the Chukchi side of the Point Barrow spit had been eaten.  The ocean was almost up to the berm along the road, and there used to be a fairly wide strip of gravel there.

Bone Pile surrounded by water.