Getting a bit cross-eyed…

I’ve been working on dating the various samples from the WALRUS project.  Since walruses are marine mammals, direct C14 dating is problematic.  In fact, that is one of the things we are looking at with the project.  We ran a number of sample pairs of walrus  and terrestrial material and compared the offsets.  The bad news, there is not just one offset.

That meant that we couldn’t just use that to correct walrus dates.  So, we are reliant on construction of chronologies using the caribou dates we have run, as well as other available dates, to figure out how old the walrus samples are.  This is simple when we have a terrestrial sample from the same context.  When we don’t we need to see if we have dates from earlier and/or later levels (both is better) which gives us boundaries for the context we are trying to date.  To do that, we need to understand how the layers were arranged.  I’ve been using

For some sites, we have very little information beyond the mound or midden square from which the samples came, or the depth of the arbitrary level they were excavated from.  For others, we have more detailed stratigraphic information.  I’ve been developing schematic descriptions of stratigraphy for the sites from which we have samples , using the Harris Matrix as a means of representation.  Some of these are relatively easy to do and others are more complex.  For simplicity’s sake I have only been including sampled contexts in the Harris matrices, although someday I can add other excavated units.  The  one on the left below is from a site where we have little information on most mounds (we have samples from six), and those we do have info on were apparently dug in arbitrary levels, as far as can be told from the field notes.  The one on the right shows the two sampled  mounds from a site where I have extremely detailed provenience information.


These help me check that the dates we have are consistent with the stratigraphy, and are helpful in construction of more complex dating models in OxCal.   The process helps me think about how the models should be built, and also serves as a bit of a check, since having a crude model with some dates makes it easier to spot cases where a complex model may have been specified incorrectly (and therefore is giving incorrect results).

Walakpa Zooarchaeology

Last week I went to the Alaska Marine Science Symposium 2017 meetings in Anchorage.  I’ve never gone to those meetings before, but we were presenting two posters on finds from Walakpa.

At the poster session.  Photo courtesy Raphaela Stimmelmayr.

One was on the results of the necropsy of a mummified seal found in a 1944 ice cellar.  I was excited about it because it was pre-bomb with a pretty tight date and therefore helpful for refining radiocarbon correction factors.  It turns out to be the first mummified seal reported from anywhere outside the Dry Valleys of Antarctica!  Who knew?


The second was presenting some preliminary results of investigations on a polar bear skull which eroded from Walakpa, and was recovered and turned in by Kenneth Brower.  It turned out to be somewhat unusual in shape, as well as being really big (maybe the 4th largest ever measured).  That bear must have been HUGE!



Talking about Climate Change and Threats to Heritage

I spent most of the day talking about climate change threats to cultural heritage and archaeological resources.  I started off at a fairly conventional session about archaeology at various sites in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, which had a number of interesting papers, many based on analysis of well-preserved faunal remains.

I then went on to the first formal meeting of the newest SAA committee, on Climate Change Strategies and Archaeological Response (CCSAR).  Dan Sandweiss, who is the SAA board liaison, as well as being one of the earlier people to call attention to the importance of archaeological sites as archives of paleoenvironmental data, as well as the obvious archaeological data.  It seems to be a really great group of people,working in a lot of different places, all of which are having some climate issues.  Most of them are interested not only in saving data, but in what that data can tell us about past climates, and about how people adapted to changes in them.  As one person said, “We really don’t have much data about the Archaic, the last time people lived sustainably in North America.”  This may be a bit of an exaggeration, especially for Alaska, but basically the idea is correct.

After that, I had to go to an appointment in the book room.  We will see what comes of that in due time.

Then there was another interesting session on Heritage Tools for Tackling Climate Change.  This included a variety of talks on ways people are dealing with the effects of climate change.  One had to do with melting ice patches in Glacier National Park, and how the Park Service had dealt with material coming out, in consultation with the local Native American community, as well as studies they were doing so they could be proactive.  Another paper included information on the California Cultural Resource Management (CRM) community’s efforts to get public lands on the coast surveyed completely.

There was some discussion about whether the US ban on revealing any site location data helps or hurts.  Most other countries will reveal that data, although they may wait until very valuable materials have been properly excavated in some cases.  They have found that it decreases looting, if anything.  It also helps people avoid inadvertent damage that happens when people don’t know a site is there, and lets them report on changes in site conditions. So instead of a few archaeologists, lots of people can keep an eye on the sites.  Here they can’t do that.  I suspect, as do many others, that the people who are serious looters already know where the sites are, and have a pretty good idea where to prospect for more.  On the other hand, when the US government shut down for a couple of weeks in 2013, looting exploded in the National Parks.

Tomorrow morning the session I organized on Global Change Threats to the Archaeological and Paleoecological Record (not snappy, but lots of buzzwords for search engines) happens.

Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting

I spent most of the week in Seattle at the Arctic Observing Open Science meeting.  Ben Fitzhugh and I were the point persons for the broader GHEA/IHOPE Emerging Knowledge Hub on Global Environmental Change Threats to Heritage and Long Term Observing Networks of the Past.  This is a long and fancy way of talking about the threats that sea level rise, ice retreat, and permafrost warming pose for archaeological sites in the North.  Since this was not an archaeological meeting, most of the folks were either natural scientists or resource managers.  We focused on the kind of data that archaeological sites contain that are more than relevant to answering the kinds of questions they are asking, while pointing out that the data is vanishing quickly.  The library is on fire!

Waves eat at the Utqiaġvik bluffs.
Waves eat at the Utqiaġvik bluffs.

Ben and I each were the lead on a talk (both massively multi-authored), and we also did a poster, with a similarly large number of contributors.  Ben’s talk was in the Marine Ecosystems session.  It seemed like it interested the audience, which was primarily oceanographers, and related agency and funding folks.

Mine was in the Human Dimensions session, since the Coastal Processes session we had aimed for apparently didn’t get enough papers.  I followed a paper on frozen heritage (primarily ice patches and the preliminary stages of development of site evaluation schema) by Martin Callanan and Shelby Anderson, so the issues were thoroughly driven home.  The audience included a number of natural scientists (!), and the discussions included the relevance of archaeology to both other fields of research and to developing toolkits for sustainability.

Our hope is we woke some of our colleagues up to both the potential of archaeological sites to provide data, and the need to find a way to get that data that doesn’t rely entirely on Arctic Social Science funding.

My talk and the poster are up on both my and ResearchGate pages, if you would like to see them.

Reports, reports, reports

I’ve spent the last month writing almost non-stop.  However, none of it was posts on here.  We had done a number of CRM projects this summer, and the results had to be written up.  Five reports later, that is more or less done, pending a couple of possible new illustrations.

I’m working on a couple of projects for a client who is in the early stages of planning some big infrastructure projects.  Instead of waiting until the design and site selection is nearly complete and then considering cultural resources, which often leads to unfortunate surprises, unnecessary expenses and project delays (which are then blamed on archaeology instead of poor project planning), they are actually trying to get a handle on what cultural resources might be located in the possible Area of Potential Effect (APE) and what dealing with them appropriately might entail.  This  seems like a way better approach and should be a win-win.

This weekend, I’m working on a paper and a poster for the Arctic Observing Open Science Meeting in Seattle in 2 weeks.  I had hoped to give the paper in a proposed Coastal session, but apparently there weren’t that many coastal papers, so it looks like I’ll be in the Human Dimensions session.  Sort of ironic, given that I’m talking about the paleoenvironmental data that Arctic sites can contain, and how that data is at imminent risk of being destroyed by global change effects, and pretty much taking the human dimension information potential as a given.  That’s pretty much been the basic premise of archaeology since the days of CJ Thomsen & JJA Worsaae.  I’m spending a part of next week in Anchorage, so I want to get it more or less done before I go.

EAA 2015 and Glasgow

We went to Glasgow where the 2014 European Archaeology Association was held, by way of Anchorage and Reykjavik.  Because flights from Barrow are disrupted fairly frequently, we went down a bit early, and had a chance to visit with our daughter.  There was a pretty amazing double rainbow and a nice lenticular cloud.

The rainbow
The rainbow
Closer shot of the rainbow
Closer shot of the rainbow
Lenticular cloud over the Church Mts.
Lenticular cloud over the Church Mts.

We flew Icelandair to Reykjavik and then from there to Glasgow.  Glasgow was great.  The people who live there seem really proud of their city.  The cab driver on the way in from the airport was recommending museums, and in particular Christ of Saint John on the Cross by Dali at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Musuem.  Glasgow was once the second most prosperous  city in the UK, and the residents seem to have been very civic-minded.  The Kelvingrove was built to house the collections that were donated by prominent Glaswegians, using funds from an international exposition and public subscriptions.  It houses a fair bit of Charles Rennie Mackintosh material.  We got in a good visit our last day there.  Unfortunately, some of the other Mackintosh venues were under renovation.

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Charles Rennie Mackintosh cabinet
Charles Rennie Mackintosh cabinet
Charles Rennie Mackintosh table & chairs.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh table & chairs from one of the famous tea room interiors.

The meetings were held in various venues at the University, including some very old lecture halls and more modern buildings.

University of Glasgow Main Building tower
University of Glasgow Main Building tower
Nuvuk Archaeology Project alum Dr. Tony Krus chairing a session in a centuries-old lecture hall
Nuvuk Archaeology Project alum Dr. Tony Krus chairing a session in a centuries-old lecture hall

We spent most of our time around the University.  There were a number of good restaurants & pubs, particularly along Ashton Lane.  We tried a bunch of them.  We never made it to this one,which was apparently an isolated inn before Glasgow got so big, near a pond where local curlers used to throw rocks.  This is apparently where they went afterwards back then, as curlers are wont to do :-).

Curlers' Rest
Curler’s Rest

Our session (Archaeology and Climate Change) was heavily advertised.  Tom Dawson, the organizer, had managed to get leaflets put up all around campus before the session, so it was very well attended.  As you can see, there were participants from all over.  I talked about the threats to frozen coastal sites from climate change, with an emphasis on the Barrow area.  I was able to incorporate images from the storm that had happened the week before.  There were some other pretty bad situations, but none that were worse.  On the other hand, some people are making strides in dealing with these issues with public help, which is good given the turn-around time for even successful funding applications.

Poster for our session on
Poster for our session on Archaeology and Climate Change.

The conference featured a very nice party, spread across two venues, both within a block of our hotel!  One was Òran Mór, a converted church which now houses performance space and a bar.  The upstairs had been rented for the party.  It had obviously been redone from its days as a church.  The other was the glass house at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens, just across the way.

Òran Mór from the outside, with a blue halo on the tower.
Òran Mór from the outside, with a blue halo on the tower.
Interior space at Òran Mór
Interior space at Òran Mór, with a crowd of EAA delegates
Approaching the Glass House at the Glasgow Botanic Garden
Approaching the Glass House at the Glasgow Botanic Garden

The conference banquet was held in the main hall at the Kelvingrove.  It was sponsored by Glenmorangie (the distillery near Glasgow) so there were samples of a couple of their special products.  After the speeches and dinner, there was a fine band and dancing.

Dancing at Kelvingrove. BT Wygal and Katie Krazinski by pillar at center.
Dancing at Kelvingrove. BT Wygal and Katie Krazinski by pillar at center.

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.

A quick recap

This summer was unexpectedly quite on the archaeology front.  The non-profit through which my grants were run had some problems, which meant that work had to stop and I had to move my grants.  This turned into a rather long drawn-out process, with many fits and starts.  In the end, I was appointed as a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College and the three grants on which I am PI (Principal Investigator) were moved.  We are still finalizing moving the purchase orders to allow for work to proceed on the WALRUS grant, but hope to get it done this coming week.

We had hoped to be doing some work at Walakpa, which had survived the winter unscathed, but despite the North Slope Borough asking for UIC Science’s Certificate of Insurance, which usually happens when a contract is about to be awarded (good thing, the insurance company charges to issue those things), nothing was issued.  Then came the first week in September.

I was in Point Hope monitoring the drilling of a geotechnical test hole for a possible fiber project.  It took an extra day to get there from Kotzebue, because the weather was so stormy that planes couldn’t land in Point Hope.  We didn’t find anything during the drilling, but the extra day gave me a chance to visit with Molly Odell and some other colleagues who had been working in Kotzebue and look at some of what they had recovered during their field season.  That was fun, but unfortunately the same storm really did some damage at Walakpa.

The site was undermined by high surf.  Mark Ahsoak Jr. kept me posted (Taikuu Mark) via Facebook message, and it was pretty depressing.   In the end, the house we were working on last year seem to have been entirely obliterated.  A big slump block broke off and is resting on the beach.

Slump block on the right, intact strata on the left. Notice the Visqueen on both sides.

I went down with a crew from UIC Science Logistics to evaluate it.  We found that there had been a lot more Visqueen under the surface than we had thought.   The stratigraphy is very complex, with a very large feature containing solidified marine mammal oil, some artifacts and what appears to be maqtaq at the landward edge of the slump block.

Marine mammal oil feature.
Marine mammal oil feature.

Unfortunately, the marine mammal oil feature is starting to break loose from the  main slump block and tip back into the crack between the block and the intact site.  We put driftwood props under it, and then stopped all work under the overhang, since it could easily kill someone.

Side view of overhanging block of marine mammal oil. Note crack on the left.

We didn’t find any loose artifacts, although there were a number of visible artifacts that were frozen in.   Some folks had been collecting them and turning them in, which is great.  I’d really like to thank everyone who has been helping in this way.  Unfortunately, some other people have just been collecting them.  Several of the artifacts that we saw the first day were gone by the time we returned.

After we headed home, the next day was spent in getting a crew and material to do some stabilization.  Several of the Barrow-based UIC subsidiaries pitched in with materials, crew and transport, and we went back to put some temporary protection on the site.  We were able to cover almost all the eroding surfaces with  geotextile fabric , secured with some cutdown metal support fasteners and sandbags.

Panorama of the site after the initial covering.

We made another trip down with the theodolite to map the new boundaries of the site.  This let us document the loss of over 33 feet (11+ m) in that storm alone.  We also put a lot more sandbags on the site, and so far it has resisted the weather.

The smell of old seal oil in the afternoon…

… can be a bit overpowering.  I chose one of the bags of frozen samples from Utiqiaġvik to thaw out for the lab tour after the Saturday Schoolyard talk.

The talk went well, with a very large turn out.  Afterwards, a fair number of them came by the lab for a tour.  And then I opened the bag.  It was from Mound 8, and was described as containing fish bones and perhaps artifacts embedded in seal oil.

Provenience tag from the bag.
Provenience tag from the bag.

It was rather smelly to say the least.  The oil made up most of the matrix, with a consistency like cold greasy peanut butter.  Not only that, the most obvious contents were wood chips and hair, which weren’t too exciting.  Most folks didn’t feel like hanging around too long.  Since it was my birthday & there was a party at my house, I didn’t finish the bag.

Today I got back to work on it for an hour or so.  It still smelled, I guess, but I think the smell of old seal oil is sort of nice.  It’s the smell of archaeological sites, and they are places I like to be.  The couple of extra days had let the oil warm up and it was a little easier to work with.

Contents of the bag.
Contents of the bag.

I found a number of interesting things, including a fish vertebra, some fish scales, a number of hairs, some bone fragments, and of course, wood chips.  When I was labeling the bags, I realized it had been excavated by none other than Kevin Smith, now at the Haffenreffer, exactly 32 years and 3 months ago.

Fish vertebra
Fish vertebra
Bone fragments

Tomorrow I’ll do some more.

Thinking about logistics & links

I am currently in Washington, DC, participating in a workshop on Arctic Research and Logistic Support planning.  The idea is to get a group of scientists working in the Arctic together to see what we think Arctic research will be like in 10-20 years, and what sort of logistic support will be needed.  Then, action steps to get there from here will be formulated.  One hopes it is not just an exercise in futility.

As is usual at such gatherings, there are not very many social scientists.  There are a lot of physical scientists (marine, terrestrial & atmospheric) and a fair number of biology types.  Many of the groups are quite interested in new “toys” (UAVs) and the like, as well as more icebreakers.  Better connectivity is also something that is high on most people’s lists, mine included.  What I find interesting as an anthropologist is how the cultures of various disciplines vary so widely.  One of the breakout sessions was organized more or less by location of research (with social sciences its own group).  I actually went to the Coastal group, since I’d just had lunch with Sophia Perdikaris & Genny LeMoine, both of whom are archaeologists, who were going to be in the social science group, and I thought it might be more valuable to get a social science voice into one of the other groups.

The variation in the visions of the groups when they reported back was quite striking.  Although there were some things all agreed on, one group saw research in 10-20 years as being done remotely.  They even thought that maybe social science could be conducted through social media.  Unfortunately they didn’t describe how they imagined one could excavate a site that way; I’m sure it would be a lot warmer than what I was doing last month!

While all that was going on, the Alaska Dispatch picked up Abra’s Arctic Sounder story.  Then Archaeology magazine added it to their website news, even asking if they could use a specific picture from this blog.  Then they used another one…  Oh, well.  And I got another interview request.

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.

2000+ miles of outreach–part 1

I’ve been busily writing away at a couple of overdue papers, and the students have been going great guns processing and cataloging artifacts in the lab.  While all this work is important, it doesn’t make for the most exciting blog posts, so I’ve been focusing on the papers.

Last week I wound up doing a couple of outreach events.  The first was a public talk at the Murie Science and Learning Center at Denali National Park.  Since I don’t live anywhere near Denali NP, this was no small undertaking.  I flew to Anchorage, rented a car  and went to the Apple store to pick up some video adapters for my Mac Air on Sunday, picked up my daughter Justine on Monday morning, and we made some sandwiches and set out.  It is a 240 mile (more or less) north out of Anchorage, up the Parks Highway to the Park and the MSLC.  I was speaking at 7 PM, but wanted to get there a bit early to make sure I found the place and my computer worked with their projector & so forth.

We had a pretty nice drive.  The weather was sunny, but since I was driving north that was no problem.  The drive is beautiful, although there were clouds around Denali (the mountain some call Mt. McKinley) so it wasn’t out.We stopped at a couple of viewing areas, but no luck.  There are actually mountains between Denali and the Parks Highway, but Denali is so big it would have been visible anyway except for the clouds.

Alaska Range from Parks Highway

We made good time to Denali.  It is very beautiful country, to my way of thinking, and gets prettier as you climb away from sea level and taiga forests with tundra on the mountains.  It took a bit of doing to find the MSLC, but we succeeded.

Pathway to Murie Science and Learning Center. The white dinosaur footprints lead to the MSLC from the Denali NP Visitors’ Center.

Closer view of MSLC.
Justine indicating where we are for the photographic record of the trip.
Main room of the MSLC, with a couple of park visitors and an interpreter.

We got in touch with NJ Gates, who runs the speakers’ program and she got us settled.  I made sure my computer worked with their projector.  Although this was not a paying gig, they were kind enough to put us up in a yurt that they have for visiting researchers.  Since there weren’t many around, we each got our own room.  I had brought down sleeping bags & a Thermarest (since we thought one of us would be sleeping on the floor) from Barrow.  The Park has wagons, and we used one to pull our gear to the yurt.  I somehow didn’t manage to get a picture of the outside or the bear-proof box into which all food and toiletries went.  The interior was divided into 3 rooms, 2 of which shared an entryway.  We got those two.

Bed in yurt, strewn with gear.
Interior view of yurt & skylight.

After we got settled, we went to the grill at the visitors’ center for a quick dinner, and headed back to give the talk.  We got a decent crowd for a Monday night, I thought.  It went well, except for the earthquake in the middle of it.  It was big enough to really shake the screen, and given that the MSLC is a heavy timber-frame building, I waited a few seconds to see if it would get bigger.  It didn’t, so on we went.  Some folks had a lot of questions, but we were all done, and in bed in the yurt by about 9:30.

This was important, because Justine had a doctor’s appointment in Anchorage at 11AM the next day.  We got up at 4:15, grabbed a couple of sandwiches & a drink and were on the road a little after 5AM.  The weather wants quite as nice, but it didn’t rain until we were nearly to Wasilla (yeah, that Wasilla), but stopped quickly a little later.  Still no sight of Denali, but the drive was beautiful.

Mountains along the Parks Highway.

We made it to the doctor’s office around 10AM, I dropped Justine off, met my husband for lunch (he was in Anchorage on his way back from Ketchikan to Barrow), and caught a plane back to Barrow on Tuesday night.

Wednesday, we got ready for a visit by kids from the City of Barrow summer program.  More about that in the next post.