In Fairbanks, looking for walrus

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:

Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth when she took it out of the outer bag.
Nicole holds a bag from which the bones on the tray burst forth (like a scene from Alien) when she took it out of the outer bag.  Sadly, these were almost all ringed seal parts.  Other bags from that box are on the right.

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.

Really big fish bone.
Really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.
The other side of the really big fish bone.

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.

The deceased see a dentist

This week, the individuals we excavated this summer saw a dentist.  This is not as silly as it may sound.

The various individuals whose burials we excavate at Nuvuk are not kept in a museum somewhere for future study.  That is the way things were done in the past, but nowadays that is not acceptable to most descendant communities (people who consider themselves descended from the individuals whose remains are in question).  There are laws specifically to protect Native American graves, as well as laws which protect all graves regardless of the ethnic origin of the occupant.  This is a good thing, but it does mean that either research has to be completed very quickly, or new ways to save data for future research need to be found.

The current residents of Barrow, some of whom are the children of people who grew up at Nuvuk, generally think people should be left where they were buried, absent a pressing reason to move them.  In general, I agree.  My primary research interests don’t involve digging up burials, which makes it odd that I’ve been involved in excavating over 70 of them at Nuvuk over the years.  The thing is, the point is eroding, and if the graves aren’t excavated and moved, their occupants will wind up in the ocean.  So there is an urgent reason to be doing these excavations.

Since they are happening, most folks in Barrow agree that it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the individuals, prior to reburying them in the Barrow cemetery.   I’ve mentioned that a rib is saved for aDNA extraction, which takes place in Dennis O’Rourke’s lab at the University of Utah.  Everything else happens in Barrow.  For a number of years, the Dental Clinic at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital has sent one or more dental externs (dental students who have come to Barrow to get practical experience in the clinic) to work with the Nuvuk Archaeology Project for a day or two at a time.  Sometimes they have come to the field with us, but their primary role has been in the lab, where they examined the teeth of the various individuals whose remains we have recovered.  In addition to recording the teeth on standard dental charts, including information on disease and anomalies, they have made casts of the teeth, just like the ones dentists make of live patients in their offices.  The idea came Amanda Gaynor-Ashley, DDS, until recently head of the dental clinic, who was visiting the lab a few years ago and noticed that some of the skulls had unusual dental patterns that looked just like those she was seeing on patients in the chairs at the clinic.  Dentition (shape and arrangement of the teeth) is highly heritable (it runs in families).  Since the individuals we were looking at were going to be reburied, Mandy suggested trying to cast their teeth.  It worked well, and each since the externs have done it for the individuals excavated that year.  Even after they are buried, we will have an accurate representation of their teeth for future researchers.

Casts of upper and lower jaws of 10A927
Cast of all that remained of 10A928's tooth rows

Since we started doing this, I stumbled across a mention of a collection of dental casts of living Barrow residents which was made by a researcher in the 1950s.  It apparently still exists, so the casts we are making as part of the NAP may well have an important place in a future research project.

Some of the casts from previous years.
More of the casts.

Later this week, Shawn Miller, the physical anthropologist from the University of Utah will arrive.  We will have to get the casts put away before that to give him maximum space to work.