A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

My post on the Anagi crew’s whale has gotten a number of comments from people who are interested, one way or another, in whales.  Some of them are genuinely interested in learning more about whales & Iñupiat whaling; others appear not to be.  I’m going to try to answer some of the questions, and provide links to sites that can give even more information.

But first,  see this Public Service Announcement.

OK, now a bit of history.  Alaska Natives (and in fact many other Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people) have been whaling for 2000 years or more, since before the Thule culture developed, based on archaeology.  Aboriginal whaling did not damage the whale stocks in any way that can be detected.  What damaged whale stocks was European (and later Euro-American) commercial whaling.  The bowhead was popular with commercial whalers because it was non-agressive and had a lot of blubber for whale oil, plus long baleen.  Most Eastern Arctic stocks were decimated by the early 19th century.

In the western North American Arctic, commercial whaler Thomas Welcome Roys first cruised north of the Bering Strait in 1848, starting a rush to catch the plentiful and naive Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads on which so many coastal Alaska natives and their inland trading partners depended.  The whales soon became skittish and scarce and many Alaska Natives died of starvation.

Once oil was struck in Pennsylvania, one of the big reasons for hunting whales diminished.  But the baleen, the plates in a whale’s mouth that they use to filter-feed, was still valuable for buggy whips and corset and collar stays.  Bowheads have by far the longest baleen of any whale (15 feet or more from a big whale), so they were still hunted until those items were no longer in fashion or needed.

Many coastal Alaska Natives had become involved in commercial whaling, including shore-based commercial whaling carried out with traditional Iñupiat techniques with Yankee style harpoons, to support their families.  After commercial whaling ended, coastal whaling communities continued these hunts, combining traditional techniques and traditional and modern technology.

In the late 1970’s, some Western biologists, who were not experienced in the Arctic and knew little about bowhead whales (biologists didn’t back then) tried to count bowheads.  They believed that the whales were scared of ice!  They thought the bowheads had to travel in a lead and would come up to breathe in the lead so they could be counted.  Even if that were true, they didn’t account for the fact that there are multiple leads, and that the whales only have to breathe every so often and that wouldn’t necessarily be where the observation post was.  They came up with a count of several hundred whales, and of course, sounded the alarm.  A moratorium was declared on Alaska Native whaling in 1977 (years before the moratorium on commercial whaling, I might add).

Since many families got (and still do get today) a significant portion of their meat from whales, this was a huge problem.  Although wages may look high in places like Alaska’s North Slope, costs are high too, and many families do not have someone who is working in the cash economy and can afford to feed a family on store food and whatever else they can hunt (and of course full-time work does interfere with hunting, which was traditionally a full-time occupation itself).  Most Iñupiat had never heard of the International Whaling commission, and couldn’t understand why they felt it appropriate to starve human beings by forbidding them to feed themselves.

They were particularly puzzled because senior whaling captains and hunters who had spent many decades on the ice had observed that the bowhead population appeared to be growing from the depths it had sunk to by the end of commercial whaling.  They knew that bowheads are not scared of ice.  In fact they can breathe under quite thick ice (they become positively buoyant and use the bow on their head where their nostrils are to push up the ice, cracking enough to let air into the little tented space formed under the ice and breathe there, and then submerge and go on about their business), and that they would not restrict travel to the near shore lead, so they knew the count was wrong.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, with many cooperating researchers over the years, has been studying bowhead whales ever since.  They soon developed a much better way to count them, which is continually refined.  Counts now show an annual rate of increase of 3.2%, which is really high for such long-lived animals.

The Alaska Native Bowhead hunt is highly regulated.   The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) manages the hunt under authority from the US government.  There is a quota of strikes (not whales taken, but whales struck so there is an incentive to land every whale struck if humanly possible), which is established based on document subsistence needs of each whaling community, in light of the population estimates. This quota is set so that communities get what they need and no more.  The harvest is considerably below what population biologists would consider a sustainable harvest if they were talking about elk, or caribou, or mule deer.  As long as something else, like marine noise or a massive oil spill in Arctic waters, doesn’t come along and decimate the population the way commercial whaling did, this is absolutely a sustainable harvest, carried out by people who entire culture is centered around that harvest.

The AEWC divides the quota between communities, based on active crews and population, and approves the transfer of strikes between communities (if, say, the ice is bad in one place and they can’t catch whales, they may transfer their strikes to a place with better conditions) since the maktak and meat is shared and everyone on the North Slope and beyond benefits if whales are taken.  Only captains and crews registered with the AEWC are allowed to take whales, and violations of rules, ceasefires, etc can and has led to punishment or suspension of the offending captain.

When a whale is taken there are traditional rules for sharing which vary by community.  In general, specific shares go the captain, the boat (itself–although obviously the boat owner disposes of the boat’s share), the harpooner, the other crew members, and the other boats which helped tow the whale back to be cut up.  Anyone who shows up to help with the butchering (even a little) gets a share.  My daughter helped a very little once when she was about 8, and she came home with a small share.  The captain’s wife and her helpers cook round the clock after the whale is ashore, and when they are ready, the captain’s flag is hoisted and anyone who wants can go and get fed (they will usually send to-go plates to house-bound Elders).

After that, the captain and crew get ready for a celebration where a great deal more of the whale is shared with whomever shows up.  People get whale meat, maktak, kidney, intestine, tail, flipper, gums, plus goose soup, mikiaq (whale blubber, meat & blood, fermented–and before you say gross, when was the last time you ate curdled drained milk with mold on it–AKA a nice Stilton or Brie?), rolls, cakes, fruit, etc.  Most families in the community go to at least one of these every year.  Many go to all of them.  The amount given to each person depends on how many in the family (and the servers pretty much know or the people sitting around do, so no one fibs).  Captains also give out meat & maktak at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts to whomever shows up (usually much of the community), and usually will provide some for potluck and other festivities as well.  They also share with Elders & folks who need it during the year.  Most of the folks with whom it is shared share it farther.  Shares travel to Anchorage and even to the Lower 48.  Some of the people who get shares send back things like berries or smoked salmon from their area, or caribou from the interior.

None of the whale, or any other marine mammal for that matter, can be sold, with the exception that Alaska coastal Natives can use baleen or bone or ivory to make handicrafts, which they then may sell.  They are not allowed to waste the rest of the animal just to get these products.

There is a great list of links to good solid information on the bowhead whale and bowhead hunt here.

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Chipping away at things

I’ve been chipping away at a bunch of things.  The main ones are the big Late Western Thule chapter and an associated project which involve evaluating every Birnirk & later C14 date I can get hold from Alaska, to see which ones hold up (a number that are cited a lot are really early solid carbon dates!) and what exactly was dated.  In some cases, what was dated was in a different house from the “diagnostic” which is purportedly being dated, and there is no a priori reason to think the houses are contemporaneous.  It may have been the best that could be done at the time, but some revision is needed here.  Once those are done, I can finish the two other papers I am working on.

We got the symposium for the Alaska Anthropological Association meeting more or less put together, pending any additional papers submitted as general papers that the organizers may send us, and next week we’ll just have to decide on an order so the conference organizers can get their materials to the printer in good time.

I’ve also been invited to be a speaker at a small conference on Sustainability and Heritage in Kirkwall, Orkney which is sort of the main kick-off for a Research Coordination Network (RCN) on Global Long-Term Ecodynamics in which I am fortunate enough to be involved.  I’ve never been to Orkney, but I love the Shetlands, so I’m looking forward to it.  There are some great people involved, and we’re trying to do some really interesting things involving the use of archaeological data to illuminate questions about long-term sustainability.  I actually owe them an abstract by tomorrow (which it actually is in Orkney), so I better get to it.

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.

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.

Things get a bit exciting…

As is traditional at the end of a field season, things started getting a bit exciting.  The possible burial we found in STPs yesterday proved to be the real thing this morning, and the feature we worked on on Monday also turned out to be a burial. It is the deepest burial I’ve seen at Nuvuk in the fifteen years I’ve worked there.  It appears to contain two children, covered in fur.  We hope to finish it tomorrow.

I had hoped to be done with the DWF today, but fish bones kept coming, along with an arrowpoint, a worked walrus humerus, some worked bird bone, what look like a broken needle, and more lithics.  Recording all that with the transit took time.  We still had the windbreak up, but there wasn’t much wind, and since it was the second warm day in a row, the mosquitos were swarming.  Thank goodness I always have bug dope in my pack, or I don’t think much would have gotten done.

In other good new, the replacement for the Nikon Coolpix S9100 which I had for a week before it stopped working arrived, so I will have a pocket camera for snapshots.  More pictures for here without lugging the D200 home to download the card every night.


Back at it…

After a day off, we were back in the field today.  The GPR hits we tested were mostly concentrations of water, and buried whale bones (not part of graves, unless it was a whale grave).  However, we also looked at two other areas that had turned up in the trails on the first day’s walkover.  One proved to be nothing but a concentration of refuse.  The other wasn’t looking much more promising, with peat and a little wood, but we took it down to expose all the wood, and low and behold, a very large piece of wood indeed, which is a burial cover.  We will have to excavate that tomorrow.  There will also be a new set of GPR results to test.

The burial cover exposed. That is one piece of wood! The dustpan is covering what may be a bone, so the photo can be used for the public.

There is also some wood exposed on the erosion face at what looks like the Ipiutak level, including something that looks like architecture.

Notched log resting on another log. Ipiutak?

Occam’s Razor is going to be coming in handy

The fun with radiocarbon dates continues.  I did manage to get a proposal off to a client, make some preparations for the summer field season and take care of the usual admin sorts of things.  Otherwise, I was working on the C14 dates.

It was slow going, in part because I read French much more slowly than I do English, and I was working my way through the Blumer compendium of St. Lawrence dates, which requires looking in at least 3 places to figure out how to evaluate the dates.  In some cases, one also has to go to other books to look at what the original excavator recorded (or didn’t).  Thank goodness for the American Museum of Natural History and their very nice downloadable PDFs (although the link seems troubled at the moment) of their Anthropological Papers.  I had a couple of them on my hard drive, which saved me a trip to get the actual books.

Anyway, St. Lawrence is going to be quite a mess.  There are a lot of whale and walrus dates, and Dumond  has calculated a correction for them by paired dating with terrestrial plants.  The only problem is that the whales in St. Lawrence are the same stock as the whales they catch here, and whalebone C14 doesn’t turn over very fast (a couple of decades at least) so they average the ∂C13 over that period.  That means that the correction factor for those whales should be the same anywhere in their range.  We’ve worked on it here for the Nuvuk graves, and the correction factor that works is much smaller.  I’m guessing walrus ingest relatively huge amounts of old carbon and skewed the calculations…

There was a very nice evening sky on the way home.

Sky from NARL. It was actually brighter, but this exposure shows the colors best.

Wrestling with dating

That’s what I’ve been doing lately.  No, not that kind of dating.  I’ve been wrestling with how old sites are, combined with the catching up after travel and working on taxes and other forms, it’s kept me busy enough that blogging kept coming in second to sleep.

I got started on this because I agreed to write a chapter for a forthcoming handbook of arctic archaeology dealing with Western Thule to Late Precontact in Northern & Western AK.  The northern part was fairly easy, since this is where I have been working for years, and I know the literature inside out, and am responsible for most of the C14 dates in that time frame, as it turns out (a lot of the major sites here were excavated before C14 dating was invented) but I needed to brush up a bit on the more southern parts of the area, I felt.  When I started doing that, I realized that terminology was a bit fuzzy (early investigators tended to think the entire sequence had to be present, and to call things, say, “Birnirk” because they thought there must be Birnirk, rather than because there were any diagnostic (types or designs only found in one culture) Birnirk artifacts at the site.

Then it became clear that people were using some artifact types as “index fossils” without being clear that they were really only in use for a limited time period.  So if they found such an artifact in a feature, they assumed the feature was used at the same time as all other features with that artifact in them.  Fairly recent C14 dating of some such artifacts has shown that some are pretty good to use, and others were being made for hundreds of years, so they aren’t really much help.

There is a pretty good dendrochronological (tree ring) series for the southern part of the area, due to Lou Giddings‘ pioneering work.  This has enabled people to date wood, although in some cases the possibility of wood reuse seems not to have been considered thoroughly, and only one log dated in a feature.  Then artifacts and artifacts assemblages (groups of artifacts often found together) found in that feature have been dated from the dendro date, and similar assemblages have been assumed to be about the same age.

Add the fact that there are a number of beach ridge complexes  in the area (Cape Krusenstern, Cape Espenberg), which develop over time.  Once people figured that out, it was a logical (and frequently correct) assumption that maritime-adapted people would choose to live on the ridge closest to the ocean.  From there, it was only a short step to deciding that all features on a particular ridge were fairly close in age.  In fact, as people have started doing more C!4 dating, and understanding how to interpret the dates better, it’s clear that isn’t the case.

As you can see, it’s not a pretty picture.  Add the tendency of earlier researchers to conflate time periods (as they understood they) with archaeological cultures, and things get really confusing.  Since this is a handbook, which one assumes is meant to be around for a while (although come to think of it, the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, in which I have a co-authored article, is in a 2nd edition less than seven years after the original came out), one would like to write an article that will not be rendered obsolete immediately.

So….  I’ve been going through the literature actually looking at the details of dates given for sites, dendro, C14 or otherwise, and am evaluating them on 9 different criteria to try to winnow out dates that are really reliable to base the chronology on.  That doesn’t mean other sites/features won’t be mentioned, but it does mean I’ll avoid putting hard dates on them, or using them as a basis to date yet other sites.

This is not fun.  I just hope it’s productive.

18th Arctic conference–Part 4 (Day 2-AM)

This penultimate chapter is a bit belated, to say the least, due to holidays, much travel and associated presentations, and proposal preparation.  However, there were some very interesting papers on the final day as well, and I decided I needed to get this written before yet another conference happened.  And I needed a break from final tweaking of the PowerPoint for said conference.

The first paper was by Molly Odell, on economic change at  Mitksqaaq Angayuk between 3400-100BP.  The site, on Kodiak, seems to have had discontinuous occupations from Early Katchemak to the Russian occupation.  Molly focused on the fauna from a midden associated with an Alutiiq house.  The house seemed to have been occupied primarily by men, based on the artifacts.  The midden showed a change from a pre-contact mixed fishery (primarily cod but with significant amounts of salmon and small amounts of other locally available fish) to a fishery focused almost entirely on cod in the historic period.  Molly interprets this as a shift from a winter settlement to a cod-fishing camp, presumably staffed by men.

Jennifer Raff gave a paper on mitochondrial aDNA (ancient DNA) from the Lower Alaska Peninsula & Eastern Aleutians.  This is interesting, as there are disagreements about how/when various cultures in that area appeared, and whether or not they represent in situ (in place) developments or population replacements.  This work may help settle some of those questions.  Not to spoil any surprises, as this paper is being published, but both haplotypes A & D are well represented, and there is B from one site!

Rick Knecht, a fellow Bryn Mawr College PhD, gave a “just out of the field” talk about excavations at Nunalleq, a Yup’ik site in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta.  The Yup’ik culture is quite well-known ethnographically, but almost no archaeology has been done in the area.  Nunalleq, for which there is a date of 1300BP (not sure if that’s calibrated or what it’s on or associated with) has extraordinary organic preservation at the moment, but is suffering erosion, which is accelerating due to permafrost melting and sea level rise.  The local community actually contacted the archaeologists in concern.  The 2010 season excavated a house, with lots of organic artifacts (rye grass matting, for example) present on the floor.  They think it might have been a men’s house, which are known for the Yup’ik from the ethnographic record, based on the low numbers of women’s artifacts recovered.  There was a burnt side room, with a large number of arrowheads present, which is possibly a result of conflict.  More work is planned.

Chistyann Darwent followed with a report on the 2010 work at Cape Espenberg, a beach ridge complex which is located near Kotzebue in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.  This project has been doing survey there for a couple of years and has surveyed and mapped extensively, especially the more recent periods.  They have actually been able to excavate several houses (one on each of the 3 Thule-age ridges) to a considerable extent.  One thing they discovered was that the surface mapping did not necessarily give a good picture of what was under the ground in terms of houses, side rooms and so forth.  One of the houses seems to have burned, although why is not yet clear.  They excavated an outdoor ceramic manufacturing area (inadvertently–it looked like part of the house from the surface).  The houses on the oldest and middle Thule ridges had Thule 2 harpoon heads associated with them, suggesting that they were fairly early.  The also found a copper eyed needle, slat armor.  The tunnel floor was lined with baleen.  The youngest house was of a type that was familiar to the project’s elder consultant, who had been in the US Army during the Korean War, since he’d grown up in a similar house.  It had lots of evidence for fishing.  The dates were a bit later than prior testing had led them to expect, the oldest around 1260-1400BP, the middle 1450-1650BP.

Justin Tackney gave a paper on mDNA (mitochondrial DNA) from Nuvuk, as well as presenting the new direct dates that Joan Coltrane has for the human remains. The results show a number of haplogroups hypothesized to be founders to modern Inuit populations all in one area, which is new.  In general, this supports a Thule expansion from North Alaska.

I got the slot before lunch, and gave a paper looking at the material culture of modern Iñupiat whaling.  I am using this as a way to approach what sort of evidence might be expected in archaeological sites of whalers, and where that evidence might be found.  Essentially, the modern case has a number of artifacts that are needed for whaling and nothing else, most of which have pre-contact equivalents.  The interesting thing is that they are generally not stored in the house, which implies that excavations focused on houses may not be able to address presence/absence whaling too well.

Papers and articles and PowerPoints, oh my…

Despite the fact that I am still in New York on vacation (except for things like on-line payroll and P-card reviewing and approving, which can’t wait), I’m taking a bit a of a break from reading mysteries and eating Christmas goodies to work on several things I have in progress.  I’m not going to be able to finish any of them, since I don’t have any books here for checking references, and most of the images I want to use are in the Aperture vault  on my computer back in Barrow.  However, I can do outlines, and get a fair bit of the text drafted before I get home, at least for some of them.

In order they are: 1) PowerPoint & accompanying paper on Iñupiat and Cold War Science for a conference in Munich, 2) encyclopedia article on Western Thule 1300-1750AD in North & Northwest Alaska (in 7000 words maximum!), 3)PowerPoint on Alaskan archaeological sites and threats to them from climate change as it has been observed to be occurring for a conference in Tromsø, Norway, 4) article I’m working on with Claire Alix and Owen Mason on Ipiutak at Nuvuk, 5)  encyclopedia article on Barrow sites (Nuvuk, Birnirk and Utqiagvik), 6) paper on ethnographic data on storage of whaling gear, and 7) a paper on whaling gear recovered from archaeological sites which are known to have had whaling taking place.

These all have places they are to go, and times they need to be there.  Nothing concentrates the mind like deadlines, except perhaps the threat of execution…

Piles of Wood

One of the great things about doing archaeology in the Arctic is that the preservation can be spectacular.  Artifacts often froze the winter after they were abandoned, and only thawed when they were excavated.  This means we get to find a lot of the bone, wood ivory and leather items that were undoubtedly part of most precontact people’s tool kits.  We don’t have to guess at what people were using or extrapolate from a few stone tools that did manage to be preserved; we can see it firsthand.

This is not always an unmixed blessing.  Arctic archaeology  sometimes suffers from an embarrassment of riches.

Boxes with wood from the Driftwood Feature (DWF).

In the past, archaeologists generally only saved the artifacts from a site.  Animal bones and soil were pretty much ignored, or at best documented in the field (there are a lot of excavated houses in the Arctic where the animal bones are still piled at the edge of the excavation where they were left decades ago).  As archaeological science advanced (radiocarbon dating began about 60 years ago) and people began to do more things with faunal (animal) remains and soil samples, people began to collect a lot more, and to bring it back to museums to save, on the assumption that one day someone would be able to do something informative with it.  The idea is still a good one in theory, but it is bumping up against various realities.  For one thing, in most areas these sorts of things require storage in climate controlled conditions or they will deteriorate and become useless.  They are often quite bulky compared to just the artifacts.  Most museums simply don’t have any place to put all this stuff!  Some of the better-funded places, like the Smithsonian Institution, have built large off-site storage facilities in areas where real estate is a bit less expensive, just to keep all this stuff.  But such places require operational funds and new staff, and that costs money too.  Most places can’t really afford that.  Some institutions have started charging for putting collections there, but there are problems with that as well.

So part of the new reality for archaeology is that we can’t keep everything.  The question is how to decide what to keep and what not to keep.  In general, the artifacts are kept.  No problem there.  The issue is how to deal with the other things.

It’s even more complicated for the Nuvuk project.  We have had several areas where massive amounts of organic material, with some artifacts and faunal remains mixed in, were encountered.  While one might normally choose to excavate this all in the field, in a couple of cases the areas were right at the erosion face, and could literally have vanished overnight.  Combine that with a very cold field situation, where mild hypothermia can dull excavators’ thought processes, it didn’t seem like that was the best plan, since it risked data in a variety of ways.  I decided to take tightly-provenienced (with very accurate information on where they were from) bulk samples, which can then be processed in the lab, where it is warm and we have good lighting, magnifying lenses and water to wash the dirt and gravel off so we can get a good look at everything.  If excavators recognize an artifact in the field, it gets recorded there, but the idea is that we’ll find the less obvious ones in the lab.

Contents of one bucket shot laid out on a tray.
A closer look

One of the areas with a massive amount of organic material was what we called the Driftwood Feature.  This level is about 1 meter (39 inches) below the Thule graves.  It was actually permanently frozen, and therefore everything organic was in great shape.   It looks like there was an Ipuitak dwelling (maybe there were more that had already eroded–we don’t know) on a ridge near the ocean.  Sometime between 300-400 AD there was a huge storm, which washed all sorts of things (driftwood, bark, marine invertebrates, shellfish, peat, etc.) up onto the beach, all the way up to where the people were living.  It left what is called a strand-line.  It looks like they either left in a hurry and didn’t come back, or didn’t survive, since a number of artifacts were still there. The strand-line continued along what had been the beach ridge, and we wanted to see if there was any evidence of more human activity besides the one dwelling.  Because there was so much wood, and a number of the artifacts at the dwelling had been wood, we had a needle in a haystack problem, with the haystack about to fall into the ocean (which it did the next winter).  So we bulk sampled.

Close-up of the Ipiutak layer at DWF. We excavated many square meters of this!

Now we are going through some of the bulk samples.  I’ve been very lucky to have Dr. Claire Alix, a French scholar who specializes in Arctic driftwood and its use by humans, involved with the project since the very early days.  She was based in Fairbanks, Alaska, for many years, but has recently gotten a teaching and research position at the Sorbonne in Paris.  This is wonderful, since Claire is a great person & really deserves it, but it certainly complicates the logistics of her research on this wood!

Dr. Claire Alix in the Nuvuk Lab

Claire arrived on this morning’s plane, and is already hard at work going through samples from 2009 which were excavated after she left the field.  She is looking for all worked (altered by people) items, picking out things that we can’t yet identify for further examination, and recording amounts & types of wood, bark, and other identifiable organics.  The non-worked identified material is then being lab discarded.  I’ve got the computer map up and color-coded so Claire can look at it when she needs to, Laura is unwrapping the samples, and I’ll probably end up doing the data entry in the catalog.  She leaves again on Wednesday night, and won’t be back in the US until sometime after January, so we’ve got a lot to do, and not much time to do it.

Claire and Laura hard at work.
Lab discards--on closer examination they turned out not to be cultural.

Later this fall we are going to start going through soil samples and so forth.  We hope to be able to reduce the volume they take up.  Some of that will be done by separating the actual sample material of interest from the gravel matrix.  Where that isn’t possible (for example with large logs or whalebone) we will have to sub-sample, retaining only a portion of the total sample volume.  Otherwise, we’re going to run out of room.