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.

amss2017
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?

patou_amms2016_final

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!

theoldone_amms2016_final

 

Getting closer

Time is flying before the field season.  It has been insanely busy trying to get some projects to a point that they can be left for a few weeks while we’re in the field, while at the same time getting set to actually go to the field.  We have been ordering things, and waiting for them to get here so we can build things, or pack things or prep meals or…   And of course, this being the Arctic, shipping delays abound.  However, we have gotten the replacement cover for a Weatherport, all the recalled transit batteries, extra new batteries for the handheld radios, Rite in the Rain paper for field forms, the refurbished iPads, the nice new big First Aid kits, chaining pins, Sharpies (lots of Sharpies) and a bunch of other goodies.  I got my new tent stuff sack (the original lasted one trip, and all the duct tape in the world isn’t enough to hold what’s left together if I actually put the tent in it) and my InReach.  We are still waiting on the parts for a water screening station, and the dry goods.

The lab looks a mess, because everything is still out from the inventory, and needs to be packed, but some of the things to pack it in are part of the freight.  Not optimal, but it will sort itself out.

The freeze and chill food got in, and Kaare will be working with the volunteers to prep a lot of meals to freeze before we head down.  That is, once there are enough volunteers here.

The first of the volunteers were to get in Tuesday night, but the plane couldn’t land, so they all wound up heading back to Anchorage, getting in quite late.  One got on the early flight today on standby, but the rest are now coming tomorrow morning.  I figured maybe 2 nights in Anchorage would be a student budget-buster (having slept under some stairs once when stranded in England for a week on the way home from the field–Laker had raised ticket prices over the summer and I didn’t have a credit card), so I posted on a couple of northern archaeology Facebook groups, and had 5 offers of places to stay from folks in Anchorage within a couple of hours.  In the end, folks couldn’t get refunds for the nights they paid for (a downside of online booking, I guess), but if anyone else gets stranded overnight on the way in or out, at least I’ve got a bunch of phone numbers and we should be able to help out.  Gotta love Alaskan archaeologists.

Kaare made it to Walakpa, although there is still snow on the beach.  There has been a good bit more slumping, but it looks like the overhanging block that was making access so dangerous has fallen, which is a good thing indeed.  The plan is to try to take some of the heavy stuff down tomorrow, although that may change depending on if the freight makes it in.

We’ve also got a survey to finish before we go (only got the go-ahead a week ago) and maybe a desktop study as well, depending on their timeframe (just got the go-ahead today).  Oh, and a proposal, which was just requested yesterday.

And I need to finish making sense of a bunch of dates which I have calibrated for the WALRUS project.  It looks like we have decent ranges for many of the sites based on the caribou dates.  There are a couple of sites that are confusing (possible reverse stratigraphy in big mounds) and I haven’t been able to get copies of the field notes or talk to the excavators yet.  I’ve calibrated the walrus dates using the marine curve, and it is clear there is not a standard offset from the terrestrial dates.  I’m redoing it using the best available local delta R, but I know the one for Barrow is off by several hundred years (if you use it there are a lot of bones from archaeological sites that it indicates will be dying in a couple of centuries!) and there is one site in the walrus study where one pair of dates on associated caribou and walrus is several hundred years farther apart that the other pair.  Since walrus move around, some probably more than others,  it may not make sense until we figure out where the individuals were feeding.

A busy autumn

When I last posted I had just left for a trip to two conferences in Europe.  Since then, I’ve been in 4 countries, given two papers (at EAA 2015 in Glasgow and CHAGS 11 in Vienna), submitted an organized SAA session for next spring, come home, gone to Fairbanks for shotgun qualification, come back home, had two of the WALRUS project participants up here to cut samples from the bones that the interns have been finding in the collections, written part of two reports, drafted two abstracts for a meeting in November, and started on a proposal for an edited volume dealing with climate change & archaeology.  I haven’t managed to post at all.

Last week was a tough week for Barrow in many ways, with the deaths of several community members, including long-time mayor Nate Olemaun Jr..  On a brighter note, Barrow took three whales on Friday, and another three today.

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
IMG_0852
Grass?
IMG_0853
Bone fragments

Tomorrow I’ll do some more.

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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Visits to zoological collections

I am in Seattle for the Alaska Anthropological Association meetings.  Today was spent primarily in tours of the Burke Museum’s zoological collections (in the morning) and the marine mammal collections at NMML (in the afternoon).  The Burke has pretty impressive collections, especially when you add in the off-site material, and NMML has a good range as well.  After the tours, Jeff Bradley of the Burke took me to their off-site storage to look at whale mandibles.

I’ve been trying to track down whale mandibles ever since I was sent a picture of one from Cape Krusenstern and I saw one at Cape Espenberg that didn’t look like bowheads.  I didn’t think they were grey whales either, but I’m not as familiar with their skeletons.  There are bowhead skulls in front of every school in Barrow (& my daughter attended all three), the college, the library/heritage center, the city hall and the North Slope Borough building, as well as miscellaneous other sites around town, so I know bowhead jaws when I see them.

I found a couple that looked like possible matches, or at least members of the same family, so that is progress.  The Burke has pretty restrictive photo policies (they hold a lot of art, so the policies are based on that), which means I can’t put any photos up here without permission.  It would take days  & several person-hours of work at both ends, so I’m not going to try for a blog post.

Now off to bed so I can be bright-eyed & bushy-tailed (or at least halfway coherent) for our session tomorrow.  I don’t have to give any papers until afternoon, but still…  The other organizers have papers in the morning, so I’m guessing I’ll be moderating….  We’re only winging it a little 🙂

In Praise of Dolly Vardens

I was going to continue the story of the trip to Wainwright, but then there was a knock at the door.  Mike & Patsy Aamodt have a net out by Nuvuk, and often stop by to check on the proceedings (Mike was once an archaeologist, among many other things). They stopped by on the way home from checking their net, and were kind enough to share two Dolly Vardens from their catch.

Dolly Varden heading for the pan
Dolly Varden heading for the freezer

They were alive until a couple of hours ago, and one went straight to the oven and the other got vacuum sealed and went straight to the freezer.

Super tasty!  Thanks so much to Mike & Patsy!

Dolly Varden “trout” are actually char and can either be sea-run, spending part of their lives at sea, or landlocked, spending their entire lives in freshwater.  The name comes from a character in a Charles Dickens novel, who had a polka-dot dress, and after whom a type of 1870’s fashion was named.  The fish was probably named after the fashion.

I am going to save the skeleton for a comparative specimen.

Trip to Wainwright–Part 2

Once we finished with the original reason for the trip, we headed back to town for lunch.  The Olgoonik Hotel does have a very tasty grilled cheese sandwich, and they make their own soups.

Since there was time left, I decided it would be a good idea to go back to the general area where the possible road would go, since between the TLUI and the AHRS there were a number of nearby sites.  Given that many of them were not located by GPS (in some cases the only location data was something like “3 miles from Wainwright” it seemed like it would help my clients to know a bit more about the situation prior to actually trying to design a road.

The TLUI showed an area whose name translates as “a place to tent” very close to the find.  There was a fairly flat area between the river and a lagoon which looked likely (especially in the past, when sea level was a wee bit lower) so we went there.  There was some evidence of tenting, and a lot more of butchering, mostly of larger marine mammals, including beluga and maybe a porpoise (they are found around there, and the skull didn’t look right for a beluga, of which there were multiple examples).  But what there was also evidence of was archaeology.  And lots of it!  There were a veritable plethora of trenches, very overgrown, so this had all happened some time ago.

Old 1m x 1m unit
Two units separated by a baulk
Yet more excavations, at a slightly higher elevation.

Tim was fascinated, and wanted to clean a wall, so I headed off to get my trowel.  He’d started with a bone he found, and discovered that under the lichen the wall in question was very hard.  I started to clean it and immediately recognized oil-indurated sand.  It became clear that there were overlapping patches of oil induration at various levels, and that the area had been used to process marine mammals for some time.  It was a sunny day, and after a while the smell of marine mammal oil permeated the pit.  It’s the smell of archaeology in the north, and I love it.  Others may think differently.

This was very interesting, as one would expect that this much excavation would only happen if the archaeologists were finding things.  If one put several sterile trenches in, one would probably go elsewhere.  Yet, there is no site recorded in the AHRS at that location, and I’m not sure who did this.  There are a couple of hints in Waldo Bodfish’s autobiography with Bill Schneider, but there is still a mystery to solve there.

And then there’s Maudheim…

 

Plenty of fish

Excavation of the hearth & surroundings continued.  When we first found fish bones we were pretty excited.   We just keep finding more in and near the hearth and I must admit the thrill is rapidly fading 🙂 . We’re finding some other bone too, not all of which has been burnt past the point of recognition.

The egg was successfully extracted and packaged, and has made it back to the lab, I hope more or less intact.  We shall see when we start processing things.  If we can’t figure out what it was, Dennis said they’ll take a crack at IDing it through DNA.

Two neat finds

We started investigating the last GPR hit and came down on a jumble of wood.  The excavators were not optimistic, but I kept pushing to go a little further.  Eventually, this appeared:

Feature detected with GPR

The feature (I’m not calling it a burial until there is evidence of human remains) was jumbled because at some time after it was constructed, someone dug a hole in the middle of it.  And right beside where the hole had punched into the feature was this:

Antler arrowpoint

The hole just missed it.

The DWF (Ipiutak) levels had their own surprises.  We found a good bit of fish bone, some lithics (nothing diagnostic) and a lot of broken bone, but the really cool thing, which I found on the edge of the hearth, was a flattened but apparently complete egg!

The remains of the egg

18th Arctic Conference–Part 5 (Day 2-PM)

At last!  After a fine lunch, we reassembled in Dalton for the afternoon session.  We moved from Alaska to the North Atlantic, and a variety of Norse sites.  Tom McGovern kicked it off with an overview of what had been accomplished during the most recent IPY.  Much of this is due to the work of various NABO members.  He talked about some really neat school outreach programs, including one issuing GPS and camera to students & teachers to record archaeology and in the case of Iceland, place names.  He also highlighted a very interesting initiative to develop

Konrad Smiarowski talked about zooarchaeology associated with the Vatnahverfi Project, part of the Norse Eastern Settlement, Greenland.  The project involved survey and excavation (following NABO common protocols, which make for great inter-site inter-comparability).  He was looking at how the Norse immigrants adapted to a new environment with new (to them) resources.  He had evidence for the adoption of seal hunting, which the Norse seem not to have done elsewhere, despite the presence of seals, as well as hunting of walrus for ivory and birding.  Bones of harp and hooded seals, both of which are migratory, show up even at more inland sites, so it looks like either people are coming to the outer coast to hunt or the seals are being traded inland.  It looks like they were net or drive hunting.  Things seem to have been going on well, but increasing amounts of ice seem to have changed things, driving people to intensify sealing at the same time as it was affecting the local seal populations.  Things ended badly, as we know.

Ramona Harrison gave an interesting paper on the farm Gásir and its hinterlands, including various types of landscape (hayfields, pastures, etc).  She is working on the zooarchaeology as part of a long-term human eco-dynamics in Eyjafjörður, Northeast Iceland.  Unfortunately, my notes on this appear not to have been saved, so I won’t go into more detail, so as not to mis-report anything Ramona said, but it was quite interesting, and reports should be on the NABO website soon, if they’re not there now.

The final paper was given by Seth Brewington on work in the Faroes, particularly at Undir Junkarinsflotti.  It was abandoned in the 1300s due to repeated sand blows, which were a problem at that time in a number of places on the eastern side of the North Atlantic.  The paper dealt with the zooarchaeology, which is quite unique as bone preservation generally seems to be bad in the Faroes, and the idea of keeping bone is still relatively new.  The inhabitants seem to have been eating lots of birds (mostly puffins), even in comparison to other Norse sites, where the bird consumption seems to drop after the earliest settlement period. 

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.

A mystery tooth

One of the fun parts of the job is that people find all sorts of things around Barrow.  Often, they show them to me, or at least send me pictures.  In a lot of cases I can ID them, but I’m not expert on extinct fauna, and the printed/online resources available are not as good as those for modern critters.

I usually send pictures to some folks at UAF (University of Alaska Fairbanks), since they actually have a pretty good collection.  Unfortunately their current curator of mammals flatly denies any knowledge (!) of extinct animals, and doesn’t seem inclined to rural residents of the state that pays his salary by taking a peek in the collections to try to make an ID.  So I’m broadening the search.

This particular tooth was given to the current owner.  Matu believes it was found in a gravel operation near Barrow, AK.  He’s really anxious to know what it is.  If you have any ideas what it might be from, please let me know.  If you have any colleagues who might be able to ID it, we’d appreciate it if you’d give them the URL for this post and ask them to take a look if they have time.

The following pictures aren’t great.  I didn’t have a tripod or photo stand, or decent lighting.  If you think you know what it might be, but need better pictures (not hard to imagine) or a particular angle, let me know and I’ll see if I can have him bring it to the lab for a better-lit portrait.

Mystery tooth from near Barrow, AK.
Root of mystery tooth.
Close-up of mystery tooth. Any comments on traces at photo center?

Mysterious sea Creatures

One of the things we collected a lot of from the strand lines was a variety of sea creatures.  There are a lot of pieces of what we thought (in the field) was gut, which is a useful raw material.  Now that we’ve gotten them into the lab, we think most of it is some sort of marine worms.  There are also a variety of other small marine creatures (plants or invertebrates–they have lost their orignal colors) and mollusks.

Marine worm? from 300-400 AD
Another sort of sea creature
Some sort of seaweed?
Maybe some type of sponge-like creature?

Obviously, I know a lot more about mammal bones & teeth than these things.  So we’ve sorted out a bunch, and Claire will take a couple of each type to Fairbanks, along with the shells. With any luck, we can get some IDs.  If we’re really lucky, the species in question will turn out to have fairly narrow habitat requirements, and we’ll know something about what the ocean was like near Barrow when the big storm happened between 300 & 400 AD.

If you happen to recognize any of these, please let me know what you think they are.  If you know anyone who might be interested in these creatures, send them my way.  The “worms” are very well-preserved, and still flexible.  It occurs to me that it might be possible to extract DNA from them (and maybe some of the other creatures as well), which would be a pretty rare opportunity.

A couple of needles (maybe…)

The processing of the large bulk samples is proceeding.  It’s slow going, but we are reducing the overall volume.  We have found a few things that are noteworthy.

Claire has found some well-preserved wood that she was able to take samples of for species identification and possible tree-ring dating.

We also found one piece of coal with one flat, highly polished side.  The rest of it looks like it broke naturally and got smoothed by being rolled in the water, but the one side looks different.  It’s a maybe, but a pretty good one, although we’ll probably never know what it was or was going to be…

There are also a variety of marine worms, shells and what we think are marine plants.  I just spoke to a friend of mine, “retired” biologist, Dr. Dave Norton, who used to live in Barrow and is fairly familiar with the contents of modern strand lines here.  Claire is going to take the oddities we are sorting out down to Fairbanks (where he lives) tomorrow night, and he will look at the specimens and try to connect with the appropriate curators at the UAF Museum of the North.  I’m going to Fairbanks (for shotgun refresher qualifications for a non-archaeology project I manage for Sandia National Labs) the week after next, and will go visiting the curators with him, in hopes of getting good IDs.